Culturally sensitive teaching is a current topic, full of complexities and nuances. Begin your journey with this basic overview, then use our list of recommended resources to deepen your understanding and begin using culturally responsive teaching strategies in your own classroom.
What is culture?
First, take a step back and considerWhat does "culture" mean?. When you think of culture, you probably imagine the way a group of people who share a common origin dress, talk, cook, dance, make art and music, practice religion and rituals, etc.
In addition to these aspects, culture is the deeply held shared connections and beliefs of a group of people. Keep in mind that culture is not necessarily based on race, ethnicity, or nationality. For example, two people who speak Spanish as their native language may have very different cultures, depending on where they come from and how they were raised. Most people have a multicultural background. Culture is about what is passed down from generation to generation, creating a unique identity for a group of people.
Cultural beliefs and practices are something many of us don't give much thought to until we come into contact with those whose culture is different from our own. Leaving our own culture can be uncomfortable, especially if we feel that other cultures see ours as something “less”. While it is good to learn about different cultures, it is important that we feel that our own is respected.
What is culturally sensitive teaching?
Culturally responsive teaching is based on the understanding that we learn best when we can connect with the material. For culturally responsive teachers, this means weaving together the diverse experiences, customs, communication styles, and perspectives of their students throughout the learning process.
Geneva Gay first used the term in 2000 in her book,Culturally Sensitive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. He found that students from historically marginalized cultures performed better academically when teachers made an effort to frame instruction "within 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 diverse cultures in their classroom. Are the textbooks in your classroom written by people from these cultures? Are different communication styles respected? Do you relate your learning objectives to real world experiences from all cultures? Do you hold all students to high standards, regardless of their background?
By asking these questions, Gay sparked the culturally sensitive teaching movement. It is part of a broader category known as “asset-based pedagogy”, and it has far-reaching applications and implications. Other related terms include "culturally relative teaching" and "culturally sustainable teaching".
Does culturally responsive teaching really make a difference?
In short, yes. Many teachers can share anecdotal evidence of how culturally responsive teaching makes a big difference for their diverse students. But if you're looking for hard facts, considerthis study done in 2016. She examined hundreds of students across different cultures and found that "teaching methods that connect with students' real lives and interests and promote understanding of other cultures are associated with better academic results."Other studies agree.
Culturally responsive teaching can help at-risk populations stay in school, see the relevance of learning, and believe they can learn. Culturally responsive teachers feel more connected to their students, especially when they learn to view cultural differences in behavior as an asset rather than a problem. Putting learning in a relevant context, using differences to your advantage, and recognizing inequality and inequality when they exist are concepts that every teacher should add to their toolbox.
How is culturally sensitive teaching in the classroom?
While putting this into practice is a bit different in each situation, there are some consistent strategies that culturally responsive teachers use. Here are some examples:
adopt previous knowledge
Consider this problem from the story: “The Chaoxiang family is gathering for this year's Qingming Festival, and they want to bring enough qingtuan for each of them to have two. If there are 14 people there, how many cookies should he bring?
If you're unfamiliar with Chinese culture, you're probably looking at words that you not only don't know, but aren't even sure how to pronounce. In fact, if you don't realize thatQingtuanis shaped like a dumpling, you may not know how to find the answer to the problem.
Students of 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 up stories, idioms, and beliefs they learned at home and find ways to incorporate them. Look for the concept ofknowledge fundsfor more ways to bring prior knowledge to the forefront.
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. Do you want to explore symbolism? Drop the same three poems by English poets you've been teaching for years. Instead, look for examples of works by writers from your students' backgrounds. Better yet, ask them to bring their own examples.
Select materials that represent your students
Look around your classroom. Does your library contain books by a variety of authors, on topics that appeal to the cultures represented by your students? What about their classroom decorations? Do they show faces and cultural elements similar to those of their own students? Children need to see that their teacher knows that not everyone has the same experiences and values, and that's okay.
Put learning in context
No matter what their culture, all children end up asking the same question: “Why is it important to learn this? What does this have to do with my life?
So take the time to figure this out. Perhaps you are learning about the ancient Greek civilization. Talk about how life back then was similar to or different than it is today. Consider social divisions, political events, and family structure. Discuss how your students today can learn from the mistakes made back then or what elements of their society they think could benefit us today.
Accommodate different styles of communication.
"Do not interrupt." "Wait until they recognize you before speaking." "Look directly at someone when you talk to them." These are all fairly common classroom guidelines, but they are specific to only a few cultures. In some cultures, interrupting is not rude, but it does show interest. Making eye contact can be difficult for some, even culturally discouraged.
Explore how different cultures communicate and learn how to accommodate them in your classroom. That doesn't mean there aren't rules for everything. It means understanding that there may be cultural reasons why some children find it more difficult to wait their turn to speak, while others are reluctant to do so. Don't get angry, understand, learn and adapt.
Set high standards for all students.
Studies on implicit bias reveal that some teachers expect less of students from non-white communities. They assume that they have not had the same advantages as their white counterparts and therefore will not achieve as much.
But research tells us that this is exactly the wrong way to think. Teachers must overcome their implicit bias and set equitable expectations for all students. Of course, you will always have to take individual situations into account. But don't make assumptions based on culture. Hold all students to high standards and accept each case as it comes.
Recognize inequality, prejudice and injustice.
This is getting harder to do in some places as states forbid teaching things likecritical race theory. But inequality, prejudice, and racial injustice exist, and ignoring them will not make them go away. Also, allowing students from different cultures to discuss these things in the classroom allows them to feel seen. ANDopens them to more learning.
There is no easy answer to navigating these issues in more restrictive states. Teachers can only do the best they can in the classroom and continue to strive for the ability to teach vital subjects in a meaningful way.
How can I become a more culturally responsive teacher?
As we said earlier, culturally sensitive teaching is a tricky subject. You can't learn everything you need to know from one article or even one book. Learn more about the rich cultures of your students and find out what interests them. Open up to new ideas, do more research, and start experimenting with the principles in your classroom. Here are some resources to help you:
- Prioritize culturally responsive 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 sensitive teaching?
- Understood: How to Use Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Classroom
- Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning