Teaching for Equity: Introduction to Culturally Responsive Teaching

Thursday, January 28, 2021

A Message from Wendi Dew, Assistant Vice President, Teaching and Learning; Isis Artze-Vega, Vice President, Academic Affairs; Sally Leslie, Campus Director, Faculty and Instructional Development; and Claudine Bentham, Faculty Director, Teaching and Learning Academy 

The College has taken important steps in our equity efforts since the last edition of “Teaching for Equity.” Among them, our District Board of Trustees approved Impact Plan goals and metrics, each reflecting our commitment to equity; and several equity-focused work teams have begun meeting, including groups focused on our Black male students, our employee experiences, leadership for equity and equity-minded practices in pedagogy and curriculum. Meanwhile, the Teaching and Learning team has developed new courses in the equity-minded practice series, including Antiracist Language and  Linguistic Justice and Creating an Inclusive Syllabus.

This communication contributes to our collective development toward equity-mindedness by introducing a construct and set of practices known as culturally responsive teaching (CRT), one well aligned with our diverse student population and ambitious equity goals. After defining and briefly describing the origins of CRT, we offer a glimpse of what it looks like in practice and share a few key resources.

What are the origins of CRT, and how does it work?

American pedagogical theorist and educator Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced the concept of culturally relevant teaching in the early 1990s. While studying effective teachers of African American students, she noted that many students’ experiences and cultures had been excluded from their schooling and identified three goals on which the effective teachers’ practices were grounded: students’ academic success, the positive development of their racial/ethnic identities, and their ability to name and critique societal inequities. She saw that culturally relevant practitioners were empowering students both intellectually and psychosocially.

Since then, a deep field of research has developed around CRT in both the K-12 and higher education sectors, including important work by Geneva Gay, Sonia Nieto, Zaretta Hammond, Margery Ginsberg and Raymond Wlodkowski.

One widely used definition of culturally responsive teaching is Gay’s (2000) pedagogy-focused version: “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them.” Scholars offer varied descriptions of how CRT “works,” how it leads to more equitable outcomes for students. Two of the strongest rationales relate CRT to student motivation and cognitive science: Ginsberg and Wlodkowski developed a culturally responsive framework focused on motivational conditions, given the central role motivation plays in learning and their conviction that motivation is inseparable from culture. Meanwhile, Hammond’s text “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” (available as an e-book in our libraries) and her Ready for Rigor Framework exemplify a cognition-based approach. By helping instructors “understand the brain-based principles that govern culturally responsive teaching,” she writes, we can stimulate “students’ cognitive development and grow self-directed learners” (p. 6).

One specific example of a culturally responsive principle rooted in cognitive science is that our brains are wired for connection; we learn and store information more effectively when we are engaged. That connection and engagement can be enhanced by acknowledging what students bring into the classroom every day, including their culture, language, and life experiences.

An Asset-based Mindset

Culturally responsive teaching practices convey that we value all students and recognize that their varied backgrounds and life experiences are an asset to their learning. CRT moves us away from approaching instruction with a deficit mindset — a focus on what we perceive a student cannot do or cannot manage. When we are culturally responsive, we identify students’ assets and use them to create rigorous, learning-centered environments — an explicitly asset-based approach.

Where to Start with Culturally Responsive Teaching

CRT is not a single strategy, lesson, activity, or assignment. Instead, it is a nuanced, purposeful approach that can be laced into every aspect of our teaching. We can think of CRT as a lens through which we can more clearly see our students. Here are two ways to begin infusing cultural responsiveness into your teaching:

  1. Heed Zaretta Hammond’s advice and start with relationship-building, as “relationships in the form of learning partnerships are the starting point of becoming culturally responsive as an educator;”
  2. Given the centrality of relevance to CRT, help students develop a positive attitude toward your course goals and content by asking them to craft personal goals in relation to a course lesson/module/assignment. Click on Exhibit 1 and Exhibit 2 to expand the images and review additional strategies for each of the four areas of the motivational framework.

As part of our Equity-minded Practice Series, we will offer a course on CRT this term, so please stay tuned for the timing of this offering. In this course, we will unpack CRT, self-reflect on being a CRT practitioner, engage with resources to use in our learning environment, and apply cultural responsiveness when engaging with others.

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