Teaching and learning experts have emphasized the importance of cultural responsiveness in fostering engaging learning experiences for students. Educators who use this approach make connections between the curriculum and students’ experiences, affirm and integrate students’ culture in the environment, build on their preexisting knowledge and skills to learn content, and enhance their accurate knowledge of diverse people and different perspectives.
In a recent New America research report titled “The Representation of Social Groups in U.S. Educational Materials and Why It Matters,” I conducted a meta-analysis of research that addresses how culturally responsive materials support student learning and how different social groups are represented within educational materials. These findings generated takeaways that can be applied to educational settings.
Mirrors and Windows
When describing children’s experiences with literature, Rudine Sims Bishop popularized the concept of “mirrors and windows,” which researchers and educators still apply. Mirrors refer to materials that make connections with students’ daily experiences, whereas windows expose students to and help them acknowledge and appreciate different contexts and cultures.
Students may identify with characters based on familiar circumstances and life experiences, similar personalities, shared hobbies, common heritages, and social identity such as race, ethnicity, and gender. When materials are mirrors, students are more positively engaged in their learning process (i.e., asking questions and completing assignments).
Culturally responsive materials can enhance students’ engagement, improve their academic achievement, and support their written and oral language development and reading comprehension. Materials that are mirrors can serve as bridges to materials that are windows. Students also value learning about people who have different circumstances, perspectives, and cultures.
Some researchers define educational materials as “societal curriculum” because they indirectly teach students about cultures, languages, attitudes, behaviors, and society’s expectations of and values attributed to them and different people based on social identity markers. Characters also influence children’s racial/ethnic and gender identity development and their understanding of different racial, ethnic, and gender groups.
Representation of Social Groups
When examining windows and mirrors available for different racial, ethnic, and gender groups, research indicates an underrepresentation and patterns of limited and narrow portrayals of characters from certain social groups, even with some progress.
Studies of children’s books indicate that most of the characters within the sample are White, ranging from half to 90 percent of the illustrations. Characters who represent Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities are about 10 percent of the illustrations or fewer, with some ethnic and racial groups featured at 1 percent. Textbook analyses indicate that European White Americans are featured in half or more of pictorials and illustrations (in some cases more than 80 percent), and people of BIPOC communities are featured less frequently, with some groups featured as low as 1 percent. Both cases differ from U.S. Census demographics.
Research typically examines gender from a female/male binary perspective. Studies from the 20th century to the present indicate a fluctuation of representation, with some periods featuring males more than females (sometimes twice as much), and other times there is a balance. One study that examined gender representation in award-winning books found no nonbinary characters, whereas a study that focused on LGBTQ-themed books found transgender characters represented.
Educational software also reveals a similar gender disparity, with males in some cases presented twice as much or more than females. One study highlighted a gradual decrease in female character representation between pre-K and 12th grade. When examining the intersection of racial/ethnic and gender identities, findings in children’s books reveal that characters of color are often males, and female characters are often White.
Researchers identified patterns of narrow and problematic portrayals, and also promising and positive depictions that may vary with each racial and ethnic group, such as mixing elements of tribal groups when presenting Native Americans or Asian Americans in lifestyles from several centuries in the past.
Educational texts may use a “heroes and holiday” approach in recognizing different heritages, focusing on celebrations and historical figures. In some cases, texts portray members of certain communities in the United States as not American. Other studies note inaccurate and/or incomplete information regarding the portrayal of people, events, and cultures.
Female characters are often presented as passive, dependent, and submissive, and engaged in activities that include shopping, cooking, and caretaking. However, there is a shift toward portraying females as more active and engaged in a variety of roles. Nonbinary and transgender characters are rarely portrayed, and those characters of intersectional racial/ethnic and gender identities may be presented in limiting and problematic portrayals, with occasional affirming depictions.
Applying Findings to Educational Settings
The report concluded with three takeaways that can inform educators of strategies to implement in their settings.
Create a sense of belonging: A fuller story of the United States, its people, and demographic subgroups is needed. Affirm that students are part of learning environments and communities by including U.S. demographic subgroups in American history curricula and educational materials generally. Educators should ensure that materials reflect American people, history, current events, and society and provide a balance of windows and mirrors.
Develop cultural authenticity: Scholars noted the cultural background of content creators and if they shared the same background as the primary characters. When choosing and developing educational materials, examine the characters, their activities, and the creator’s ability to authentically represent complex depictions. This could mean creating a vetting system for materials and curricula to ensure that they are authentic and accurate.
Recognize nuanced identity: Details of stories and characters, such as interactions and relationships between characters, names, clothing, and variation within groups, are important and can support students in identifying, relating, and connecting to a variety of careers, disciplines, and hobbies. Educators can curate a list of culturally responsive materials that offer opportunities to connect and identify with characters.
Culturally responsive education, when done well with intention, makes all students feel they are a part of the educational community.