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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Hinton

Culturally Relevant Teaching: What it is and Why it is Needed

An effective teacher must master the professional skills necessary to deliver a high-quality 21st-century education to their students. In this blog post, I will discuss culturally relevant teaching for an effective 21st-century education.

“Culturally relevant teaching honors the students’ sense of humanity and dignity. Their complete personhood is never doubted. Self-worth and self-concept is promoted in a very basic way, by acknowledging the individual’s worthiness to be part of a supportive and loving group.”

~Gloria Ladson-Billings

The teaching force in our public schools has remained static over the years, despite the nation’s rapidly changing demographics. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, educators are overwhelmingly female, White, middle class, and middle-aged. Women comprise 76% of all educators in the nation’s K-12 public schools. In elementary school, that number jumps to 89%. Further, 79% of teachers reported that they are White, typically earn around $63, 645 a year, and average 43 years of age (Digest of Education Statistics, 2020). On the other hand, Latinx teachers represent only about 9 percent of the teaching force, Blacks 7 percent, and Asians 2 percent (Taie & Westat, 2020). The Brookings Institute recently reported that just 20% of the public school workforce reported that they identify as people of color, while over 50% of the study body does. That is a representation gap of 30%. Further, researchers point out that a more diverse workforce provides long-lasting benefits to students of color (Hansen, & Quintero, 2021). The number of teachers from diverse backgrounds has been growing since the late 1980s but still has a long way to go before they proportionally represent the students of color they teach. As a result, the teachers leading most classrooms represent the mores, values, and points of view of the dominant culture and may have difficulty working with students from cultures different than their own. And while many teachers work tirelessly to deliver the best possible education to all of their students, without regard to their race, socio-economic, and language status. Cultural misunderstandings may cause some teachers to view their students of color through a deficit lens (Douglas, Lewis, Douglas, Scott, & Garrison-Wade, 2008).

According to professor of urban education, Richard Milner, deficit thinking can be described as “teachers’ perceptions that students of color do not already possess the necessary skills, knowledge and attitudes to succeed and learn, and can result in the development of curriculum and instruction that falls short of optimal teaching and learning” (Milner, 2006, p. 80). In other words, some educators view students of color and their communities as “problems” that need to be fixed, rather than as allies and partners in their education. As professors of education, Lori Patton and Samuel Museus (2019) point out, “deficit thinking is rooted in a blame the victim orientation that suggests that people are responsible for their predicament and fails to acknowledge that they live within coercive systems that cause harm with no accountability.” Part of the educational “system” that has contributed to deficit thinking is the inability or lack of interest on part of some educators to build cultural bridges to their students, which could be an essential factor in their students’ academic success (Douglas, et al., 2008). In her seminal work, Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, Lisa Delpit (2006) argues that there are two areas in which White teachers and their students of color experience cultural misunderstandings. The first is the teacher’s misunderstanding of their students’ “aptitudes, intent, or abilities” the misinterpretation may result from differences in language use and interactional patterns. The second area of cultural misunderstanding stems from pedagogies that are incongruent with historically marginalized students. Delpit points out that “teachers may utilize styles of instruction and discipline that are at odds with community norms,” resulting in a cultural incongruence between students and teachers (p. 167).

As a result of school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s, educators have tried to teach students of color through various multi-cultural education approaches such as culturally appropriate, culturally congruent, culturally responsive, and culturally compatible teaching (Aronson & Laughter, 2016). These frameworks suggest that to raise student achievement for historically marginalized students, schools should reflect students’ diverse cultures by infusing the curriculum with the histories, contributions, and achievements of diverse actors. Building on the framework of multi-cultural education, two dominant strands emerged distinct from earlier methodologies. In the mid-1970s, Geneva Gay outlined the principles of culturally responsive teaching, which focused on the teaching process or what teachers do in the classroom. In contrast, Gloria Ladson-Billings developed culturally relevant pedagogy as a theoretical framework to examine multiple aspects of student achievement.

Geneva Gay described culturally responsive teaching “as using the cultural knowledge, prior experience, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them” (Gay, 2010, p. 36). Gay focused her research on what teachers do in the classroom, and according to her, eight dimensions characterize culturally responsive teaching, they are:

· validation- culturally responsive teaching validates students’ culture and believes that it is worthy of being taught in the formal curriculum by infusing cultural information, resources, and materials in all content and skills taught in school. Additionally, teachers validate students’ lived experiences and build bridges to the school by utilizing a wide range of educational approaches that capitalize on students’ interests and learning styles.

