Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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6. The Classroom Mosaic - Culture and Learning

Session Content Outline

Key Questions
  • What role does culture play in learning?
  • How can teachers develop culturally responsive practices?

Learning Objectives
  • Multicultural education – Teachers will become familiar with some of the causes of inequality in education, as well as the sources of diversity in classrooms. They will understand the importance of multicultural education and the different forms multicultural education can take in schools.
  • Culturally responsive teaching – Teachers will reflect on and consider the relationship between culture and learning. Teachers will understand that culturally responsive teaching involves a genuine respect for students and belief in their potential as learners. Teachers will understand the importance of connecting to students' experiences and will explore how to create culturally responsive, caring environments.
  • Congruity between home and school – Teachers will consider the impact of school culture and home culture on students' learning. They will evaluate how to make the classroom a place where students feel comfortable, see themselves represented, and engage with curriculum materials that reflect their home cultures.

Session Outline
  • All of us make sense of the world through our different cultural experiences. Culture shapes how we communicate, what we do in our work and play, how we interact with one another, what customs we follow, and how we view the world.
  • The ways in which we learn cannot be separated from these cultural contexts. We all bring a set of cultural understandings, perspectives, and expectations to school with us.
  • Two questions are addressed in this session:
    • How does culture affect learning?
    • How can we make cultural knowledge a source of understanding in the classroom?

Culture, Inequality, and Schooling
  • As we move into the 21st century, the demographics of the United States continue to evolve rapidly, and schools reflect increases in students of color.
  • Too many schools in the United States do a poor job of educating low-income and minority students.
  • The reasons for these inequalities range from the policies that govern school funding, curriculum offerings, staffing, and tracking systems, to factors that depend much more on teachers' knowledge, skills, and expectations for their students.
  • Joel Spring (1997) suggests that the culture of schools can undermine the cultures of some students. He describes several ways in which schools can "deculturize" students. These include –
    1. segregation and isolation of minority students
    2. forced change of language
    3. a curriculum whose content and textbooks reflect only the culture of the dominant group
    4. a setting in which dominated groups are not allowed to express their culture, language, or customs
    5. the use of teachers exclusively from the dominant group.
  • Students develop a wide range of coping mechanisms in response to institutional pressures that send them signals that they do not belong.
  • "Multicultural education" represents an attempt to address all of the issues that influence achievement by considering the content of materials and the nature of instruction, in light of the specific needs, perspectives, and backgrounds of students.

Multicultural Education
  • Inequities in schooling can be addressed in part by taking into account the range of experiences, histories, and cultures that students bring to the classroom.
  • James Banks describes five ways scholars and teachers have thought about multicultural education, each of which reflects an aspect of educating for and about cultural diversity. They are –
    1. content integration
    2. knowledge construction
    3. prejudice reduction
    4. equity pedagogy
    5. empowerment of school culture
  • Some worry that a multicultural curriculum will divide rather than unite students. However, far from encouraging separatism, acknowledgement of diverse experiences helps teachers and students create new associations and understandings of one another.
  • Creating new understandings requires a conscious effort on the part of both teachers and students to understand and embrace diverse perspectives.
  • Multicultural education means more than simply incorporating diverse curriculum materials. "Curriculum and materials represent the content of multicultural education, but multicultural education is above all a process..."(Nieto, 2000, p. 315).

Culturally Responsive Teaching Practices

The following elements are central to culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1994):

  • respect for students and belief in their potential as learners
  • caring environments and personal connections with students and families
  • cultural congruity between home and school
  • active teaching and a wide range of authentic assessments that tap into students' learning

Respect for Students and Belief in Their Potential as Learners

Underlying all aspects of culturally responsive teaching is a classroom atmosphere that is respectful of all students and that holds high expectations of them as learners.

Caring Environments and Personal Connections
  • Research suggests that effective teachers form and maintain connections with their students within their social context. Such teachers do not shy away from issues of race and culture.
  • Culturally responsive classrooms are caring places where it is acceptable to take risks, and where the classroom is a "safe place," making school a haven from outside stresses.
  • Setting clear norms for respectful and caring behavior at the beginning of the year, as well as consistent routines that make the classroom a predictable, pleasant place, can communicate this feeling of safety.
  • Caring can be communicated by the time teachers dedicate to their students, their patience, how well they prepare for class, and the effort they put into making classes interesting.
  • The beginning of the year provides an ideal opportunity for teachers to get to know their students by asking them to describe their communities, what they like to do outside of school, what their school interests are, and how they feel about school itself.
  • A teacher may take into account what students bring to the classroom by individualizing reading lessons around the particular interests of a student, decorating classroom walls with students' favorite heroes, or basing writing assignments on community issues that the students care about.

Cultural Congruity Between Home and School
  • Cultural continuity between home and school is another element of culturally responsive teaching and equity pedagogy. This involves making the classroom a place where students feel comfortable, see themselves represented in the curriculum and classroom environment, and engage with materials that provide connections to their home and community experience.
  • Research provides many examples of culturally specific practices that have been found to make a positive difference for student achievement.
  • Cultural congruity does not just refer to being aware of differences in communication and interaction styles. Teachers can also work with the content of the curriculum itself to make it more congruent with students' home experiences.

Active Teaching and Authentic Assessment

Culturally responsive teachers tend to use an active, direct approach to teaching that includes –

  • demonstrating
  • modeling
  • explaining
  • giving feedback
  • reviewing
  • emphasizing higher order skills

Culturally responsive teachers tend to avoid –

  • excessive reliance on rote learning
  • drill and practice
  • punishment

One way to both make expectations clear and provide opportunities for diverse learning styles is through authentic assessment. Authentic tasks represent knowledge in ways that resemble real-world applications and allow students to integrate what they have learned. In addition, meaningful performances in real-world contexts provide opportunities for a diverse body of students to demonstrate the many strengths and intelligences they possess.


Dealing with diversity is one of the central challenges of 21st century education. It is impossible for teachers to succeed with all students without exploring how students' learning experiences are influenced by their home languages, cultures, and contexts; the realities of race and privilege in the United States; the ongoing manifestations of institutional racism within the educational system; and the many factors that shape students' opportunities to learn within individual classrooms.

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