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The Debrief

When representation is not enough

Dan Cogan-Drew
Oct 13, 2020

Student engagement is always a challenge. And as has been reported, student engagement in remote learning is even more challenging. In order to properly diagnose and address student engagement, it’s necessary to understand some core principles in learning science that explain what motivates students to engage.

Said another way: why will students choose to do school work in the face of other alternatives or obstacles, such as competing obligations (helping out around the house) or social invitations (gaming with friends)? 

There are many factors that contribute to a student’s motivation (read about them here) and the relationships amongst these can be complicated. In this post, I’m going to drill down on one in particular: belongingness. I’ll share a basic definition, reasons why a sense of belonging is so important to motivation, and how in the choice of representation, content providers often get it wrong and set teachers up to perpetuate alienation and even exclusion. 

We’ve written elsewhere about the importance of establishing and maintaining strong relationships with BIPOC students, especially in the time of distance learning. In this research note, we’re going to focus on auditing instructional content for its role in instilling a “sense of belonging” in learners. Here I want to emphasize that we need to go beyond representation — simply seeing oneself in the learning materials — to positive affirmation. It’s not simply about reviewing the scope and sequence to assess whether authors, protagonists, and historical figures represent a diversity of lived experience, but that the diversity be across multiple dimensions in order to portray individuals and groups in complex and not superficial ways. Black authors should not only be chosen for discussions of slavery, Japanese-American authors not only for studies of internment camps, Jewish authors not only for learning about the Holocaust. 

Too narrow and exclusive a focus exacerbates the hazards of a representation mindset evident in stereotype threat, which while enabling students to see themselves in the content, can serve also to reinforce negative perceptions of ability. These perceptions can in turn become a self-fulfilled reality.

Writing in the Hechinger Report, teacher Neven Holland captured the impact on his middle school students of positive, multi-dimensional portrayals of Black characters by actors like Chadwick Boseman as “fully human”:

To see Boseman and his castmates be fully human in “Black Panther” depicted a world that my students wanted to see — and did see. Boseman’s portrayal as King T’Challa gave them a sense of Black dignity. When my students see an overrepresentation of negative depictions of themselves in the media or little representation as the protagonist, those feelings of self-respect may waver.

When we choose content to publish on Newsela, we take great pains to ensure that the message sent by this content is not just one of representation - which can lead to stereotype threats if it simply reinforces negative media stereotypes - but one of positive affirmation of personal identity. As we state in our content guidelines: “We consider how a student will feel after reading an article, therefore no perspective presented on Newsela will make students feel attacked or marginalized.“ 

So what does this mean for instructional content and what can you as a designer or custodian of learning do about it?

Audit your instructional materials with an eye towards inclusivity for every student.

  • Is this an image, a movie, a website, news article, primary source, or secondary source that presents individuals in a negative or stereotypical light?

  • Does the language used in the instructional material make assumptions about the intended audience for whom it was written?

  • Is there an implicit bias towards whiteness that further normalizes white skin and “others” bodies that are not representative of the majority?

  • Are assumptions made about gender — in examples or anecdotes, stories that are foregrounded as characteristic of a period in history or the lived experience of a given population?

Holland cites one example of research that very clearly documents the awareness even young children have of these biases and the impact it has on their own self-concept and sense of belonging. Where students feel excluded because the choice of instructional content fails to account for their lived experience, their sense of belonging will falter, and so too will their motivation. Instead of starting at a place that assumes that students are motivated to engage with their instructional materials, let’s assume instead that unless we can explicitly identify what and exactly how the materials are sending them a strong signal that they belong in our class, that message is not getting through.

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