Culturally-responsive teaching is a hot topic these days, fraught with complexity and nuance. Begin your journey with this overview of the essentials, then use our list of recommended resources to deepen your understanding and begin applying culturally-responsive teaching strategies in your own classroom.
What is culture?
First, take a step back and thinkwhat "culture" means. When you think of culture, you probably picture how a group of people with a common background dress, talk, cook, dance, make art and music, practice religion and rituals, and so on.
Beyond these aspects, culture is the deeply embedded shared connections and beliefs of a group of people. Remember that culture is not necessarily based on race, ethnicity, or nationality. For example, two native speakers of Spanish can have very different cultures depending on where they come from and how they were raised. Most people come from multicultural backgrounds. Culture is about what is passed from one generation to the next and creates a unique identity for a group of people.
Cultural beliefs and practices are something that many of us don't even give much thought to until we come into contact with people whose culture is different from ours. Stepping out of our own culture can feel awkward, especially when we feel that other cultures see our own as somehow "lesser." While learning about other cultures is good, it's important that we feel that our own is respected.
What is culturally sensitive teaching?
Culturally engaging teaching is based on the understanding that we learn best when we can connect with the material. For culturally responsible teachers, this means integrating the diverse experiences, customs, communication styles, and perspectives of their students throughout the learning process.
Geneva Gay first used the term in her 2000 book,Culturally-Responsive Classes: Theory, Research and Practice. She found that students from historically marginalized cultures performed better academically when teachers made an effort to frame instruction "within the students' lived experiences and frames of reference."
In other words, Gay encourages teachers to consider whether their learning materials, teaching strategies, and classroom environment truly represent the different cultures in their classroom. Are your textbooks written by people from these cultures? Are different communication styles respected? Do you relate your learning goals to real-world experiences across cultures? Do you hold all students to high standards regardless of their background?
By asking these questions, Gay sparked the culturally appealing instructional movement. It is part of a broader category known as "Wealth-based pedagogy', and it has far-reaching applications and implications. Other related terms are "culturally relative teaching" and "culturally sustaining teaching".
Does culturally sensitive teaching really make a difference?
In short, yes. Many teachers can provide anecdotal evidence of how culturally appropriate teaching makes a huge difference to their diverse students. But if you're looking for hard facts, think about itThis study was conducted in 2016. It studied hundreds of students from different cultures and found that "teaching methods that connect to students' real life and interests and promote understanding of other cultures are associated with better academic outcomes."Other studies agree.
Culturally appealing classes can help vulnerable populations stay in school, see the relevance of learning, and believe they can learn. Culturally aware teachers feel more connected to their students, especially when they learn to see cultural differences in behavior as an advantage rather than a problem. Placing learning in relevant context, using differences to your advantage, and acknowledging inequality and injustice when it exists are concepts every teacher should add to their toolbox.
What does culturally sensitive teaching look like in the classroom?
While putting it into practice is a little different in each situation, there are some consistent strategies that culturally appealing teachers employ. Here are some examples:
Get background knowledge
Consider this problem in the story: "Chaoxiang's family is gathering for this year's Qingming Festival, and he wants to bring enough Qingtuan so that everyone can have two. If there are 14 people, how many dumplings should he bring?”
If you're unfamiliar with Chinese culture, you're likely to see words that you not only don't know, but aren't sure how to pronounce them. Indeed, if you don't realize thatQingtuanis some kind of dumpling, you may not know how to find the answer to the problem.
Students from different backgrounds in American schools can face similar situations, making learning unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Think about what your students already know from their daily lives and use it when creating lessons and materials. Look for the stories, phrases, and beliefs they are learning at home and find ways to incorporate them. Look at the concept ofknowledge fundfor more ways to bring background knowledge to the fore.
Bring multiple cultures into your examples and lessons
As the saying goes, “if you can see it, you can be it.” Make sure your students see themselves represented in what they are learning. Would you like to explore the symbolism? Drop the same three poems by English poets you've been teaching for years. Instead, look for examples of works by authors in your students' own communities. Better yet, ask them to provide their own examples.
Choose materials that represent your students
Take a look around your classroom. Does your library contain books by different authors on topics that speak to your students' cultures? What about your classroom decorations - do they feature faces and cultural elements similar to those of your own students? Children should see that their teacher knows that not everyone has the same experiences and values, and that's okay.
Put learning in context
Regardless of their culture, all children eventually ask themselves the same question: "Why is it even important to learn this?" What does that have to do with my life?”
So take some time to address it. You might learn about ancient Greek civilization. Talk about how life was similar or different then than it is now. Consider social differences, political events, and family structure. Discuss how your students can learn from the mistakes of the past today or what elements of their society they think we could benefit from today.
Adapt to different communication styles
"Don't interrupt." "Wait for confirmation before speaking." "Look directly at someone when speaking to them." These are all fairly standard teaching guidelines, but they are specific to few cultures. In some cultures, interrupting is not impolite but shows interest. Making eye contact can be difficult for some, even culturally discouraged.
Discover how different cultures communicate and learn to accommodate them in your classroom. That doesn't mean there are no rules. It means understanding that there might be cultural reasons why some children have a harder time waiting their turn to speak, while others are reluctant to speak up. Don't get angry - understand, learn and adapt.
Set high standards for all students
Studies of implicit bias show that some teachers expect less from students from non-white communities. They assume that they have not had the same benefits as their white counterparts and therefore cannot achieve as much.
But research tells us that's exactly the wrong way of thinking. Teachers need to overcome their implicit bias and set fair expectations of all students. Of course, you always have to consider individual situations. But don't make assumptions based on culture. Hold each student to high standards and take each case as it comes.
Acknowledge injustice, bias and injustice
This is becoming increasingly difficult in some places as states prohibit teaching about things likeCritical Race Theory. But injustice, bias, and racial injustice exist, and ignoring them will not make them go away. In addition, they feel seen when they allow students from different cultures to discuss these things in the classroom. AndThis opens them up to more learning.
There is no easy answer for navigating these topics in more restrictive states. Only in the classroom can teachers do their best and continue to fight for the ability to teach important subjects in a meaningful way.
How can I become a more culturally sensitive teacher?
As we have said before, culturally appropriate teaching is a complicated subject. You can't learn everything you need to know from an article or even a book. Learn about the rich cultures of your students and find out what interests them. Open yourself up to new ideas, do more research, and start trying out the principles in your classroom. Here are some resources that may help you:
- Prioritizing culturally appropriate teaching in the classroom
- 10 Anti-Racism Professional Development Books for Teachers
- What are mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors?
- Education Week: What is Culturally Appropriate Education?
- Got it: How to use culturally appealing teaching in the classroom
- Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning