Essay - Culturally Responsive Teaching (Libby Roderick)

Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally responsive teaching asks us to recognize that many of our default teaching methods are ineffective for large numbers of learners, to adapt our strategies to reach the greatest number, and to confront the power differentials that privilege some voices while discouraging or silencing others. This essay acknowledges both the complexity and importance of culturally responsive teaching while offering several tips for making our classrooms more inclusive of different types of learners.

Culturally Responsive Teaching

Libby Roderick
Associate Director, Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence
University of Alaska Anchorage

As many researchers and educators have noted, most educators in the U.S., without consciously intending to, have inherited and tend to reflexively reproduce models of learning based upon educational systems historically designed for only a few groups of learners: middle class or wealthy, able-bodied, young, heterosexual, European or European-American Christian men. The buildings, curricula, teaching styles, books, technology, and definitions of knowledge and learning that most of us were raised and are most comfortable with derive from these systems. “Many of us who now teach grew up in what appeared to be mono-cultural schools and communities. It is likely that we were socialized in our formative years with an unexamined set of traditions and beliefs about ourselves and a limited knowledge about others.”[1]

Most of us have internalized the prevailing values of the dominant culture and consider them to be reflections of reality rather than a particular cultural perspective. As one example, sociologist Robin Williams, Jr. compiled a list of fifteen values that the dominant culture holds, including efficiency, practicality, activity, work, material comfort, progress, individual freedom, science, and secular rationality.[2]

Yet many of us are also uncomfortable perpetuating systems that fail to recognize and make welcome the vast range of learners, learning styles, ways of knowing, socioeconomic, and cultural perspectives that now fill our classrooms. We recognize that even as our society becomes increasingly diverse, it also continues to perpetuate unequal power relations between and among various groups. We do not wish to recreate these unequal relationships within our own classrooms. We believe that education plays a critical role—if not the critical role—in how we envision ourselves as citizens and members of the human community and whether we make significant movement toward our democratic ideals. We agree with educator, activist and theorist Paulo Freire, who asserts that education is never politically neutral; no matter how and what we choose to teach, we are always either reproducing the inequities embedded in the larger society or challenging them in some way.

The effort to help more faculty members become more responsive to the various learners in their classrooms is, therefore, hugely important in our efforts to better tackle difficult dialogues on our campuses: dialogues that are often difficult precisely because they are attempting to address issues of power and inequity. I consider every communication a cross-cultural communication, and every classroom a microcosm of the greater society. Even when a classroom appears to be homogenous, there are often many hidden differences. We come from different backgrounds, with different values, histories, perspectives, symbols, learning styles, and priorities. We may have similar skin colors, but radically different religious ideologies. I may be affected by a learning disorder you can’t see, while you may have a disabled child at home who requires most of your attention. I may be female, while you are male, straight while you are gay, poor while you are middle class, Catholic while you are Jewish. Or I may simply learn more effectively through visual presentations while you absorb information most quickly when you are allowed to tackle something hands-on. All of these differences inform and complicate our efforts to communicate with one another.

Some of these differences may be relatively innocuous when it comes to how we teach, but others are profound. Culturally responsive teaching asks us to do at least two things. First, to adapt our teaching styles to best reach the greatest number of learners and “allow the integrity of every learner to be sustained while each person attains relevant educational success and mobility.”[3] And second, to recognize and do our best to correct for power differentials in the classroom that may promote some voices while silencing or suppressing others.

Trying to learn the specifics of every thread of American society is a daunting and seemingly overwhelming task, given the already challenging workloads faculty members handle. Fortunately, there are some things we can do that make the classroom more inclusive for all types of students and learners.  Here are just a few:

Vary our teaching techniques. In addition to lectures and tests, consider using strategies that facilitate inclusive learning, such as small-group work, dyad and triad sharing, problem-solving approaches, short reflective papers, role playing, using creative or performing arts as discussion starters, journals, research in the community, debates, or any number of the techniques discussed in the Brookfield and Preskill text (some of which are described in this handbook).

Permit multiple ways for learners to show that they have mastered the material. In addition to papers and tests, offer students the option of demonstrating that learning has occurred through such efforts as writing and performing skits, creating Web sites or videos, conducting interviews, writing grant proposals, creating pieces of artwork or music, or giving oral reports.

Help students make links between the material and their own lives. Invite students to make these connections in problem-solving exercises, classroom discussions, dyads and triads, writing assignments, or any of the other means described above. Doing so will allow them to bring in elements of their own socio-cultural backgrounds that the instructor might not be aware of. Ask questions to elicit these connections: What do we want to know about this subject? How is it important in our daily lives?

Use fair and clear criteria of evaluation. Because learners are diverse, it is important to give them a chance to ask questions to ensure that they truly understand how assessment will take place and how to measure their progress. “Make available examples of concrete learning outcomes that have already been evaluated (e.g. past tests, papers, projects and media).” [4]

Use inclusive language and examples. Invite students to break into dyads (groups of two) and identify words that generate feelings of anger or self-consciousness. Ask them to consider why these words affect them and to suggest alternative words or phrases that would be more amenable. Share these in the large group and list out the best ideas for class language. Frequently invite students to offer examples from their own lives to illustrate points made in classroom discussion; this practice can correct for any cultural biases in the instructor’s choice of examples and enrich discussion.

Invite students to point out behaviors, practices, and policies that discriminate. This can best be done in anonymous short writing opportunities or an area of Blackboard (or other electronic classroom space) designated for requests, where a sample posting might read “Please don’t use the phrase ‘those people’ when referring to another group. Thanks!”

1 Bowser and Hunt, 1981.
2 Williams, Jr., 1970, pp. 454-500
3 Wlodkowski and Ginsberg, 1995, p. xii
4 Wlodkowski and Ginsberg, 1995, p. 127-8