Culturally Responsive Teaching: How Not to Miss the Point

Culturally Responsive Teaching: How Not to Miss the Point

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Culturally Responsive Teaching has been a buzzword in education for several years now. As a result, many teachers make an effort to include cultural artifacts from diverse groups in their classrooms in the form of flags, colorful posters, costuming, foods, and music.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating the cultures of your diverse students, but sometimes this is all the farther teachers get.  They miss the most critical aim of Culturally Responsive Teaching:  raising diverse learners up to the same level of academic rigor and independence as other students.

To that end, CRT is not a one-and-done proposition; neither is it a one-size-fits-all set of strategies.  Effective CRT takes a fair degree of skill, creativity, effort, and perseverance: to correctly diagnose gaps and design strategies to ameliorate them for each individual child, to support learners as they practice new skills to independence, to ensure that diverse learners are being intellectually challenged and authentically engaged, to build a culture of inclusion and achievement in the face of hostility, defeatist thinking, or avoidance due to past failures, to keep at it every day until every child is successful.

At CRT’s core must be the belief that all children can learn and that all children want to learn.  There is a long-standing tendency among some educators to lay the blame for low achievement at a number of other doors:  lack of family support, a culture just ‘too different’ to fully assimilate as learners,  the effects of poverty.  Sometimes the door is vague — it’s just “those kids.”  Focusing on deficits — what the child is lacking — can blind educators to the abilities the students do have.  It also tends to be complacent about the status quo, which leaves kids exactly where they started.  Effective CRT has to look with clear eyes at attitudes, systems, and practices within education and in society as a whole that make success for diverse learners more difficult to attain.  It  also needs to look inward: the individual educator must be unflinchingly honest about his or her own biases and assumptions. This means only that all people have biases of one kind or another.  To be effective at delivering CRT requires a certain level of reflection and a willingness to alter behaviors, practices, systems and structures to help students feel more included and to propel them toward more complex thinking and learning.

Inclusion is critical.  Not the touchy-feely, kum-ba-ya type of inclusion, but the kind that affirms every child’s right to be in the classroom, encourages every child toward success, reminds each of them how they have been successful, and guarantees them a learning partnership with the teacher. Sometimes CRT is well-intentioned but begins and ends with activities that are really only surface-level in nature.   The end-game here is achievement.  All the aspects of CRT must focus on one overriding purpose:  student academic success.  Not that kids feel included, but that a culture of inclusion makes academic success more attainable. Students who feel safe are more willing to take risks and learn better than those who don’t.

This is hard work, and may not even be all that rewarding in the very short-term. But it is also vital that teachers be educated and equipped to stand in the gap for these children and bring them to where their peers are.  It is especially important that this work begin as early as possible — Pre-K or Kindergarten — because the gaps are easier to bridge when they are smaller.  The long-term benefits to learners are seen in measurable improvement of academic skills, greater independence as thinkers,  and more confidence as learners.

CMSi offers several trainings to equip districts and teachers to improve student achievement.  Cognitively Challenging Instruction builds on Vygotsky’s idea of the Zone of Proximal Development to help teachers design and implement lessons which are authentically engaging and cognitively rigorous for all students, including diverse learners who are traditionally given some of the lowest-level assignments.  Ell/Dual Language: Effective Strategies for Success helps teachers understand how to engage and include these learners as they are building English skills. Curriculum Design and Development is foundational to student success: if districts don’t specify what to teach, they can’t control what occurs in the classroom or ensure that students are adequately prepared for external assessments.  Written curriculum documents are the roadmap for reaching achievement goals.  Contact us to find out more about scheduling these trainings.

This post was heavily informed by the work of Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.  Our next post is going to discuss how the brain can short-circuit learning and how CRT can reestablish those circuits so that learning can occur.

Culturally Responsive Teaching: How the Brain Can Hijack Learning
Vygotsky vs. Piaget: A Paradigm Shift

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