Educational Justice and Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

Updated: Oct 9, 2020

Good teachers matter. Within the parameters of what the school can control, the teacher's quality is the most critical aspect of schooling. According to the RAND Corporation, effective teachers can have two to three times the effect on student achievement. Teachers have the power to make a difference in students' lives, and most people who go into the teaching field do so for that reason. This is important when thinking about the growing diversity and persistent achievement gaps in our schools between White and Asian students and Black and Hispanic students. As the nation's schools continue to diversify, it has become increasingly important for teachers to effectively teach ethnically and linguistically diverse students. Whether it is in a public, charter, or private schools, teachers need to be committed to educational justice so that all students have the opportunity to receive a high-quality education. Culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) is an effective way to increase student achievement for all learners (Byrd, 2016).

Most teachers want to see all of their students succeed, but they may not know the best approach to reach diverse learners. As a result, a cultural "disconnect" may be preventing them from being an effective teacher (McKoy, MacLeod, Walter, & Nolker, 2017). Research indicates that preservice educators' knowledge of diverse cultures was "marginal" and usually was manifested by displays of surface culture such as celebrating ethnic holidays, foods, and music. Some teachers erroneously think that teaching all students the same without regard to culture is equitable. That being "color blind" is impartial and fair. Further, many teachers believe that good teaching is transcendent, that it is identical for all students regardless of backgrounds, settings, and circumstances (Gay, 2010).

Culture does matter. It is the foundation from which all education is built. Teaching through a cultural lens helps teachers understand the lived experiences of their students. By utilizing students' unique cultural backgrounds, culturally competent teachers give voice to students who have been historically marginalized by giving them a space in which they feel a sense of dignity, through social, linguistic, and cultural expressions (Gay, 2010). The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition defines culture as "the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.

Zaretta Hammond, in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students, points out that culture is composed of three layers, they are surface culture, shallow culture, and deep culture. Surface culture is the detectable level of culture to include food, music, holidays, dance, and fasion to name a few. Most teachers and schools operate at this level of culture as demonstrated by Black History Month, National Hispanic American Heritage Month, and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Shallow culture consists of the unspoken rules concerning daily interactions and norms. Shallow culture involves courtesy, attitudes towards elders, family, friends, etc. Other aspects of shallow culture include nonverbals, such as eye contact, personal space, and appropriate touching. Deep culture deals with feelings and attitudes that we learn by being members of a particular group. It involves differences that are primarily out of a person’s conscious awareness and are often taken for granted such as assumptions, expectations, attitudes and values that make up our world views and behaviors. Deep culture informs our relationship, perceptions of time, spirituality, and problem solving. A commonly used analogy to describe the differences between the three types of culture is an iceberg. In this analogy the part of the iceberg that is visible above water is the surface culture. The iceberg that is closest to the water represents shallow culture, and that which cannot be seen is deep culture. Deep culture has the largest impact on learning because it influences how students see the world, and it is most associated with relationships, which is integral to effective teaching and learning.

To help diverse students realize their academic potential, teachers must become culturally competent educators. In their book Cultural Competence: A Primer for Educators, Diller and Moule defines cultural competence as:

The ability to successfully teach students who come from cultures other than our

own. It entails developing certain personal and interpersonal awareness and

sensitivities, developing certain bodies of cultural knowledge, and mastering a set of

skills that, taken together, underlie effective cross-cultural teaching.

To help teachers achieve cultural competency, scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced the idea of culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) over two decades ago. She described CRP as "a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes." CRP is a philosophical umbrella covering various dimensions, including curriculum, instruction, communication, relationship building, and socio-political awareness. CRP has been shown to increase student achievement through high learning and behavioral expectations, using students' strengths as starting points for learning, taking personal responsibility for student success, and creating nurturing cooperative learning environments to include building relationships between school and the community (Morrison, Robbins, & Rose, 2008). In addition, CRP is a form of social justice in which teachers help their students develop a critical understanding of the politics, policies and institutions that shape their lives. As Geneva Gay points out, CRP helps students develop the "knowledge and skills needed to challenge existing social orders and power structures" (p. 30). Teachers using CRP can promote educational justice by helping all learners realize their academic potential through approaches that have been shown to raise the achievement of diverse learners such as culturally responsive caring, communication, curriculum, and pedagogy.

The recent Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and others, and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the persistent inequalities between Whites and people of color in this country. In this moment, teachers should commit themselves to educational justice by providing the best education possible to all students through implementation of CRP. In my next blog post I will examine why a culturally responsive curriculum is important to increase the student achievemnet for diverse learners.


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