The Benefits of Culturally Responsive Teaching

Written by Jonathan Moody

What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

As diversity increases across the United States, American classrooms are more likely to be filled with students from various backgrounds. Unfortunately, some previous teaching approaches have not been effective in helping all students—especially those from minority ethnic groups—achieve their educational goals and have led to a demonstrable achievement gap. To address this disparity, teachers and school districts have adopted methods informed by culturally responsive teaching.

Put simply, culturally responsive teaching is a guideline for creating a more inclusive classroom to contribute to the educational success of all students. Culturally responsive teaching focuses on incorporating students from marginalized populations into the education system by valuing, understanding, and building on the unique backgrounds these students bring to the classroom.

This strategy aims to bring all students, their families, and communities into the education process for better educational outcomes. Culturally responsive teaching is not a zero-sum game that tries to deny educational opportunities to majority populations; it provides guidance for educators to understand each student's unique perspective and needs. This article will explore the origin, the methodologies, and the benefits of introducing culturally responsive teaching strategies into the classroom.

The Development of Culturally Responsive Teaching

As a quick background, the term culturally responsive teaching dates back to the 1990s and was coined by a researcher named Gloria Ladson-Billings. Ladson-Billings was exploring educational narratives of the time that arbitrarily portrayed Black students as having traits that made them unable to succeed in education. After a period of research with multiple educators, Ladson-Billings assembled a framework to address educational disparities and more effectively incorporate students of diverse backgrounds in the classroom.

Since then, especially with the growing diversity of American classrooms, educators and researchers have explored ways to adapt classrooms and lessons to be more culturally responsive. The practice has flourished, and according to a 2019 study by New America, all states have some culturally responsive teaching strategies in their classrooms. However, this incorporation is not universal, with some states explicitly rejecting or minimizing curricula with content related to culturally responsive teaching.

Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies

For a more specific look at culturally responsive teaching, this section will focus on teaching strategies that create a more culturally responsive classroom. These include establishing context-driven learning, uplifting the backgrounds and experiences of students, incorporating culturally responsive resources, examining personal biases, creating a respectful environment, and giving attention to language differences.

The following culturally responsive teaching strategies may not apply to all classrooms and students in the same way. Students vary from classroom to classroom, and teachers must decide on the best plan for their individual classes. Schools should also use these strategies collaboratively; they are intended to build an open and supportive classroom for teachers, students, and families. The following techniques can provide a foundation for adapting lessons and curricula to meet the needs of diverse student populations.

Encourage Context-Driven Learning

The first strategy is to encourage context-driven lessons. This means exploring a lesson's cultural and historical background instead of taking information at face value. History lessons, for example, are often presented in an overly simplified way that uncritically accepts a given narrative of past events.

Context-driven learning would encourage a more critical approach to exploring past events and our perceptions of them. Educators could introduce historiography and how different groups gain and interpret information over time. A context-driven lesson could also take a deep dive into a historical event or document by examining the influences and biases to give students a broader understanding of the past.

Context-driven learning can extend beyond history lessons too. Science courses could include the history and philosophy of particular ideas, and civics courses could examine the circumstances that led to certain beliefs and values.

Uplift Students' Backgrounds and Experiences

Another strategy to create a culturally responsive classroom is to uplift the backgrounds and experiences of students in the class. This method starts with an understanding that students' specific backgrounds come with them into the classroom and are not something to be erased or ignored. By learning about individual students and their families and histories, a teacher can mold a lesson to be more relevant and engaging.

For example, an instructor for world literature has a vast canon of texts they can add to the curriculum. But, if most works come from one region, students may get the impression that other parts of the world—where their families may also be from—are not important enough to merit a place on the syllabus. Instead, a teacher could incorporate a wide variety of literature or even pick material based on students' backgrounds, interests, or gaps in knowledge.

Incorporate Culturally Responsive Resources

The third strategy for culturally responsive teaching is to incorporate culturally responsive resources. Depending on the class and subject, teachers have various resources at their disposal. Thus, like the previous step, employing culturally responsive resources will require knowledge of one's school, community, and students.

One example could be using stories with LGBTQ+ characters. The narrative may or may not revolve around the character and their identity, but the representation will show students who identify as LGBTQ+ that they are not alone, and it may spark meaningful conversations in the classroom. For students who do not identify as LGBTQ+, inclusive literature can cultivate empathy and acceptance toward their peers.

Resources do not need to identify a specific cultural group or identity, either. Classroom resources—including books, assignments, or pictures around the class—can reflect the world's diversity and include students from marginalized communities, creating a powerful learning experience for everyone.

