Jonathan Lansley-Gordon portrait

Written by Jonathan Lansley-Gordon

Jon studied theoretical physics at Imperial College London, before embarking on a teaching career in secondary and further education. Co-founder of The Blackett Lab Family – a national network of UK based Black physicists – he is passionate about widening access to STEM for traditionally excluded and underrepresented young people. He is a writer and series editor for Oxford University Press, authoring the Teacher Workbook for AQA GCSE Physics. A former Assistant Headteacher and school governor, he now runs Physics Forward – an organisation that provides support for schools, trusts and higher education institutions on all things science, curriculum, and DEI strategy.

Scenario: the head of physics wants to celebrate diversity in the curriculum. They create a ‘wall of diversity’ for the department, showcasing various historic and current black and brown physicists. 

I sometimes give keynotes that get the audience to discuss this scenario. More often than not, there’ll be a few nervous stares back at me – almost expecting to be told that this is something terrible and ignorant.

I quickly reassure my fellow science educators that this particular case study, IMO, is by no means an example of something ‘bad’. Actually, I think – as a starting point – raising the profile and visibility of racially diverse physicists is positive for a host of reasons; black and brown people are typically absent from science curricula (as is the case across many other subjects), which can reinforce the implicit notion that science – and especially physics – is reserved exclusively for people who are [insert dominating characteristics here]. 

The following questions provoke some deeper thought around this scenario:

  • Is the intention behind this ‘wall of diversity’ clear to the students?
  • Does the wall showcase the achievements and contributions of the featured scientists, alongside (and contextualised by) their ethnicity? 
  • Is this project the only reference to diversity, or the only mechanism by which conversations about diversity is introduced in the classroom? 
  • Who contributed to the design and people featured? 
  • How / when will the project be revisited and refreshed? 
  • In what ways is diversity related to gender / age / sexual orientation / neurodivergence / disability acknowledged and celebrated elsewhere?  
  • Does this sit within a wider departmental strategy to incorporate diversity and inclusion? 

I won’t pretend that the secondary physics curriculum lends itself to easy and natural opportunities to explore themes related to identity and representation. There is a lot of content to get through: energy, forces, waves, gases and electricity don’t immediately conjure inspiration of thought related to human identity. So, in some ways, it’s understandable that we might turn to “curriculum accessories” – people posters – at the risk of students sussing out our tokenistic nods to inclusion.  

This is not to say there is no way to go about doing it authentically. Subject content is one of multiple lenses we can use when thinking about diversifying a physics curriculum – and indeed, the wider curriculum. How the content is delivered (teaching, learning and assessment techniques), and student voice (surveying their attitudes, values and beliefs with respect to physics) are a couple of other lenses that can help frame approaches to weaving inclusive themes through the curriculum.  

At Physics Forward, we give physics and science educators the thinking tools to develop strategic approaches and practical resources to creating a diverse and inclusive curriculum through these and other lenses. Get in touch to have a chat about how we can support you and your team do the same!