May 6, 2022
In today’s learning environments, culturally responsive teaching is a requisite for educating empowered, resilient, and empathic students capable of vital civic engagement. But what is it exactly? And why does it matter?
Culturally Responsive Teaching
Culturally responsive teaching is the practice in which the educator:
- develops an awareness of different cultures and identities within (and outside of) their classroom;
- integrates diversity into the curriculum; and
- identifies and challenges Eurocentric values typically upheld by existing education models.
A culturally responsive classroom is an environment in which all children have equal opportunity to learn. Culturally responsive teaching forces teachers to examine their instructional practices—as well as their worldviews and biases—to ensure students’ identities are validated and affirmed.
With culturally responsive teaching, diversity becomes a positive experience, but also an asset. Trusting relationships (a cornerstone of culturally responsive teaching) provide a foundation for student engagement. These relationships are forged when educators get to know their students and understand their varied cultures, values, and circumstances.
Consequently, as children are recognized and included, they demonstrate enhanced motivation and an eagerness to learn. Feeling a sense of belonging, students are likely to be more academically engaged, demonstrate more robust social skills, experience more positive behavior, and develop a sense of agency.
From Surviving to Thriving
When educators embrace diversity and draw on it to shape curriculum, instruction, and classroom management, classrooms become dynamic teaching spaces where students not only learn from their primary teacher, but from each other.
The well-being of the community is prioritized. In this setting, everyone is given equal respect, consideration, and opportunity to contribute. The group’s manifold identities, experiences, and abilities are incorporated with intentionality into lessons—all students have opportunities to lead and demonstrate learning in multiple ways.
Teacher expectations for historically underrepresented children are not lowered, nor is the difficulty of assignments diminished. On the contrary, students are enabled to meet high expectations, gaining self-esteem and developing a growth mindset. In turn, they will develop an understanding that with effort and practice, they are capable of achievement. An equitable classroom is highly success-oriented and offers many pathways to that success.
Culturally responsive teaching also facilitates brain processing. Students learn new information when it is linked to what they already know. By carefully curating language, text, and classroom resources that tap into students’ diverse background knowledge and cultural schemas, educators can take advantage of their existing neural pathways to generate new skills and understandings.
Studies in the field of neuroscience indicate culture drives how the brain processes information. For instance, students whose cultural backgrounds include oral traditions are likely to learn best through music and storytelling. For this type of student, an educator hoping to improve comprehension and student outcomes would want to incorporate instructional strategies that consider this intelligence.. When a learner cannot leverage what they already know to transform content into usable knowledge, then an educator is incapable of accelerating their learning.
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Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning
Beyond its impact on academic successes, culturally responsive teaching also promotes dialogue around issues of social justice that are frequently encountered in daily experiences. Learners in a culturally responsive classroom are attuned to their strengths, challenges, and prejudices, and they respond to them in constructive ways—with mutual respect and healthy boundaries that are established and reinforced by the teacher.
Biased behavior in the classroom can be immediately addressed, and empathy is cultivated with activities and lessons that promote community-building, social awareness, and perspective-taking.
Furthermore, because culturally responsive teachers center students’ identities in the classroom, they support the development of student pride. A strong identity can mitigate the effects of perceived discrimination and stereotype threat, whereas ambivalence and anxiety about identity can erode student engagement and thwart student performance.
Respectful, Responsive, and Responsible
Establishing a culturally responsive classroom does not require a teacher to cast all former practices and activities to the side. Rather, it is about mindset. Many schools are already aware of bias and the need to respect diverse backgrounds. This is evident by the increased prevalence of work around diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and belonging (DEIJB).
The leap from a culturally proficient school to a culturally sustaining school requires educators to foster and support diversity rather than just acknowledge it. Culturally responsive teaching builds the learning capacity of each student given the affective and cognitive scaffolding they bring with them into the classroom.
If underrepresented students thrive within the school’s existing norms and pedagogical architecture, then it is likely a culturally responsive educational environment at work. If, however, those same students are falling behind or are failing to meet academic standards, it is worthwhile to examine current practices to determine what can be done to promote an inclusive, representative environment that creates those circumstances in which diverse learners can flourish.
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