What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

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by Staff Writers

Published on December 7, 2020 · Updated on June 15, 2022

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What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

Culturally Responsive vs. Traditional Teaching

Teaching and learning have undergone many changes. With the advent of technology, teachers must now incorporate interactive and engaging instructional methods to promote student retention.

Culturally responsive teaching has always stood in stark contrast to more traditional forms of instruction. Traditional methods consider the teacher the controller of the environment, with students learning through memorization and recitation. In these learning environments, teachers rely on students' memory and use lectures and oral and written assessments to disseminate information and assess students' mastery of concepts.

But many criticize traditional teaching methods for not providing students with the opportunity to develop critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making skills. Moreover, the practice fails to take into account the diversity of learning styles and how culture influences learning.

Traditional teaching methods also view the teacher as having primary responsibility over the learning environment, and students as being passive recipients of knowledge rather than active participants in their education.

Simply put, traditional teaching tends to be very regimented and routine, which can decrease student engagement and collaboration while increasing boredom.

But as the U.S. grows more racially and ethnically diverse — and with continued improvements to the technological infrastructure — there's been a shift from relying on more foundational methods of teaching to more interactive and innovative learning approaches.

Traditional teaching tends to be very regimented and routine, which can decrease student engagement and collaboration while increasing boredom.

Given the diversity of learning styles, as well as our rapidly evolving economy, instruction must provide students an opportunity to engage in inquiry-based and interdisciplinary learning, collaborative activities, hands-on activities, and problem-based learning. This can be facilitated through the incorporation of group work, technology, multimedia, flipped classrooms, and both traditional and digitized forms of assessment.

Innovative and interactive forms of teaching should also accompany cultural competency, and teachers should understand how students' cultures impact and enhance the learning environment. Culturally responsive teaching makes meaningful connections between what students learn in school and their cultures, languages, and life experiences.

It also fosters a sense of belonging in the classroom, exposes students to diverse curricula, empowers underserved students, bridges cultural gaps, and offers students the chance to learn different perspectives.

Traditional Teaching

  • Teacher controls the learning environment, and students are passive learners
  • Relies mainly on lectures, memorization, and oral and written assignments
  • Regimented and routine with little day-to-day change
  • Often lowers student engagement levels and increases feelings of boredom

Culturally Responsive Teaching

  • Both teacher and students actively contribute to the learning environment
  • Promotes more interactive, collaborative, and culturally conscious learning activities
  • Fosters a sense of belonging for students of all backgrounds
  • Facilitates brain processing and student engagement

Teachers who incorporate diverse cultural histories in their courses, or who allow students to communicate through poetry, music, and other forms of expression, demonstrate the effective implementation of culturally responsive teaching practices.

Studies show that culturally responsive teaching facilitates brain processing, increases student engagement, promotes students' sense of belonging and safety, and cultivates critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Culturally responsive teaching approaches are particularly important during the pandemic, as COVID-19 has exacerbated barriers and challenges for diverse learners, especially students of color, students with disabilities, and low-income students.

These approaches can also empower teachers to be responsive to the needs and conditions of their students. Right now, many students are facing unstable home environments and struggling to engage in online learning. Culturally responsive teaching can be an effective strategy for combating inequities in our current education system brought on by COVID-19.

Misconceptions of Culturally Responsive Teaching

Today's classrooms house a plethora of cultures and subcultures. As such, many teachers may perceive culturally responsive teaching as needing to instruct every student in a unique way depending on their race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status — but this isn't the case.

Instead, a teacher should look at their school's demographics to identify the largest group of students and then use this data to inform their instructional methods. Teaching through pop culture, slang, or jargon — or using music, technology, or other relevant cultural figures and objects — are examples of how teachers might incorporate aspects of their students' everyday lives into the curricula.

A teacher should look at their school’s demographics to identify the largest group of students and then use this data to inform their instructional methods.

It's important to survey your students and ask about which cultural aspects appeal to them the most so you can teach to the collective classroom culture. You should also understand that culture cannot be understood as a singularity — many students belong to multiple cultures and subcultures.

Another misconception is that only teachers of color wield the skills and competencies needed to be truly culturally responsive. This, of course, isn't true and only serves to absolve white educators from their responsibility of being culturally responsive to their students. Assuming the role of culturally responsive educator is not about your racial or ethnic background — it's about being keenly aware of the crucial role culture plays in learning.

It also means that educators must think about how teaching from a dominant, primary culture can be exclusive and fail to give certain students the opportunity to see their cultural identity or identities reflected in the curriculum.

Culturally Responsive Teaching Changes the Classroom

When we work to dismantle traditional hierarchies in the classroom between student and teacher, students perform better and see their instructor as both an ally and facilitator.

Adopting a culturally responsive teaching approach doesn't mean educators come into the learning environment with assumptions about their students' cultures and home environments; rather, it means instructors strive to build meaningful relationships with their students by respecting their individuality and culture.

When teachers identify innovative ways to teach through pop culture, music, poetry, and other cultural topics the class will enjoy, students are more likely to feel valued and respected.

Teachers who demonstrate a culturally responsive approach gain insight into students’ strengths and empower them to leverage their abilities.

Teachers who demonstrate a culturally responsive approach get to know students beyond just their names — they gain insight into students' strengths and empower them to leverage their abilities in the learning environment.

Culturally responsive teaching also provides students the opportunity to take ownership of their education by viewing everyone as an equal contributor to the classroom. When students can embrace their role as contributors to the learning environment, they bolster their leadership skills and self-esteem.

As educators respond to the needs of an increasingly diverse classroom — and as many students experience racism and exclusion — it's critical that teachers prioritize making learning inclusive and effective for everyone.

Feature Image: skynesher / E+ / Getty Images