Five years ago, diversity in public schools reached a tipping point. For the first time in history, the majority of students in the US public school system were racial and ethnic minorities.
Since then, diversity in classrooms across the nation has continued to increase. But the curricula delivered in those classrooms don’t always follow suit. This leaves many students feeling disconnected, disengaged, and disinterested in the educational process—feelings that can have serious, lifelong consequences.
Culturally responsive pedagogy creates a powerful connection between classroom lessons and diverse student backgrounds. By building strategies to design and deliver culturally responsive lessons, teachers can better engage diverse learners and promote success for all students.
What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
Culturally responsive teaching is a student-centered approach to education. It is based on the idea that every student brings unique cultural strengths to the classroom. Recognizing and nurturing those strengths not only encourages success but also promotes an open-minded, supportive environment that celebrates cultural differences.
To be successful, culturally responsive teaching strategies must be incorporated at every stage of the learning process, from curriculum development to assessment. Culturally responsive teaching is not a secondary or supplemental approach to education. Instead, every learning opportunity and school activity should take the ancestral and contemporary cultures, beliefs, and traditions of students into account. This could include observing your students’ significant holiday traditions in class or seeking to understand how and why your students and their families may value particular subjects more than others.
Benefits of Culturally Responsive Teaching
Culturally responsive teaching promotes the success of all students equally—something that traditional education methods often fall short on. When students’ cultural backgrounds aren’t thoughtfully considered, classrooms suffer from issues like language barriers, systemic discrimination, and lack of respresentation.
Language Barriers: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 10 percent of public school students in 2016 were English language learners. In an English-speaking school, students who aren’t fluent in English may not fully understand class material. In addition, they might be afraid to ask questions and share ideas because they don’t have the English language skills they need to express abstract concepts.
Systemic Discrimination: Many underrepresented students have experienced discrimination in schools, hospitals, libraries, and other public spaces. Authoritarian expectations and punishment in the classroom can trigger these same feelings, making students feel unsafe or unwelcome at school.
Lack of Representation: Many educational materials are unintentionally biased. Books typically feature white protagonists. Movies typically depict predominantly white classrooms. Even standardized test questions are often unknowingly written in a way that favors the experiences of racial and ethnic majorities. Situations like these communicate to students of color that schools and classrooms are not really designed with them in mind.
These issues, among others, can cause students to disengage from the learning process—acting out in class, neglecting homework, skipping school, or even dropping out altogether. Ultimately, these behaviors lead to poor performance that can become chronic and have lifelong effects, impacting everything from college admission rates to professional success and socioeconomic status. Culturally responsive teaching helps bridge those gaps by engaging students from underrepresented cultures (which can be informed by everything from race and ethnicity to religion and ability) in the learning process in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them.
The benefits of culturally responsive teaching are undeniable. Not only does it improve student success rates across the board but it also fosters positive relationships between families and school communities and promotes inclusion in schools and education systems.
How to Create a Culturally Responsive Classroom
Teachers can use many methods to foster cultural responsiveness in the classroom—from empowering students to make choices about their own education (see below) to creating lessons that celebrate students’ diverse backgrounds. Culturally responsive teaching strategies can build trust; encourage collaboration; improve communication; and create a supportive, respectful atmosphere where every student can thrive.
Get to Know Your Students and Their Families
Expressing interest in your students’ ethnic and cultural backgrounds is fundamental to creating a culturally responsive classroom. Make sure to learn the correct pronunciation of your students’ names and encourage them to share their family traditions with their classmates. This could be in the form of a family history report where students research their cultural heritage and present what they learn. Or you could take a less formal approach and ask your students to bring one of their family’s favorite foods to share with the class. Remember, you serve as an example. Model what it looks like to appreciate and honor differences.
It’s important to get to know your students’ families, too. Family involvement can have a significant impact on student success. But it’s important to remember that being involved doesn’t look the same for every family—cultural attitudes, family history, and other factors can inform how and in what ways a family chooses to get involved.
