Culturally Responsive Teaching Research Paper Starter

Culturally Responsive Teaching

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This article provides an overview of culturally responsive teaching, a pedagogical theory which emphasizes the cultural basis of learning and instruction. The primary goal of culturally responsive teaching is to redress the achievement gap between minority and white students. This approach reframes the traditional understanding of this gap, by shifting focus away from perceived student deficits and towards the ways in which schools have failed these students. Based on the implicit or taken-for-grantedness of culture, culturally responsive teaching requires teachers to respond to differences in students' communication and learning styles, by altering their own teaching techniques and methods of classroom management. Classroom strategies include cooperative learning, text talk, warm demander pedagogy, and varied, culturally sensitive curriculum content.

Keywords Cooperative Learning; Culture; Deficit Viewpoint; Ebonics; Multicultural Education; Text Talk; Warm Demander Pedagogy


Culturally responsive teaching is a pedagogical theory based on the idea that culture underlies every aspect of education, from curriculum and assessment, to learning and teaching styles, to methods of administration and supervision. As a sub-discipline of multicultural education, culturally responsive teaching was begun in the 1970s specifically to address educators' concerns about why minority students chronically underperform in school. Advocates of culturally responsive teaching - also called culturally relevant teaching or equity pedagogy - argue that often there is a significant gap between the typically European-American cultural norms of the school and those of the students, and that this gap contributes to the underachievement of students of color (Boykin, 1994). They contend the solution to this problem must in part involve bringing the mainstream culture of the classroom more in line with that of minority student populations, and many studies have supported this position (Spindler & Spindler, 1994; McCarty et al., 1991).

Central to the theory of culturally responsive teaching is the recognition that many educators have adopted low expectations for minority students, a stance that sets the stage for their underachievement. In addition, teachers often regard minority students from a deficit viewpoint. According to this viewpoint, teachers focus primarily on students' perceived shortcomings and pathologize their academic failure as a product of poverty and unsupportive family lives. By adhering to a deficit viewpoint, teachers invalidate the unique perspectives, skills, and experiences of their students. Consequently, Good and Brophy (1994) argue, the product can be a "self-fulfilling prophecy effect," leading students to believe that they, as well as their families and backgrounds, are inadequate or in need of repair. Students who feel alienated from the classroom and the school may withdraw emotionally from the educational process.

In the culturally responsive teaching paradigm, students' academic failure must be re-envisioned as stemming to a large extent from schools' inadequacies in meeting these students' needs. Most educators have good intentions for their students, but they lack an understanding of the nature and importance of cultural differences that must be in place in order to guide minority students towards achievement. Academic success is hinged on feeling effective, intelligent, and valued, and it is up to teachers and administrators to adopt new pedagogical approaches in order to instill such feelings in their minority students (Ormrod, 1995).

Strategies for Culturally Responsive Teaching

A wide variety of strategies can be used in achieving culturally responsive teaching. Today, it is not uncommon for teachers to include multicultural perspectives through the explicit use of ethnic and cultural materials in the classroom. Educators may display cultural objects such as clothing or musical instruments of a given community, they may discuss people and holidays important to a culture, or they may assign special projects on the history of a minority group. Some teachers assemble multicultural reading centers, comprised of story and poetry books as well as games, audio, and video materials. Such explicit inclusion of students' backgrounds within the classroom can be validating to children, especially to those who live within a dominant culture that negatively stereotypes their heritage.


Yet at the heart of culturally responsive teaching is a more subtle understanding of culture. Culture can be defined as "a dynamic system of social values, cognitive codes, behavioral standards, worldviews, and beliefs used to give order and meaning to our own lives as well as the lives of others" (Gay, 2000, p. 8, from Delgado-Gaitan & Trueba 1991). This definition points to the fact that culture encompasses much more than observable factors such as dress and food. Crucially, culture is in large part tacit, or below the level of consciousness, and it colors every aspect of an individual's life, including that of the teacher. Thus, culturally responsive teaching concerns not only understanding the culture of the student; it is also about discovering that as a teacher, one's own methods, standards, and expectations are themselves the products of a particular cultural perspective, rather than reflective of a universal norm (Pai, 1990). A wide body of knowledge of cross-cultural differences in classroom behavior, gained from ethnographic and ethnolinguistic research, has informed the culturally relevant approach to teaching.


