Diversifying the Content on MyLearning
Izzy Bartley, Digital Learning Officer for Leeds Museums and Galleries
Our white, male, heteronormative historical legacy
History textbooks are dominated by stories told by white men about other white men. The stories of non-white, non-heteronormative people, and women of all colours, are considerably under-represented, or simply just missing. Some of these people are defined solely through their relation to others (again, mostly white men) and we may never get to hear their voice as individuals with their own stories. Where this is the case, it is important that we draw attention to this loss, and question the impact it has on our understanding of history, and our contemporary cultural and social norms.
MyLearning is a hub website that hosts learning resources created by arts, heritage and cultural organisations from across England. Everything is free for teachers to use for educational purposes. MyLearning is a non-profit, Arts Council funded, and managed by Leeds Museums and Galleries (LMG).
MyLearning has been established 16 years, and was totally redeveloped, launching with the current website in 2018. As part of the redevelopment, a content audit was undertaken, which highlighted significant gaps and a concerning lack of diversity in our resources (or ‘learning stories’). The platform was, in effect, perpetuating the problematic bias towards white, male heteronormative histories. This blogpost looks at how we have been working, and how we continue to work, to address these issues.
MyLearning content strategy
Whether it’s in science or history, maths or P.E, or any other subject, and be it through skin colour, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or professional aspiration, every child deserves to hear the stories of people with whom they identify. This means learning about them in an authentic and meaningful way, not as a diversity box-ticking exercise. Our strategy for broadening the content on MyLearning consists of the following three approaches, which have been developed with this in mind:
- Developing learning stories around a discrete theme
- Examples include ‘Section 28: the criminalisation of teaching about homosexuality in schools’ by MESMAC, and ‘Decolonisation and Natural Science collections’ by LMG.
- Inclusion of diverse stories within wider narratives
- Examples include the chapter on Pablo Fanque, the first non-white circus owner in the ‘Entertaining Leeds: At the Circus’ learning story by LMG, and the chapter ‘Creating Inclusive Books’, in the ‘Discovering Children’s Books’ learning story by the British Library.
- Developing person-specific learning stories.
- Examples include ‘Campaign and Protest in Leeds: Leonora Cohen’ by LMG, and ‘Anne Lister of Shibden Hall’ by Calderdale Museums.
As the examples above show, this strategy is applied both in the creation of learning stories written in-house at LMG, and with our external contributing organisations.
Content produced in-house at LMG
At LMG we are lucky enough to have a full team of Learning and Access Officers (total of 12 people), in addition to our colleagues in Curatorial and Community Outreach, who can be involved in creating content for MyLearning as part of their role. This support from colleagues across the service makes it much easier for me, as the manager of MyLearning, to reach out for help in improving the diversity of content on the site.
This is not a quick or easy process, and there’s no doubt also that we’ll make mistakes along the way; some due to ignorance (“you don’t know what you don’t know”) or lack of lived experience, others due to unconscious bias as a product of structurally embedded advantages. To help catch these mistakes before they are published on MyLearning, we sometimes need to look beyond our small pool of staff, and ask the community for help.
We have worked with black members of the Leeds community to correct errors, and ensure the language we use in LMG published stories focusing on Black History is appropriate (for example; ‘Anti-slavery and Abolition Movements in Leeds’. We have also collaborated with relevant community groups to create whole learning stories (for example; ‘Sorrel & Black Cake: A Windrush Story’ by the Geraldine Connor Foundation). Both approaches have proved invaluable, not only in contributing to the improvement of the content on MyLearning, but also for our own personal and professional development. Sometimes it is as much of a learning journey for us, as it is for the pupils sitting in class, using these resources.
Where the stories are harder to find, we need to dig a bit deeper, looking more closely and exploring more of our archives. But we cannot do this alone. We also need other museums, archives and cultural organisations, to help create a broader, more inclusive and authentically diverse MyLearning.
Working with external organisations.
The majority of the content on MyLearning comes from organisations outside of LMG, and new learning stories are continually being added to the site. We are regularly contacted by museums, archives and cultural organisations looking to host their existing content on MyLearning, or wanting to develop new content to be hosted. In addition, we actively seek out content from organisations with relevant collections that fill a gap in our content, or that address a specific area we are looking to improve. In conversations with new and existing contributors, we’ll be open about what we’re looking for going forward, aiming to work both to the strengths of the contributing organisation, and to the gaps in content we’re seeking to address.
The MyLearning gender and diversity policy is sent to all organisations interested in contributing content to MyLearning, and is also published on the website. As part of this, we seek to redress the traditional ‘male by default’ approach that is commonly applied in both historical and present-day contexts, and acts to present women as the ‘other’. This is particularly prevalent in sport, for example ‘The World Cup’ versus ‘The Women’s World Cup’.
Addressing older learning stories from external contributors
For older learning stories that have been identified as in need of improvement to address issues of diversity, colonial legacy or the language used, we insert a short paragraph at the start of the resource to acknowledge this. Behind the scenes, we start the conversations with the contributing organisation to update it.
We are just at the beginning of this process, as our efforts have so far been focused on improving older LMG created learning stories, and making sure that all new resources are, wherever possible, in line with our content strategy.
Through the implementation of this content strategy, our ambition is to help teachers provide real and diverse representation across the curriculum. Three years in and I feel as if we are still at the start of the process, but I also feel that the progress we have made so far has been positive. We’re definitely in it for the long haul!
Izzy Bartley is the Digital Learning Officer at Leeds Museums and Galleries. Izzy, an education specialist, is responsible for digital interpretation and practical digital learning opportunities across Leeds Museums and Galleries nine sites, as well as managing MyLearning.org.