Opinion piece: Getting things unconsciously wrong

Opinion: this is a two-part series, in the first part Simon Lewis shares his learning on the school library. 

Getting things unconsciously wrong 

Simon Lewis, Carlow Educate Together  

Part of being an equality-based school means constantly questioning our practices. Even when we think we’re doing well, it’s good to reflect on what we’re doing and ask ourselves who is being harmed by what we might unconsciously be doing. 

I want to share two examples of things we were doing for over a decade and didn’t think much about: 

  1. Our school library 
  2. Our winter concert (this will be featured in the next issue) 

School library 

As a new school in 2008, and with zero funding for library books, we sourced almost all of our books from families. We got boxes and boxes of books and we stacked our shelves with them. Within a short period of time, we had a library full of every book imaginable. 

And then we looked closer

On closer examination, we found almost none of our books had a person of colour as a protagonist. We found almost all of our non-fiction books were western European in their focus. We found that almost all of our books were stereotypically gendered with lots of pink princess books aimed at girls. We also found that there was a gender issue with authors, with fewer than 30% being female. When it came to poetry, it was less than 10%.  

We decided to do something about it, something very simple. I didn’t know what it was, but later learned from a course that the school was decolonising the curriculum. Essentially, we are buying lots of diverse books. It doesn’t mean we are throwing out what we have but we are readdressing the balance.

So far, we have invested in over 100 books, examples above. We have mostly used the ‘Free to be me resource from Children’s Books Ireland’. We’re only at the beginning of our journey but we’re glad to have started. 

It was interesting to question my own unconscious biases. Rather than looking at removing cultural norms, I look at the situation as making our schools as welcoming a place as possible for everybody. 

There are still hundreds of books in the library, but the children are also learning about other ways to look at the world and read about people they may not be familiar with. Equally minoritised children feel that their worlds are being represented more equally too. 

 Part 2 of Simon’s “Getting things unconsciously wrong” article will be featured in the Autumn Issue and will focus on the ‘winter concert”.  

Interesting in learning more about unconsious bias?