by Dr. Kaye Busiek, Assistant Professor
The number of culturally diverse students in American public schools is rising (Davis & Bauman, 2013), and the academic needs of far too many of these students are not being met (Rychly & Graves, 2012). Consequently, schools need to find ways to prepare curricular and instructional opportunities more effectively for our diverse learners so that more of them can be successful in the future.
Students are highly influenced by their personal characteristics, experiences, challenges, and choices (Howard-Hamilton, 2000). The various experiences that students bring to the classroom, such as family beliefs and values, form the foundation of how learning will be perceived and processed by them. Teachers who respect the differences in their students (i.e., ethnicity, gender, social class, age, religion, geographical origin, race, sexual orientation, and exceptionality) are better able to meet their learning needs.
Culturally responsive behavior is defined by Gay (2002) as “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively” (p. 106). According to Wlodkowski and Ginsberg (1995), students’ motivation for learning cannot be separated from their culture. Teachers must avoid taking a neutral stance on the culturally diverse make-up of their classroom and instead embrace ways they can weave relevant aspects of students’ lives (e.g., values, traditions, language, learning styles, and relationship norms) into the fabric of their curriculum and pedagogy.
According to Howard-Hamilton (2000), teachers can be more effective if they limit the use of instructional strategies that focus on more traditional, teacher-directed models of teaching and learning (e.g., lecture, grades, and content mastery), replacing it with student-centered, engaged learning opportunities that are meaningful and respectful of their cultural differences. A culturally responsive teacher regularly utilizes four practices: (1) empathy and caring, (2) sincere reflection of their own beliefs about people from cultures other than their own, (3) recognition of their own cultural frame of reference, and (4) knowledge acquisition about other cultures (Rychly & Graves, 2012).
Caring and empathetic teachers develop healthy relationships with their students while holding them to a high standard of achievement (Rychly & Graves, 2012). They demonstrate friendliness, warmth, affection, respect, and security in a family-type environment (Brown, 2011). At the same time, culturally responsive teachers are assertive—establishing their authority by clearly stating expectations and consistently enforcing rules and policies. Every student is expected to learn, and underachievement is unacceptable.
In order to respond successfully to the culturally diverse needs of students, teachers need to reflect on their own beliefs about people from other cultures (Rychly & Graves, 2012). Teachers typically ask students to adapt their learning style to fit the teacher’s instructional style. Tomlinson and Javius (2012), however, state that teachers should following the “platinum rule” rather than the “golden rule”: Treat others as they want to be treated. Teachers would be wise to look first at their instructional resources and practices from the students’ standpoint. This examination might reveal that traditional practices and material represent the highlights and successes of a society to which they cannot relate (Howard-Hamilton, 2000). By continuing to maintain status quo, teachers can perpetuate stereotypes and one-sided thinking due to the authoritative position of the classroom teacher.
Once teachers get in touch with their own perceptions and biases about people from other cultures, they must recognize the parameters of their own frame of reference (Rychly & Graves, 2012). This frame of reference may view students from diverse backgrounds as underachievers who are incapable of achieving at high levels.
Finally, once teachers understand the importance of getting to know the culturally diverse backgrounds of their students, they will need to acquire information that can guide instructional planning, delivery, and assessment. Surveys, questionnaires, and informal discussions can be utilized to learn about the interests of their students–such as music, art, hobbies, and sports (Rychly & Graves, 2012)—their communication styles, their educational successes and failures of the past, and their learning style preferences.
When teachers commit to curriculum and pedagogy that is culturally responsive, “they are able to move forward in ways that respond to the differences instead of holding all classroom participants to their own standards or views” (Rychly & Graves, 2012, p. 48). Howard-Hamilton (2000) contends that teachers may need to incorporate more of the following: cooperative learning, reading selections with a multicultural perspective, and the intentional infusion of diverse opinions and perspectives in class discussions. Tomlinson and Javius (2012) state that culturally diverse students will benefit when they are allowed to celebrate and showcase their differences, are invited to discuss their similarities, are asked to make meaning in multiple ways, are engaged in rigorous learning opportunities, can make connections to their own lives utilizing authentic products (i.e., letters, projects, and projects), can utilize a wide range of resources (i.e., print, audio, video, Internet), and learn skills for independence and self-direction. It behooves every educator to seriously consider what steps need to be taken in their educational practice so that every learner can be engaged in continuous, meaningful learning.
Brown, D. F. (2011). Urban teachers’ use of culturally responsive management strategies. Theory into Practice, 42(4), 277-282.
Davis, J. and Bauman, K. (2013). School enrollment in the United States: 2011. United States Census Bureau.
Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Gay, G. (2002). Culturally responsive teaching in special education for ethnically diverse students: Setting the stage. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 15(6), 613-629.
Howard-Hamilton (Summer 2000). Creating a culturally responsive learning environment for African American students. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 82, 45-53.
Rajagopal, K. (2011). Create success: Unlocking the potential of urban students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Rychly & Graves (2012). Teacher characteristics for culturally responsive pedagogy. The Official Journal of the National Association for Multicultural Education, 14(1), 44-49
Tomlinson & Javis (February 2012). Teach up for excellence, Educational Leadership, 69(5), 28-33.
Wlodkowski, R., and Ginsberg, M. B. (September, 1995). A framework for culturally responsive teaching. Educational Leadership, 53(1), 17-21.