Our students come to us from varied backgrounds; even in the most outwardly homogeneous environments, they’ve experienced different teaching pedagogical approaches; they’ve had different learning outcomes that affect self esteem; they have different learning styles; and outside of academics, they also come from different families and communities with different perspectives on learning.
We’ve all experienced it ourselves; we’ve had to get to know a new teacher or supervisor, their rules, their communication style, their rubrics, even their literal voice. We’ve walked into classes where we excel in the subject, and we’ve walked into classes that focus on subjects that have been difficult in the past. But imagine not knowing the idiomatic phrases a teacher casually throws out, or not being able to ask questions if you’re someone who learns through discussion. Imagine being the only person who looks like you—perhaps you are the only woman or only person of color—or imagine not being intimately familiar with the language being spoken in the classroom.
When students come from outside the racial, ethnic, and cultural mainstream, they have greater learning challenges. Students not familiar with the vernacular of a classroom or even the language, have to make huge adjustments to navigate learning.
These gaps can lead to stress and struggle. For instance, ELL students unfamiliar with the language and who come with a different cultural context for academic integrity may engage in shortcut solutions or unknowingly plagiarize.
One way for educators to address this gap is through culturally responsive pedagogy.
Professor Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced the concept of culturally responsive pedagogy in 1995, highlighting social and cultural inequities Black students faced in classrooms. Professor Geneva Gay’s ensuing research included other BIPOC students and ways to bridge inequities with culturally responsive teaching, which she defined as “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively” (106).
The alternative and status quo to date, according to Gay, is that “students have been expected to divorce themselves from their cultures and learn according to European American cultural norms. This places them in double jeopardy—having to master the academic tasks while functioning under cultural conditions unnatural (and often unfamiliar) to them” (114).
Culturally responsive teaching is about teachers meeting students where they are with the end goal of providing students with a sense of belonging and support. It means that we take a look at our own biases before observing the ways in which our students learn. Rudine Sims Bishop provides the analogy of “windows and mirrors,” as highlighted by Patti West-Smith, to clarify this self-assessment and provide educators with scaffolding to become vulnerable and find empathy. In turn, we engage our students with the ways in which they best absorb knowledge, whether through stories or rhythm or kinesis or added curriculum to fortify and introduce knowledge about, for instance, academic integrity.
Additionally, culturally responsive teaching focuses on what students bring to the classroom instead of what they do not already know. It is, in sum, one of the myriad methodologies educators can use to support learning.
This approach is used throughout the world to great benefit. In Japan, for instance, Chris Hammond states, “The first step [in bridging differences] is developing awareness that these cultural differences exist, and not to merely dismiss the students as being shy. Next, it is important to avoid pitting one’s own culture against Japanese culture, as forcing American teaching styles onto Japanese students will prove extremely difficult for both the teacher and the students. Instead, accepting, studying, and then building on Japanese communication styles is a more effective way to teach English” (47). Culturally responsive pedagogy is also used by educators in Japan to help immigrant students from Korea (Takahashi, 2020).
So what are practical ways educators can engage culturally responsive teaching?
- Begin units with a diagnostic check-in. What do students already know about a particular concept? And how can they apply their prior experience to the introduced subject? By activating students’ prior knowledge, educators provide an opportunity for students to connect to the course material. When course material is specific, students feel connected to learning and have some authority on content.
- Mimic student cultural learning styles. For instance, some students come from strong oral cultures, and a lesson plan can embrace this comfort zone to introduce new concepts via narratives or kinesthetic games. Other students may need to practice what it is they’ve been told and small group exercises can bolster kinesthetic learning or bring quieter ELL students out of their shell before engaging in large class discussion. By enacting dynamic and varied instruction that includes different learning styles, educators can connect with a larger number of students.
- Provide inclusive book choices and reading lists. ELL students, for instance, may appreciate a book that reflects their experiences. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese is a graphic novel that can foster discussion about sophisticated concepts like symbolism and character analysis via a topic familiar to student experience. Likewise, is your reading list diverse and representative of your student population? Having their lives reflected in the reading list is a way to show your students they matter.
- Offer assessments specific to classroom discussion and student interests–an additional upside to questions specific to your classroom is that opportunities for misconduct are then mitigated as it’s less likely pre-written essays and answers can be found elsewhere.
- Ensure a variety of assessment formats to help students demonstrate their understanding of concepts. Having a variety of test formats–whether a combination of multiple-choice, short-answer, or presentations–includes all the ways students can show what it is they know.
- At the administrative level, institutions can organize Learning Communities that provide culturally-specific support to marginalized students. Learning Communities can result in increased student success via culturally responsive pedagogy.
A sense of belonging, in turn, makes students feel seen and supported, and ultimately increases learning outcomes and mitigates academic misconduct. Culturally responsive teaching is a critical component of building a sense of belonging for students. In turn, too, this methodology builds cultural democracy within classrooms, helping build empathy in many directions so that students can interact with a diverse group of people and experiences, and everyone feels respected.