Exploring the link between inclusion, engagement and empathy

This blog tackles what I sometimes think of as the elephant in the room in ELT publishing: the importance of considering diversity in materials development, and why we still have some way to go.

There’s a famous quotation by Whoopi Goldberg on the power of equal representation, and how children experience it:

“Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on… I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”

She’s talking about seeing African-American actor Nichelle Nichols playing Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek in 1966, which was ground-breaking TV at the time.

More recently, and still on a space theme, 13-year-old Taylor Richardson started crowdfunding after she was inspired by the film ‘Hidden Figures’. The film recounts the story of three African-American NASA scientists, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, whose work made it possible to send astronaut John Glenn into space in 1962.  With the $16,000 she raised, Taylor Richardson gave 100 more girls the opportunity to go to a screening and see the film for themselves.

You see how in both these examples, the initial story makes an impression on a child, who then goes on to make a bigger impact still on others? It’s a virtuous circle, expanding at every stage to reach more people. Let’s hold onto that thought when considering missed opportunities for inclusive content.


Source Pixabay hand-1137978_1280
Source: Pixabay


The question of ELT materials and representation

I’ve recently written a few pieces about diversity in ELT materials. Until now I’ve limited my discussions of representation to the issue of gender. Then I read this rather damning indictment in the Bookseller of the state of children’s literature in the UK . There was one quotation that particularly got to me: “It is still easier to buy a book with a dragon on the cover than it is to find one with a black child.” (Catherine Johnson, children’s author)

So those dragons must be feeling pretty empowered, right?

Many of the arguments about visibility are the same, whether it be a question of gender, race, class, orientation, culture, nationality or disability. Children won’t learn to identify and empathise with what they can’t see represented.  And it seems that at the moment, representing dragons is taking priority, in trade publishing at least.

Exam boards in the UK are regularly criticised for their focus on white male writers of the established literary canon. The debate rages over the relevance of these writers to teenagers at school today. But what about ELT materials, which, unlike the works of John Keats and Charles Dickens, are written with an international 21st century audience in mind, after all?

Skim through a typical ELT coursebook from one of the major publishers and you will undoubtedly find examples of children of a range of ethnicities. And yet …

… How often are the non-white characters the main characters, as opposed to the supporting roles with less to say?

… If you did a breakdown of all the ethnicities shown in a unit, what percentage would be white? How do you think that would that compare to a breakdown of the children using the course internationally?

… What about course book covers?

… How often are the non-white characters in stories, artwork or photos given names?

… When was the last time you saw a mixed race family in an ELT course book?

… How well would these materials stand up against accusations of tokenism?

It’s uncomfortable territory, isn’t it?

Why is it important to address this imbalance?

At Channel 4’s annual diversity lecture in March, British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed spoke about how a lack of diversity on British TV is alienating young people.

“Every time you see yourself in a magazine, on a billboard, on TV, Film, it’s a message that you matter… that you’re valued… If we fail to represent people in our mainstream narratives, they’ll switch off… Where are we telling these kids they can be heroes in our stories?”

He’s talking about preventing extremism, specifically, but the point about engagement is broadly true in many ELT contexts. A student who isn’t engaged isn’t learning. Which leads to the question: Who are the heroes in our stories?

We know that the stories we choose to tell make an impression on young learners. Stories can be a powerful vehicle to emphasise our common humanity. It’s a theme taken up by Maya Angelou in an interview she gave Angela Montefinise of the New York Public Library:

“Information helps you to see that you’re not alone. That there’s somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, who’ve all longed and lost, who’ve all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you’re not really any different from everyone else. There may be details that are different, but a human being is a human being.”

B. J. Epstein, a Senior Lecturer in Literature and Public Engagement at the University of East Anglia, writes very convincingly on the way in which books serve as both a mirror and a window, reflecting our current experience and opening us up to new ideas. Like Angelou, she also talks about how experiencing ‘otherness’ through literature, or in our case through educational materials more generally, serves as a way of reducing prejudice and increasing empathy. You can read more here.

