Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: A Primer

Writer, activist, and EML contributor Melinda Anderson recently noted that, “This school year, for the first time, the majority of students in public schools are nonwhite. Yet the diversity of the student population isn’t reflected in the teachers standing in front of classrooms: Eight out of 10 public school teachers are white. Simple arithmetic reveals why white teachers stand to gain from enhancing their skills in addressing race, ethnicity and culture.” In this article, Maha Bali, Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, underscores how this is a global issue and offers a guide to “culturally relevant pedagogy.”

When I first read about the Culturally-Relevant Pedagogy approach, I felt it was something I should share with the world, in times where teachers face diverse student populations and where there are so many hot button issues related to race and culture. Isn’t it the role of education to prepare youth to better work together with this diversity and address the challenges it poses? And isn’t it the role of every educator, education leader, and educational institution to ensure students from diverse background have equal opportunity to succeed?

I think the first place to start is to recognize that each of us, individually, cannot possibly understand, not completely, the perspectives of culturally-different “others”. We also need to recognize that attempts to incorporate the perspectives of others into our teaching can end up being gimmicky and superficial if not done well.

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP) is important for teachers faced with students whose “cultural, ethnic, linguistic, racial, and social class backgrounds differ from their own” (Howard 2003 p. 195). The term and approach developed mainly (by Ladson-Billings, 1995; Gay, 2000; Howard, 2003) in response to multiracial classrooms involving students of low socioeconomic class. Instead of using a deficit approach to students and thinking of how to assimilate them into educational institutions’ (dominant) cultures, CRP promotes a “synergistic relationship between home/community and school culture” (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 467). CRP emphasizes the importance of student achievement, while also respecting and affirming diverse students’ cultural identities in critical ways that challenge social inequalities reproduced in schools (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 469).

When we look closely at practices at our classrooms and educational institutions, we need to ask whether we welcome ethnic diversity, or whether we encourage conformity to Eurocentric cultural norms. These are questions not only of the content we choose, but also the pedagogical processes, school policies, and hidden curriculum our students face.

CRP entails focusing on three dimensions (Howard, 2003):

  1. Teachers need to self-reflect on their own deficit-based thinking about students of different cultures, and to constantly question ways in which this hegemonic mode of thinking affects their teaching and attitudes towards students
  2. Teachers need to find ways to incorporate students’ use of their own cultures as an asset for their learning;
  3. Teachers need to recognize the dominance of European-American cultural modes of education, and diversify their own teaching practices to become more relevant to students’ needs.

Here are some practical tips for making the classroom and school more “culturally relevant”:

  • Include course materials authored by individuals from other cultures. Not only dead, famous ones, but also current ones. Consider the difference between reading Othello (written by Shakespeare) versus reading a novel written by an African or black author, not about people of color. Consider the proportion of such texts in your curriculum, and try not to have just one “token” diverse reading.
  • Involve other adults including teachers and parents from other cultures in your curriculum design. Solicit their feedback and perspectives on items that might alienate students of other cultures (recognize that you cannot know what these things will in advance).
  • Invite guest speakers from various cultures. Provide opportunities for diverse role models.
  • Create space throughout the school year (and not just during Cinco de Mayo and Martin Luther King Day) for students to bring their own cultures into the classroom, and not in exoticizing ways. Don’t just encourage students to bring food from home, but have in-depth discussions of the meanings and relevance of those foods for their families and their cultures. Infuse discussions of cultural difference (and similarity!) into as many topics of your courses as makes sense. This is easier for humanities and social sciences but is still possible for STEM (but that’s the subject of another article).
  • Constantly question how your own course material and pedagogy may privilege students of a certain culture/background over others, and reflect on this with other caring adults. If your students are old enough, invite them to question socially unjust educational practices and discuss ways of overcoming them.
  • Listen. Amplify diverse voices.

What do you do in your classrooms and schools to address cultural diversity in respectful ways?

References:

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education. 53(2), 106-116. Retrieved from: http://jte.sagepub.com

Howard, T. C. (2003). Culturally relevant pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher reflection. Theory into Practice. 42(3), 195-202.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Towards a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

 Image credits:  Kieran Lynam

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Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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