A Guide to Culturally-Responsive Teaching and Learning

Multi-ethnic students discussing in classroom
Stígur Már Karlsson /Heimsmyndir / Getty Images

Culture is often mediated through curriculum. American schools have historically acted as sites of acculturation where dominant social and cultural norms are transmitted through exclusionary curricula. Now, as globalization rapidly transforms U.S. demographics, even the least diverse regions of the country face unprecedented cultural diversity in classrooms. Yet, the majority of school teachers are white, English-speaking and middle class, and do not share or understand the cultural or linguistic backgrounds of their students. Schools are pressed more than ever to account for the myriad ways in which culture shapes teaching and learning. Ideas about how we think, speak, and behave is primarily defined by the racial, religious, national, ethnic, or social groups to which we belong, long before we enter a classroom.

What Is Culturally-Responsive Teaching and Learning?

Culturally responsive teaching and learning is a comprehensive pedagogy predicated on the notion that culture directly impacts teaching and learning and plays an essential role in the way we communicate and receive information. Culture also shapes how we think and process knowledge as individuals and in groups. This pedagogical approach demands that schools acknowledge and adapt to differentiated learning and teaching based on multicultural norms, including the respectful integration of students’ cultural backgrounds and references that veer from the dominant culture.

Beyond heritage months and cultural pageantry, this pedagogy promotes a multi-faceted curricular approach to teaching and learning that challenges the cultural status quo, strives toward equity and justice, and respects students’ histories, cultures, traditions, beliefs, and values as fundamental sources and conduits of knowledge.

7 Characteristics of Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning

According to Brown University’s Education Alliance, there are seven main culturally-responsive teaching and learning characteristics:

  1. Positive perspectives on parents and families: Parents and families are a child’s first teachers. We first learn how to learn at home through the cultural norms set by our families. In culturally-responsive classrooms, teachers and families are partners in teaching and learning and work together to bridge cultural gaps to transmit knowledge in multidirectional ways. Teachers who take a vested interest in the languages and cultural backgrounds of their students and actively communicate with families about the learning that happens at home see increased student engagement in the classroom.
  2. Communication of high expectations: Teachers often carry their own implicit racial, religious, cultural, or class-based biases into the classroom. By actively checking these biases, they can then set and communicate a culture of high expectations for all students, modeling equity, access and respect for difference in their classrooms. This may include opportunities for students to set their own goals and milestones on a learning project, or asking students to collectively produce a rubric or set of expectations designed by the group. The idea here is to ensure that invisible biases don’t translate into oppressive or preferential treatment in the classroom.
  1. Learning within the context of culture: Culture determines how we teach and learn, informing learning styles and methods of instruction. Some students prefer cooperative learning styles while others thrive through self-directed learning. Teachers who learn about and respect their students’ cultural backgrounds can then adapt their teaching methods to reflect learning style preferences. Asking students and families how they prefer to learn according to their cultural backgrounds is a great place to start. For example, some students come from strong oral storytelling traditions while others come traditions of learning through doing.
  2. Student-centered instruction: Learning is a highly social, collaborative process where knowledge and culture are produced not only in the classroom but through engagement with families, communities, and religious and social spaces outside the classroom. Teachers who promote inquiry-based learning invite students to pitch their own projects and follow personal interests, including selecting books and films to explore on their own terms. Students who speak multiple languages may prefer to design a project that allows them to express themselves in their first language.
  1. Culturally mediated instruction: Culture informs our perspectives, viewpoints, opinions, and even a set of feelings on a subject. Teachers can encourage active perspective-taking in the classroom, accounting for multiple viewpoints on a given subject, and drawing on the multiple ways in which the subject is approached according to a given culture. Shifting from a monocultural to multicultural perspective requires all learners and the teacher to consider the many ways in which a subject may be understood or challenged and upholds the notion that there is more than one way to respond to and think about the world. When teachers actively pay attention to and call on all students, they create equitable environments where all voices are valued and heard. Collaborative, dialogue-driven learning gives students the space to co-produce knowledge that recognizes the multiple perspectives and experiences of any given classroom.
  2. Reshaping the curriculum: Any given curriculum is the collective expression of what we value and find important in terms of learning and teaching. A culturally-responsive school must actively review its curricula, policies, and practices that collectively send a message of inclusion or exclusion to its students and extended community. Curricula that holds a mirror up to a student’s identity strengthens those bonds between the student, school and community. Inclusive, integrated, collaborative, socially-engaged learning builds concentric circles of community emanating from the classroom to the wider world, strengthening connections along the way. This includes paying careful attention to the primary and secondary sources selected, vocabulary and media used, and cultural references made that ensure inclusivity, awareness, and respect for cultures. 
  1. Teacher as facilitator: To avoid teaching to one's own cultural norms or preferences, a teacher can do more than instruct or impart knowledge. By taking on the role of mentor, facilitator, connector or guide, a teacher who works with students to build bridges between home and school cultures create the conditions for genuine respect for cultural exchange and understanding. Students learn that cultural differences are strengths that broaden a classroom’s collective knowledge of the world and each other. Classrooms become culture labs where knowledge is both produced and challenged through dialogue, inquiry, and debate.

Creating Classroom Cultures That Reflect Our World

As our world becomes more global and connected, relating to and respecting cultural differences has become essential for the 21st century. Each classroom has its own culture where teachers and students collaboratively create its norms. A culturally-responsive classroom goes beyond surface cultural celebrations and pageantry that simply pays lip service to multiculturalism. Rather, classrooms that acknowledge, celebrate, and promote the power of cultural differences prepare students to thrive in an increasingly multicultural world where justice and equity matters.

For further reading

Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein is a poet, writer, and educator from Chicago, IL (USA) who currently splits her time in East Africa. Her essays on arts, culture, and education appear in Teaching Artist Journal, Art in the Public Interest, Teachers & Writers Magazine, Teaching Tolerance, The Equity Collective, AramcoWorld, Selamta, The Forward, among others. Follow her @travelfarnow or visit her website.