Including Representations of All Students


  • People make inferences about places based on what they see in that environment. In classrooms, environmental cues can send messages about who belongs and who does not.
  • Many students don’t get to see people like them represented within their classrooms. For example, in a History classroom, Black students might not see representations of themselves among the posters of famous historical figures around the room.
  • This lack of representation can make students feel like certain classrooms, and by extension those subjects, are environments where they may not truly fit in.
  • Small changes to those environments can help students feel like they are recognized, valued, and included members of the classroom community.

We often make inferences about places based on what we see in that environment. For example, imagine the following...

You walk into a restaurant that has an Italian Flag on the back wall. What kinds of interferences might you might about this space? You might infer that the restaurant serves Italian food. You might infer that the owners are Italian. Or you might infer that this is a place where Italians are welcome.

While these inferences may or may not be correct, we still use these representations to make sense of what kind of space we’re in, and if it is a space where we can belong. So how is this related to the classroom? Classroom environments also send cues about who belongs, and importantly, who does not.

In many classrooms, schools, and curricula, students don’t see representations of themselves or of "people like them." For instance, in a History classroom, Black students might not see representations of themselves among the posters of famous historical figures around room; or a student who identifies as gay may notice that the sexuality of a gay historical figure is not discussed or acknowledged, sending a signal that gayness isn’t welcome.

While some students get to see people like them represented in the classroom all the time, like White boys, others don’t have the same benefit. When students don't see people like them represented in the classroom, they can interpret that as a sign that people like them don't belong there. However, simple fixes can make a large difference for students. When our environments include people like us, we feel that people like us are welcome, valued, and important.

For example, Good and her colleagues conducted a study where they included images of women scientists in a chemistry textbook. This simple intervention increased high school girls’ scores on a comprehension test from an average of 62% to 78%. As this study shows, curricular choices that reflect greater diversity can increase students’ engagement and achievement.

More recently, high schools in San Francisco Unified School District piloted an ethnic studies course with dramatic effects. The course increased attendance by 21% and cumulative GPA by 1.4 points relative to the expected performance — and this was true even after excluding the ethnic studies course from the GPA calculation. Of course this curricular change went beyond merely including representations of different groups of people, but it highlights the power of culturally relevant curricula when done well.

Here some things educators can do to represent all students in their classroom:

  • Select books for extended study that are relevant to the lives of students in your classroom
  • Display photos of the students’ communities and accomplishments within their communities on classroom walls
  • Study historical figures that match students’ sexual, gender, and ethnic identifications
  • Include posters that match elements of students’ identities, and
  • Bring in diverse guest speakers

Dee, T., & Penner, E. (2016). The causal effects of cultural relevance: Evidence from an ethnic studies curriculum (CEPA Working Paper No.16-01). Retrieved from Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis: Good, J. J., Woodzicka, J. A., & Wingfield, L. C. (2010). The effects of gender stereotypic and counter-stereotypic textbook images on science performance. The Journal of Social Psychology, 150(2), 132–147. Murphy, M. C., & Taylor, V. J. (2012). The role of situational cues in signaling and maintaining stereotype threat. In M. Inzlicht & T. Schmader (Eds.). Stereotype threat: Theory, process, and applications (pp. 17-33). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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