A Wellington student has looked into an educational tool their school uses, saying it promotes harmful stereotypes - but the company behind the tool says it has procedures in place to stop that from happening. 

In July this year, 11-year-old Florence began to notice forms of discrimination in an educational tool their intermediate school uses called Writer’s Toolbox. 

Writer’s Toolbox is an online tool for students across Aotearoa and Australia that had 30,000 registered users in 2015.  

Florence says they begin every school day by completing the Daily Challenge activity on the Writer’s Toolbox site.

It’s in this Daily Challenge feature that Florence began to notice there were disproportionate and stereotyped representations of gender and ethnic groups. 

Florence’s analysis reveals harmful stereotypes 

In a study they conducted themself by taking a sample of 29 Daily Challenges, Florence gathered data in order to analyse what unconscious bias the site might have. 

Florence found that there was a disproportionate representation of male to female protagonists, as well as white to people-of-colour protagonists. 

Of the 29 writing prompts Florence sampled, 19 had human protagonists.

Out of these 19 prompts, Florence found 14 featured male protagonists (73.7%) and five featured female protagonists (26.3%). 

Out of the same sample of 18 prompts (one contained no identifiable ethnicity), 17 featured white protagonists (94.4%) and only one featured a person of colour (5.6%), an Asian man.

Florence also found that there were harmful gender stereotypes used: female protagonists were associated with incompetency, neediness, and passiveness, while male protagonists were associated with heroism, intelligence, and boldness. 

In the Daily Challenge activities Florence looked at for their study, students were given imaginative writing prompts and encouraged to write a creative response to them.

In one Daily Challenge, the prompt read: “Greg Armstrong had no other choice: he had to jump. But was it the right decision?”

The accompanying image shows a man jumping mid-air between two cliff edges.

Florence says the male protagonist is shown in an “active context”, where he is depicted as an intelligent and brave hero. 

Another Daily Challenge prompt read, “Sasha hired a moped; you’re her guide. Where did you take her first?” 

In the accompanying image, Sasha is shown with her head laid back and feet stretched out on either side of the moped.

In their study, Florence says that the female protagonist has been placed “in a passive context as she is being shown around and is having her agency taken away from her”.

Florence says this paints her as “silly and stupid”, while also suggesting that she can’t drive.

Reaching out to the school and Writer’s Toolbox 

Florence sent their report to Writer’s Toolbox and their school principal. 

During a meeting with the vice principal of the school, Florence was informed that Writer’s Toolbox had skipped past them and contacted Florence’s school directly to address the issue.

“The principal pulled me in one day and he said that Writer’s Toolbox denied that they were doing anything wrong.

“Writer’s Toolbox said that the school should try and write some prompts themselves.

“Then my principal tried to force that responsibility of writing them onto me, when really it should be his responsibility considering that he's the principal of the school.”

Writer’s Toolbox disputes study’s results 

Founder of Writer’s Toolbox Dr Ian Hunter says the tool has a “content policy in place that governs all aspects of educational content, including ethnicity and diversity”.

“All content released on the site is produced by education professionals.

“Once content is created it goes into an editorial review process that includes both peer review and moderation by a senior team before release to ensure compliance – both with the provisions of our policy and educational standards.”

Hunter ensures that the Daily Challenge feature does not discriminate against gender.

“More than 50% of the Daily Challenges are gender neutral … and 50% of all Daily Writing Challenges that contain human figures include females.

“Writer’s Toolbox policy prohibits negative stereotypes… and because Toolbox is used in many countries around the world, we also work hard to reflect the culture of where it is accessed, while ensuring diversity is maintained.”

“Writer’s Toolbox has features to create school-specific content because of New Zealand curriculum requirements, which has a focus on localised material crafted by a school for its particular students.

As for skipping past Florence and contacting the school directly, Hunter says due to their obligations as an accredited supplier to the Ministry of Education, Writer’s Toolbox is “not permitted to communicate directly with a student”.

“We did write to [them] personally, we simply addressed it through the school,” says Hunter.

Hunter says while Writer’s Toolbox doesn’t agree with the results of Florence’s study, they applaud Florence’s commitment to doing it. 

Minority-friendly, all-inclusive schools ‘is what we should aim for’

Florence’s school says Writer’s Toolbox is a tool that “engages and excites students” around writing.

“It is not used by every one of our 452 students daily but is a key tool for developing writing skills and accelerating achievement in this learning area,” it says.

The school says it is “very proud” to have “articulate, driven students who look at the world around them with an eye towards making it more representative, inclusive, and fair”.

Since they received Florence’s study, the school has used its findings “as a professional development opportunity to write effective prompts of [their] own that can then be added into Writers' Toolbox”.

Florence says all educational institutions should be careful of any forms of discrimination in their system. 

“It’s a privilege having control over a corporation or school – use that to make an impact,” says Florence.

“Appoint a person or a department to review all the school’s materials and resources and make sure that there is no discrimination against anyone,” they suggest.

“Even just doing an assembly can help start conversations on how we can support others.

“If you put all those things together, you're going to get a minority-friendly, all-inclusive school, which is what we should be aiming for.”

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