Covid-induced travel restrictions may have prevented Alex Eble from pursuing the next phase of his groundbreaking learning research in the West Africa nation of Gambia.

But Covid didn't stop the Assistant Professor of Education & Economics and partnering researchers at the University of Chicago from tackling a project acclaimed by Edutopia as one of the “Ten Most Significant Education Studies of 2021.”

Researchers divided 1,130 children's books into two categories — the winners of major literary awards and publications honored with identity-based awards.

Aided by artificial intelligence methods in text analysis and computer vision, the research team then analyzed content in the context of race, skin tone, gender and age.

They describe their findings in the upcoming paper, “What we teach about race and gender: Representation in images and text of children’s books.” First, they point to questionable patterns in the way illustrators shade the skin color of major characters in highly-awarded children's literature.

"Books in the mainstream collection...primarily depict characters with lighter skin tones compared to books in the other collections, despite increased rhetoric about the importance of representation," the authors write.

"Moreover, we see that children consistently have been more likely than adults to be depicted with light skin. Regardless of the reason, these findings show that lighter-skinned children see themselves represented more often in these books than do darker-skinned children."

The imaging software also called attention to texts that under-represent the female speaking voice — an oversight the authors call “consistent with the maxim that women should ‘be seen but not heard.’”

For Eble, the project represents another step toward understanding self-perceptions of race and gender — long a focus of his academic research.

The literature project followed work from a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation postdoctoral fellowship Eble won to evaluate textbook content in a separate project.

As he began that work, Eble joined forces with Anjali Adukia — an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Chicago with similar research interests.

Supported by an Institute of Education Sciences grant, Eble and Adukia founded the MiiE lab, and assembled the team — adding Emileigh Harrison, Teodora Szasz, and Hakizumwami Birali Runesha, all also of the University of Chicago — that conducted the comparative study of children's books.

Eble said Edutopia’s recognition of the research “highlights just how important these questions are. We hope that the work, and the attention it gets, instigates further research on these crucial topics, and that the tools we bring together can be used to help policymakers, practitioners, and parents reach the goals they have for choosing what to use to teach children.”