· Comprehensive and inclusive- culturally responsive teachers help students of color achieve academically and maintain students’ cultural identity and connections to their community by developing camaraderie and shared responsibility. In other words, teachers help students build a community of learners in which all students are expected to learn and achieve at high levels.

· Multidimensional- Culturally responsive teachers utilize various, overlapping factors like curriculum content that reflects the diversity of learners. Teachers understand the racial, socio-political teaching context to build a classroom climate that elevates academic achievement for all learners. Teachers utilize various instructional tools and approaches that build on diverse students’ strengths and help them improve upon their weaknesses.

· Empowering- Culturally responsive teachers empower their students to be successful by imbuing within them confidence, courage, and the belief that they can achieve their goals. These teachers encourage students to take intellectual risks and persevere in the face of challenges and adversity.

· Transformative- Culturally responsive teachers engage in the work of transformation by first identifying the strengths and accomplishments of diverse students, then enhancing these strengths through the instructional process. Students' academic success and cultural consciousness take place in tandem as students build cultural pride and awareness.

· Emancipatory- Culturally responsive teaching is psychologically and intellectually liberating for students of color because they are exposed to knowledge beyond the mainstream canon.

· Humanistic- Culturally responsive teachers uphold all students' welfare, dignity, and respect across ethnic, racial, and social groups.

· Ethical- Culturally responsive teachers are ethical in that they dismantle the hegemony of the dominant culture on educational policies and practices. They interrupt the notion that education is “cultureless” and unbiased.

Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced the idea of culturally relevant pedagogy, which she describes as “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes (Ladson-Billings, 1994, p. 17-18). She designed the framework after observing successful teachers of African-American students and noting their beliefs and ideologies towards educating students of color. The framework consists of three main components. The first and most important aspect of culturally relevant pedagogy focuses on student learning and academic achievement. Successful teachers of historically marginalized students have high expectations for all students and believe that all students can succeed academically. In other words, teachers see all of their students as being uniquely brilliant. In addition, teachers must possess knowledge and skills in developing students’ cultural competence. This means that students must be able to maintain their cultural integrity while being academically successful. Successful teachers achieve this aim by helping students navigate between their home culture and school culture by acknowledging and pushing back against the implicit bias built into the institution. Lastly, culturally responsive pedagogy means that teachers help their students engage in learning tasks that require them to “recognize, understand and critique current social inequities” (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 476). Critical consciousness must begin with the teacher, who must recognize sociopolitical issues of race, class, and gender within themselves before integrating them into the curriculum (Aronson & Laughter, 2016).

Despite their subtle differences, Gay and Ladson-Billings’ frameworks share four commonalities in elevating student achievement for diverse students (Aronson & Laughter 2016). The first criterion is that culturally relevant educators use constructivist approaches to help students build bridges between their life experience and new academic knowledge. In other words, they use students’ knowledge and cultural assets as a vehicle to raise academic achievement. In addition, culturally relevant teachers engage their students in critical reflection by examining issues pertaining to their own lives and society. Teachers accomplish this aim by introducing students to a culturally relevant curriculum that includes diverse viewpoints and challenges conventional norms. Further, culturally relevant teachers facilitate students' cultural competence so that they learn to value, appreciate, and take pride in their own culture and other cultures. Cultural awareness is a valuable 21st-century skill in an increasingly global economy. Finally, culturally relevant teachers help their students identify and challenge historic power differentials through critical pedagogy. Paulo Friere (2018) describes critical pedagogy as “learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against oppressive elements of reality” (p. 35).

Not only is culturally relevant teaching affective in building students' sense of belonging, inclusion, and cultural pride, but it is an effective way to increase academic outcomes for all learners. The research concludes that culturally responsive teaching has an overall positive effect on student learning across multiple content areas such as math, science, and English for historically marginalized students and students of the dominant culture (Aronson & Laughter, 2016). For example, culturally relevant approaches can increase students’ motivation and interest in the subjects they are studying, leading to an increased ability to engage in content area discourse and investigations. Increased student engagement is directly correlated to higher student achievement. Further, culturally relevant teaching can increase student perceptions of themselves as capable students. When students believe they can be academically successful, they usually are


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