Examine Biases and Assumptions

The following strategy is one of the most essential for culturally responsive teaching. This is examining personal biases and assumptions. Our beliefs may guide how we speak or behave when we engage with others. In the classroom, teachers' preconceptions toward particular groups of students can impair their education and progress.

The very reason culturally responsive teaching began was because of the adverse effects of discrimination. In short, teachers who believed that students from minority ethnic groups were somehow naturally lacking in intellectual capacity would neglect these students in class or not hold them to the same standards as their peers. Excluded students were distanced from the educational process and could not adequately prepare for a rigorous academic and professional future.

Not every teacher holds these specific views, but individual biases toward culture, age, race, gender, or even sociability in class can cause students to feel detached from the educational process. This brings up the relationship between culturally responsive teaching and the brain. When students feel isolated from a classroom or subject, they may begin to internalize prejudices from their peers. On the other hand, a classroom environment that seeks to include all students will help them associate a more positive experience with academics and academic achievement.

Cultivate a Respectful Environment

Another helpful strategy for creating a culturally responsive classroom is establishing a respectful environment. Classrooms around the US are becoming increasingly diverse, meaning teachers and students may frequently interact with people from unfamiliar cultures and backgrounds. Creating an environment founded on respect can go a long way in incorporating all students into the class and fostering understanding. For instance, many students are curious to learn about their friends and classmates, so teachers have the opportunity to create an environment where questions, answers, and learning can be done in a way to foster respect.

Two things to avoid are othering and tokenizing. Othering can occur when students are made to feel that their culture or identity is somehow a deviation from the societal norm. Assuming that all families and cultures should adhere to a specific set of values and behaviors makes students who do not adhere to this largely artificial norm feel disconnected.

Tokenizing, on the other hand, is denying the individual agency of students. Saying that everyone in a specific group adheres to a particular set of characteristics does not allow for individuality or for people to choose the aspects of their culture they would like to diverge from or embrace.

Incorporate Language Differences in Learning

The final strategy is to incorporate and understand language differences in the classroom. Many teachers will work with students with varying English language skills and comprehension levels. English as a Second Language (ESL) students often have separate language instruction to help integrate them into regular classes. Still, regular classroom teachers can be mindful of language differences to help incorporate all students into the learning process.

For example, suppose a teacher relies heavily on cultural references or uses a lot of culturally-dependent slang or metaphors. In that case, students who do not have the same cultural understanding may feel lost and isolated in class. To avoid this feeling, teachers can speak in a way that all students will understand and take the time to describe or elaborate on cultural references. Teachers can also coordinate with ESL teachers to better adapt and prepare students who are building language skills for regular classroom instruction.

The Benefits of Creating a Culturally Responsive Classroom

Creating a culturally responsive classroom, aside from incorporating all students into the educational process more broadly, can have specific benefits. This next section will explore how culturally responsive teaching can combat systemic discrimination, open the door to lifelong learning, help close the achievement gap, empower students, and meet student needs appropriately. Each of these areas helps students address issues they might face during the education process and in society. Ideally, beginning students off on a culturally responsive track will help them tackle these problems in the future and create a more inclusive world.

The benefits of culturally responsive teaching are not just idealistic but have had positive results in academic studies. In one study published by SAGE Open, students said their education was more effective, inclusive, and authentic with the culturally responsive teaching method. Thus, there is a strong indication that culturally responsive teaching positively impacts student wellness and achievement.

Combatting Systemic Discrimination

The first advantage of creating a culturally responsive classroom is to help combat systemic discrimination. It is a historical fact that voting rights for all adults took many years to become law. Discriminatory practices, both institutional and informal, have prevented people of color from accumulating wealth and fully participating in society. Misguided assumptions linking an individual's appearance, identity, or background to their intelligence have informed—and still do inform—the worldviews of some. These have all had demonstrably negative effects on the ability of minority ethnic groups to benefit from the education system.

Additionally, the Pew Research Center found that approximately 79% of public school teachers in the US are white, despite the continuously increasing diversity among educators and students. This diversity gap may create unintentional biases and negatively impact students of color. The advantage of a culturally responsive approach in this area is that teachers can set a standard for inclusiveness that can help build the foundation for students to grow and help do away with persistent ideas and practices behind systemic discrimination.

Opening the Door for Lifelong Learning

The next benefit of culturally responsive teaching is to prepare students for learning and working with diverse groups of people in the future. Having students understand and respect cultural differences at an early age will help build skills they can carry later in life when they confront situations where they must work with and incorporate diversity in their own lives.

