Culturally Responsive Teaching

What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) is not merely an educational strategy; it is a profound commitment to respond to each learner with a view of wholeness, ability, and care. This teaching philosophy, which has also evolved into Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy, is deeply rooted in the work of scholars such as Zaretta Hammond, Bettina Love, Goldie Muhammad, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Mary Stone Hanley. It calls for a radical relearning and reimagining of how education can be delivered to meet the diverse needs of learners.

Defining Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally responsive teaching is a pedagogical approach that emphasizes teaching through cultural contexts: it is the knowledge of how the brain is wired to learn through various cultural settings. It includes understanding how the brain takes in information and stores it for later retrieval. Culturally responsive teaching involves the creative design of a teacher's methodology to respond to their set of learners. Designing culturally responsive methodology requires working knowledge of four core concepts: Social and Historical Power Dynamics, Historical and Contemporary Social Narratives, Complex Lineage and Epistemology, and Embodiment of Knowledge and Wisdom. 

At its core, education often relies on traditional methods and ideas that may be outdated and come from a narrow philosophical perspective. Traditionally, teaching has followed a one-way approach based on specific beliefs and ideas from a dominant culture. This dominant culture has typically prioritized the experiences and needs of white individuals, even though most people in the world are not white. As teachers, we must adopt a more holistic and inclusive approach to teaching and learning to serve all students better. Culturally responsive teaching frameworks provide a more holistic approach that prioritizes our classrooms' diverse range of students and how they acquire and retain knowledge.

The Foundations of Culturally Responsive Teaching

Zaretta Hammond, in her seminal work "Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain," illuminates the neuroscience behind effective learning. Hammond argues that a student's cultural context is crucial for cognitive development and engagement. She emphasizes culture's role as a learning vehicle, suggesting that teachers must become culturally responsive to "ignite" students' brains in ways deeply rooted in their lived experiences (Hammond, 2015). This approach encourages educators to see cultural diversity not as a barrier to overcome but as a rich resource to be tapped into for enhancing student learning.

Bettina Love takes this concept further in her advocacy for an "Abolitionist Teaching" model. Love's work calls for educators to recognize and dismantle the systemic barriers that inhibit the educational success of marginalized students. She urges teachers to adopt a pedagogy of resistance that fights against injustices and cultivates a sense of agency in students (Love, 2019). Love's perspective is vital in understanding that culturally responsive teaching is about adapting to students' cultural needs and actively working to change the oppressive structures that affect their lives.

Goldie Muhammad builds on this foundation by highlighting the importance of a historically responsive literacy framework that connects students with their cultural and historical identities. Muhammad advocates for a pedagogy prioritizing students' intellectual growth, identity development, criticality, and joy. By doing so, she underscores the necessity of recognizing and nurturing the inherent strengths and talents of each student, grounding education in a context that is meaningful and affirming to them (Muhammad, 2020).

Gloria Ladson-Billings' "Culturally Relevant Pedagogy" concept emphasizes that effective teaching must be student-centered, intellectually challenging, and socially relevant. Ladson-Billings argues that educators must maintain high expectations for all students while deeply committing to their cultural affirmation. This pedagogy involves teachers acting as facilitators who help students make connections between their cultural background and the curriculum, thereby fostering a learning environment that is both uplifting and transformative (Ladson-Billings, 1995).

Finally, Mary Stone Hanley and others advocate for a transformative approach to arts education that integrates cultural responsiveness into the creative process. Hanley suggests that the arts provide a unique avenue for exploring and expressing cultural identities, advocating for social justice, and engaging in critical reflection. By incorporating culturally responsive arts education, teachers can offer students opportunities to explore complex issues through creative expression, thus fostering a deeper understanding of themselves and their world (Hanley et al., 2009).

The Activation of Equity in Education

Culturally Responsive Teaching is the activation of Equity in Education. It expands the circle of human concern, positioning itself as a frame for belonging that orients teacher practice from a broader perspective of how humans learn best: through their culture and the arts. Equity in education refers to ensuring that every student has access to the resources, opportunities, and educational support they need to succeed, regardless of their background, identity, or socioeconomic status. In synthesizing the contributions of the aforementioned scholars , it becomes evident that Culturally Responsive Teaching is a holistic approach that goes beyond the mere inclusion of diverse cultural contexts.

How Culturally Responsive Teaching Works

"The brain will encode new learnings through our emotional response to the learning. 'What we retain depends on our emotional response to an experience, how novel it is, where and when the event occurred, and our level of attention and motivation during the event, and we process these thoughts and feelings while asleep'" (Scientific American, "The Brain Learns in Unexpected Ways," 1 Mar. 2020).

Students' academic and social-emotional development accelerates when learning is centered in approaches that spark emotional responses. These responses vary depending on the cultural context in which we live. Methodologies that spark emotionally resonant responses, not merely through the intellect but through the whole body system, are found in and through the visual and performing arts. This includes media arts, gaming, music, etc. See the list below.

But building a culturally responsive classroom is more work than it may appear. It means having a studied lens on power analysis of social dynamics (found in the design of dynamic systems between individual and collective people). It also requires a nuanced understanding of the narratives that build or generate these systems (and their designs, including our interactions within their designs) with the ability to assess exclusionary and divisive narratives. Inherent in narrative work is the desire to change them into ones that create belonging and reckon with failed ideas of humanity.