Quick Tip: Schedule a visit with your students and their families outside of regular school hours to foster trust and gain insight into every student’s unique background.
Design an Inclusive Curriculum
Every student in a classroom should feel represented and included in lessons and school activities. Consider the diverse cultural backgrounds of your students and think creatively about how to celebrate those differences. Try incorporating books and other media that highlight your students’ cultural backgrounds, or, as mentioned earlier, ask your students to write about their cultural heritage and share it with the class.
Quick Tip: Assign a family history project to encourage students to learn about their cultural heritage and share what they learn with their classmates.
Account for Language Differences
A culturally informed classroom should take into consideration that English may not be the primary language for some students. Rather than expecting nonnative English speakers to overcome language barriers on their own, teachers should find ways to provide additional support. Consider offering supplemental materials in the student’s primary language to aid in testing and assignments. Or create a custom education plan to encourage English language learning.
Quick Tip: Send a private survey home with each student to ask questions about what language they use at home or how often and in what language they read with their parents. Use this information to strategize how you can support nonnative English speakers throughout the year.
Communicate Consistently High Expectations
While all students have their own unique strengths and challenges, it’s important that every student is motivated to excel. Make sure your students know that you expect them to engage in lessons, challenge themselves, and achieve at a high level. Unconscious personal bias can cause some teachers to set lower expectations for minority students or assume underperformance is a result of family circumstances, race, or cultural differences. If you notice a student is underperforming, take the time to figure out why. Keep an open mind and implement a personalized intervention strategy to help get him or her back on track.
Quick Tip: Create a list of reasonable expectations and display it at the front of the classroom. Refer to this list routinely to create an atmosphere of openness, transparency, and encouragement, especially when sharing about different cultures.
Facilitate Student Empowerment
Authoritarian classrooms—where student behavior is restricted by a long list of strictly enforced rules—can be problematic. Limitations on personal exploration can make some students feel that their teacher is socially unjust. This is especially true for students from underrepresented backgrounds who are more likely to face inequity and discrimination. To prevent this, try to see your role less as an instructor and more as a facilitator. Allow students to have a say in what they learn by focusing lessons on topics they find interesting, allowing them to choose their own reading material, and encouraging them to share thoughts and ideas in an open-minded, supportive environment.
Quick Tip: Swap lectures for class discussion or collaborative projects to help account for diverse learning styles and cultural contexts, in order to help students feel like an important part of their own education.
Address Your Own Biases
Every educator brings some sort of personal bias into the classroom. These biases (racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic, to name a few) can be hard to recognize, let alone overcome, but addressing them is vital to becoming a culturally responsive teacher. Explore your own cultural heritage, family history, upbringing, and privileges. Try to view your experiences from an objective standpoint to understand how the experiences of other people might be different. To gain even more insight, find books, articles, movies, and other media that help you understand the world from diverse perspectives.
Quick Tip: Make a list of your cultural assumptions, however uncomfortable this might make you. Then read through the list and ask yourself, “Do I really feel this way? And, if so, why?” Keep an open mind and be willing to change your preconceived ideas.
An Education in Cultural Responsiveness
American University’s Online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program helps students become culturally informed educators. Classes like Effective Teaching for Diverse Students offer opportunities for students to engage in cultural responsiveness training firsthand. Through action research and curriculum design, students explore ways to support diverse learners and learn to understand the roles that family and community play in educational success.
According to Dr. Traci Dennis, director of undergraduate teacher education at American University, the MAT program is designed to prepare culturally responsive teachers who are passionate about equality in education. The program emphasizes student-centered and culturally mediated instruction, helping teachers explore their role as a facilitator of student success.
On top of that, the MAT program is located in Washington, DC, the ideal setting for making a difference through education policy. Many graduates of the MAT and MEd (Master of Education) programs go on to become educators who bring equitable education to students across the country. And other educators support equity through policy reform and education advocacy.
Ready to make a difference with culturally responsive teaching strategies? Learn more about how American University’s Online Master of Arts in Teaching program can help you become an equitable and empowering educator.