For instance, students who understand at an early age to respect different cultures and not assign static characteristics to individuals will have the opportunity to appreciate the uniqueness of others and respect their agency to interact with their background as they choose. Similarly, teachers who model working effectively with diverse groups of people—and do not assign static or unfair traits to students from different backgrounds—may encourage their students to do the same, thus preparing them for future academic success.

Closing the Achievement Gap

Building on the previous category, culturally responsive teaching can help close the achievement gap between students from different backgrounds. According to data collected by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), there is a significant and persistent gap in academic performance between Black or Hispanic students and their white peers. The implication of these statistics is evident; people of color are not having their needs met by the education system.

Creating culturally responsive classrooms can help by addressing some reasons for this disparity. Students who feel isolated, unable to participate, or discriminated against will not have the same academic involvement and achievement level as students who do not feel constrained. Culturally responsive teaching can open up classrooms to all students and help adapt lessons to enable marginalized students to improve their academic achievement levels and close the achievement gap.

Empowering Students

The next benefit of culturally responsive teaching is that students can feel empowered in the education process. As stated before, students have a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences. Building on and including this diversity can create a classroom that fosters educational success for all.

For example, avoiding ideas about a singular cultural norm will allow students from different backgrounds to feel their individual experiences offer a valid contribution to the course material. By feeling included in the class, these students will be more encouraged to engage fully with the class. They will have more freedom to develop social skills and confidence and to tackle future academic challenges.

Meeting Student Needs Appropriately

The final benefit of a culturally responsive classroom is that educators can appropriately meet student needs. There are various ways this can occur, but one example is with ESL students, who must keep up with the course material and learn the language it's taught in. Culturally responsive teachers and peers can help give ESL students the support and encouragement they need by ensuring their ESL curriculum works in tandem with classroom material and creating an environment where both teachers and students know to use language that everyone can understand.

Teachers are not omnipotent and, despite preparation, may encounter an issue or discrimination that hinders students' success. A culturally responsive approach is open to change based on the needs of the students. Thus an open and accepting classroom will give students and families the confidence to speak with the teacher about issues in class. Teachers can then modify course material or incorporate new methods to meet the needs of students who feel distanced or unable to succeed.

Culturally Responsive Teaching vs. Non-Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally Responsive Teaching Non-Culturally Responsive Teaching
Course curriculum A culturally responsive approach will create a diverse set of lesson plans that reflect the students' backgrounds and the diversity they will encounter in the future. Ignoring diversity and keeping lessons that may adhere to a specific narrative will isolate students. Marginalized students may be hesitant to participate and build skills for the future.
Diversity in the classroom The culturally responsive approach is to be aware of the students in class and the diversity they represent. The teacher can then be ready to adapt and change lessons to show value for student backgrounds. Disrespecting diversity may contribute to ideas of the standard or dominant culture. Students may feel like outsiders if they don't relate to this cultural ''norms'' and are less likely to be absorbed in their class lessons.
Bias Teachers and students who can identify or be prepared to confront narrow-mindedness can adapt and change to prevent the bias's adverse effects and set a standard where students will recognize prejudice in the future. Overlooking biases may lead to unequal scoring and treatment of students from different backgrounds and will continue to perpetuate inequitable educational and societal outcomes.
Language Culturally responsive classrooms can help foster an environment where language can include instead of exclude. Whether new language learners or students are approaching cultural differences, open and respectful language can help create an environment built on respect and understanding that fosters growth for all. Relying on culturally dependent speech or behaviors may cause friction in the classroom. A teacher may not intentionally seek to cause issues in the class, but not paying attention to the need for responsive language can cause some students to feel like they are not part of the learning process.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is culturally responsive teaching important?

    Culturally responsive teaching is important because this practice provides methodologies to better incorporate students from diverse backgrounds into class. Many classrooms have a diversity of students and teachers who can include all students in the education process can better enable future academic success.

  • What is culturally responsive teaching?

    Culturally responsive teaching is a set of methodologies designed to value and uplift the diverse set of backgrounds students come from. These practices also encouraging confronting biases that may hinder the education of certain groups of students.

  • What does it mean to be culturally responsive in the classroom?

    A culturally responsive classroom both incorporates the diversity of the students in the class and exposes them to the broader diversity of humanity. Classrooms encouraging cultural responsiveness also bring in and value the diverse backgrounds represented in school and society.