A culturally responsive approach tends to the knowledge that each learner has a set or series of lineages that compose how they perceive and engage in the world. Knowledge of lineage shows up when we make choices regarding a student's well-being, design our lessons and units of instruction, and curate the learning landscape. For example, suppose one has a new group of students from Syria. In that case, one would need to understand the context of their lineages and the narratives they have experienced and lived through to navigate better and curate learning that will be responsive to their social-emotional needs and support their learning in a new environment. It would serve to know that a Syrian child has likely experienced trauma from a civil war. It is essential to know that gesture and movement are central in Syrian culture as a way to communicate. Knowing that speaking loudly is also a cultural norm would serve one. Rather than enforcing acculturation, creating experiences that use gesture and movement in teaching and learning and adjusting one's comfort around noise in the classroom may support the learning modalities of the new set of children. Expanding our abilities to center norms and needs rather than enforce and regulate someone's cultural orientation serves us all at the end of the day.

Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Arts

The arts profoundly open the channels to acquire and encode new information. When a child learns about a math equation through a story, it builds an emotional response (interest, curiosity, fascination) that connects the learner to the idea. The brain perceives the new information as relevant and helpful and stores it for later retrieval.

Ten Powerful Ways the Human Brain Learns Best

  1. Storytelling: Storytelling is the number one way humans across cultural contexts learn. Stories connect us and broaden our ability to understand the world in nuanced ways. The brain loves to follow a good structure. Consider your favorite book, movie, or streaming series. Consider how much you love the storyline. Stories make learning engaging and memorable.

  2. Visual Learning: Our brains are wired to process visual information rapidly. Vibrant imagery, intricate diagrams, and evocative videos can transform abstract ideas into tangible understanding. The visual arts support learners challenged by mere didactic methods of learning.

  3. Kinesthetic Learning: Learning by doing is essential to embody knowledge fully. Engage students in hands-on activities like creating art pieces representing their learning journey or participating in movement-based exercises highlighting historical events.

  4. Auditory Learning: The rhythm and melody of spoken words can profoundly influence our learning experience. Incorporate rich discussions, thought-provoking podcasts, and immersive audio recordings to bring subjects to life. Think of a classroom where students listen to and analyze diverse voices and perspectives on a topic.

  5. Social Learning: Collaboration and community are central to meaningful learning. Encourage group projects, peer feedback sessions, and collective problem-solving activities. Social learning, where the Core Four are practiced in real time, leads to outcomes of belonging.

  6. Experiential Learning: Real-world experiences can solidify abstract concepts. Integrate field trips, role-playing, and simulations that allow students to immerse themselves in different contexts. Imagine students stepping into the shoes of historical figures or scientists in a recreated lab environment.

  7. Problem-Based Learning: Tackling real-world problems fosters critical thinking and creativity. Present students with authentic challenges and guide them in developing innovative solutions. Picture a classroom buzzing with ideas as students design community projects to address local issues.

  8. Repetition and Practice: The brain must revisit a concept within 48 hours to ensure it "sticks." Create opportunities for students to revisit and refine their skills through continuous practice. The visual and performing arts naturally include practice repetition. Reviewing new concepts is critical for learners to encode new information. Try a game, a puzzle, flashcards, metaphors, poetry, and gestures to support retaining new information.

  9. Teaching Others: Teaching is a powerful way to solidify one's knowledge. Encourage students to explain concepts to their peers or lead small group sessions. Imagine a learning environment where students take turns facilitating discussions on various topics.

  10. Reflective Learning: Reflection helps to internalize learning. Incorporate activities like journaling, creating reflective art, and self-assessment to deepen understanding. Picture students crafting reflective pieces that capture their personal growth and learning milestones.

The Role of Arts in Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) has the power to be a dynamic, creative, and transformative pedagogy that positions the arts at the heart of learning, where it can accelerate cognitive development, cultural affirmation, and equitable teaching practices. The arts become integral to a collective redesign of school practice in enhancing cognitive capacity, nurturing students' independent learning, and fostering collective wisdom. This model of education is deeply rooted in love, justice, and the belief in the transformative power of the arts to heal and bridge cultural divides.

Educators who understand how culture shapes perception and learning are better positioned to design relevant and challenging instructional strategies. By doing so, they can facilitate the growth of critical and creative thinking skills, nurture social-emotional development, and prepare students to navigate the complexities of a multicultural world.

The desired outcomes of culturally responsive teaching—developing critical and creative thinkers who are emotionally intelligent and culturally competent—is the goal. The arts, therefore, are not just a tool for engagement but a foundational element for building the holistic, responsive learning environments that today's students deserve.

The Future of Culturally Responsive Teaching

The movement toward culturally responsive teaching, as championed by Studio Pathways and leading educational scholars, underscores the indispensable role of the arts in education. By embracing the arts as a central pillar of CRT, educators can be liberatory facilitators of their student's growth, facilitating not just academic excellence but a deeper, more meaningful understanding of the diverse world they inhabit. In this light, the arts emerge not just as a subject to be taught but as a vital force for cultural understanding, critical thinking, and social-emotional development. Through this lens, the future of education looks bright, vibrant, inclusive, and infinitely creative.

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The Culturally Responsive and Creative Teacher!

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