The role of the publisher

The Bookseller article above raises the question of risk. Putting non-white characters front and centre is seen as risky by trade publishers who, in an era of tightening purse strings, are less willing to publish and promote inclusive books, sticking instead to “tried and tested classics to stay afloat”.

So what about educational publishers? To what extent are they subject to the same pressures? Do financial concerns influence ELT course book developers at all when it comes to issues of inclusion?

The answer: Probably more than most would like to admit.

By way of example, I can think of a time when the inclusion of a photo of a black child in an international version of a course I was overseeing was hotly debated. An experienced freelance editor felt compelled to replace it on the basis that previous projects she’d worked on had received negative feedback in some markets because of similar content. The photo stayed, but the discussion it prompted was revealing.

Unfortunately, I think many editors would have anecdotes like this.

These projects are often collaborations with local publishers and/or education ministries, so the solution is not necessarily as clear-cut as simply saying that the international publisher should raise awareness among editors, have better checks in place, or put their foot down with co-publishers.

Do publishers have a responsibility to lead the way to more inclusion? I think most of us would say yes, absolutely, but in a highly competitive sales environment, publishers fear anything which might lose them adoptions of a course. And – crucially – a course that doesn’t sell, or loses out on a tender to a more conservative rival, isn’t going to change attitudes, is it? How do we tackle this conundrum? Unsuccessful products are probably not the answer.

So, what would make a difference? More choice in stock photo libraries (and more budget allocated to finding the right stock photos). Pressure from authors. Internal pressure from editors. Editorial training. Solidarity between publishers, pledging to work together to stamp out some of the racism that still runs rampant in parts of the global ELT industry. And above all: pressure from teachers and parents, and the clear expectation that diversity in materials is the norm, in all markets, for all students.

Too much to ask? I’d like to think not.

Ending on a positive …

I’ve heard – second hand – about an encouraging example where a publisher has taken a stand. The team in question resisted pressure from sales colleagues who felt (to their embarrassment) that a Student’s Book cover design which prominently featured a black boy’s face would deter schools from adopting the course in their fairly conservative, predominantly white markets. (It’s shocking, isn’t it, that this was even discussion point? I fear that even a decade later, though, we could be having exactly the same conversation). I’d be curious to know how sales were affected by this decision. More important, of course, is what we’ll never know: the ways in which the many students who saw that cover were influenced by its inclusion.

Materials need to inspire children regardless of background and skin colour. They need to show all students that their lived experience is recognised, and that difference is not to be feared. As Farrah Serroukh, learning programme leader at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education is quoted as saying in the Bookseller article: “It’s not about diversifying; it’s about normalising all realities.”




2 thoughts on “Exploring the link between inclusion, engagement and empathy

  1. thanks for the post and shedding light on this. in addition to race and gender, publishers should also consider including LGBT issues that are increasingly becoming a reality for children.

    if there’s a disconnect between the fantasy children consume by way of educational content and the reality of their parents, family friends, role models fighting for gender, racial, and LGBT rights; it would affect their upbringing and how they interact with the world.

    btw, china is already steps ahead of us:


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this, Harvey. I’d been thinking about the LGBTQ dimension of representation, too, and was conscious I was skipping over it. According to the Bookseller article I linked to, the amount of LGBT role-models for children featured in UK trade publishing is increasing. In international ELT publishing, though, it’s a huge struggle to get this kind of material through, even for adults, because it’s just seen as too controversial by a lot of institutions and education authorities. I saw Hugh Dellar tweeting about it recently with regard to the inclusion of a gay couple in a course book recently, though, so maybe things are slowly changing. Have you seen any examples of this?
      I would love to see a children’s coursebook with two dads/mums in it… I noticed that Ceebeebies, the pre-school BBC channel HAS started including some same-sex parents in some of their animations. It’ll be interesting to see which international ELT publisher gets there first (but I’m not holding my breath, chiefly because publishers want/need material they can repurpose for lots of different educational contexts around the world, which makes this a very hard battle to fight). And I’d add that it’s not because many editors don’t want to be much more inclusive – by and large they’re a very left wing bunch in my experience.


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