A central way in which culture is tacitly infused into the classroom is in language and communication styles, and an awareness of cross-cultural variability in norms for classroom communication is key to culturally responsive teaching skills. Communication can take verbal and non-verbal forms, and a teacher's misreading of a student's communicative style can result in an inaccurate assessment of the student's engagement, understanding, level of respect, or even intelligence. For example, in terms of verbal communication, teachers working in urban African American schools are sometimes confounded by the seemingly rude or disruptive interjections made by students. Yet this verbal behavior is often an instantiation of the oral genre of call-response and constitutes an expressive and generally cooperative pattern of communication in African American English, or Ebonics. Call-response is widely used in a variety of contexts, including in church settings, during which members of the congregation respond intermittently with 'amen' to the preacher's sermon or 'call.' This deeply interactive style can be described more generally as participatory-interactive and stands in contrast to the passive-receptive style characteristic of most American classrooms. The participatory-interactive style of communication, also used by Latino and Native Hawaiian communities, is generally not intended as a sign of disrespect but rather is used to assert agreement, or occasionally disagreement, with the speaker.

Non-Verbal Communication

Non-verbal communication can be equally powerful, and equally misinterpreted, in the classroom. Most mainstream American teachers, for example, look for certain cues such as eye contact and posture to signal student attentiveness. Teachers may conclude that students who do not conform to these expectations are off-task, that they have short attention spans, or even have a learning disability. Yet in some cultures, such as among the Apache, direct eye contact is taboo, so that by diverting their eyes from their teacher, Apache children show respect, rather than behavioral problems (Spring, 1995). Likewise, teachers should seek to tailor their own eye contact according to students' comfort level, while at the same time being careful not to ignore students who appear disengaged.

Cross - Cultural Variation

Learning styles and participation patterns are also subject to cross-cultural variation, and for many students, the typical American classroom, in which individuality and competition are emphasized, can be incongruous with their home or earlier school experiences. For instance, in some cultural groups, including among African Americans, raising a child is the work of an entire extended family or community, and hence authority and knowledge is more distributed than in most European-American families. Likewise, some East Asian cultures emphasize consensus building and working together for the common good, while shunning individual competition and reward. In response to these kinds of differences, culturally responsive teachers have incorporated cooperative learning into their classrooms, which involves collaboration and group decision making among students as well as between students and teachers. Studies have repeatedly shown the effectiveness of these techniques with minority students (e.g., Losey, 1997; Slavin, 1987).

Quality Instruction

Culturally responsive teaching thus challenges many basic assumptions about quality instruction. Many teachers believe that good teaching is independent of culture, and that what works for one group of students should work for all students in all classrooms. Educators may also believe that incorporating multicultural perspectives into the curriculum is a distraction from core material, or that the occasional use of explicit cultural materials suffices. Similarly, teachers may view the suppression of students' cultural heritages as a key means to help them assimilate into mainstream America. Yet advocates of culturally responsive teaching maintain that cultural awareness is central to effective teaching, that students learn better when material and instruction is made culturally relevant, and that biculturalism and bilingualism are not only possible, but highly desirable as well.

Quality Teacher Education

Ultimately, quality teacher education is crucial in producing culturally responsive teachers. Preparing teachers for diverse classrooms has typically involved one or two classes in multicultural education. While such courses are a start, they tend to be ad hoc and are problematic in a two primary ways (Villegas & Lucas, 2002). First, such classes are often offered within a broader teacher training curriculum devoid of multicultural perspectives. Second, classes in multicultural education are often optional, meaning that many teachers complete their programs without ever having had these classes. Villegas and Lucas (2002) argue for a coherent approach to educating culturally responsive teachers, through a curriculum which integrates these perspectives throughout the curriculum - not just in teacher education courses, but in arts and sciences classes and through ethnographic field experiences as well.


Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning is a pedagogical strategy that many teachers have found to be effective in teaching minority students. Cooperative learning, which emphasizes group decision making and collaboration, contrasts with the typical American classroom, in which competition and individual success are expected and rewarded.

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