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19 October 2022

Developing anti-racist curricula: Views from the fishbowl




Dr Alison Eales
Quality Enhancement Specialist, QAA Scotland

The Anti-Racist Curriculum Project is a partnership between QAA Scotland (as a key part of the current Enhancement Theme - Resilient Learning Communities) and Advance HE (building on the successful Tackling Racism on Campus project). In session 2020-21, the project aimed to support colleagues in getting started on this crucial work. The result was a Guide consisting of 16 resources that may be used by staff and students. In session 2021-22, the project has aimed to promote these resources and explore how they can be used to support change in tertiary education.

Developing anti-racist curricula was the subject of a dedicated and well-attended breakout session at the Enhancement Conference in June 2022. To help decentralise power and encourage participation from as many delegates as possible, we decided to try an open fishbowl style panel. This format involves having a set number of chairs (we opted for five) in a circle (the fishbowl). The panel sits in this inner circle, and the rest of the delegates sit in concentric circles around them. One chair remains empty at all times, inviting participation from anybody who wishes to speak. When a delegate decides to join the fishbowl, one of the existing panellists must voluntarily give up their seat, freeing up a space for someone else. If it works well, the result is a rotating panel.

We started out with a panel of four, all of whom who had been involved with the project, including a member of the Executive Group and people who had facilitated and participated in a workshop series managed by QAA Scotland in 2021-22. Trying a new format is always nerve-wracking, but thankfully the panel worked well. By the end of the session, many of the delegates had taken a turn in the fishbowl, representing a diverse range of voices over the course of the hour. We heard from staff and students in various roles and from a range of institutions, and panellists shared their experiences and challenged each other's views while always maintaining mutual respect.


The conversation was wide-ranging. We heard how the lived experience and passion that comes with work in equality, diversity and inclusion is still undervalued. Panellists emphasised the importance of being able to explore and express our identities in professional spaces, and how so much can be influenced by our names and how we speak. It was argued that approaches to anti-racism must include people working in all parts of an institution, and be intersectional, reflecting the diversity of the staff and student community and not reducing people to homogenous groups. We noted the importance of thinking critically about organisational bias. It was also argued that, in order to participate in discussions of anti-racism, we need to be comfortable with the idea that we may make mistakes and even make fools of ourselves.

We listened to panellists describe particular challenges relating to work placements on healthcare programmes. There is some evidence that students from racially-minoritised groups have a different learning experience than their white peers, and may not feel able to report problems, especially when it is difficult to pinpoint precisely what is wrong. This can lead to them failing their placements due to unaddressed racism. How do we ensure that our anti-discrimination policies are not just paper exercises, but are supported in practice? How do we ensure that our students know their rights and understand how to raise issues? And how do we make our assessments inclusive and culturally sensitive (including in their scheduling)?

Panellists agreed that the colonial history of certain subjects was very striking, and that postgraduate programmes in learning and teaching need to reflect different, credible voices in education scholarship. We also heard how deficit models that presume gaps in students' language skills or understanding of educational philosophies need to be challenged - everybody has something to contribute to the learning experience, and everybody should be able to take something away.


The open fishbowl format worked well for this kind of discussion. If we were to run it again, my main recommendation would be to allow plenty of time. We had a one-hour session with around 40 minutes for the panel, and it felt like the conversation had not yet peaked when our time was up. It was great to feel the energy in the room - participants continued the discussion into the lunch break, and we could have easily filled another half an hour. I would also advise having the main topic/question visible in the room at all times to help keep discussion focused, and using the fishbowl to run a quick icebreaker activity before the main discussion to familiarise people with the format. I was unconvinced about the 'concentric circle' setup before running the session, and I remain unconvinced - I think it is better that everybody can see each other's faces, so if I were to use this format again, I would arrange participants in one circle, with the panellists grouped together.

In his keynote speech immediately prior to our session, Amanullah De Sondy had referenced Megan Boler's concept of pedagogy of discomfort (1998). In closing our session, project lead Khadija Mohammed encouraged us to think about bell hooks' 'pedagogy of hope' (2003), where we move towards critical, transformative teaching and learning. Developing anti-racist curricula represents a chance to explore many new possibilities: we need to question everything we do, disrupt traditional practice, listen to counternarratives, think about whose voices are missing, and bring new stories to the table. We have many opportunities to innovate.