Wednesday / May 29

Closing Learning Gaps through the Power of Culturally Responsive Teaching

EquityAt the beginning of this school year in September 2014, for the first time in our country’s history, the overall number of Latino, African-American, and Asian students in public K-12 classrooms surpassed the number of white students. The numbers are expected to continue to grow over the next decade.

In the midst of these shifting demographics, we face the challenge of getting all students, especially underserved and underperforming students of color, college and career ready—that means reading, writing, and thinking in analytical ways. It’s a challenge because chronic achievement gaps have left many low-performing diverse students dependent learners.

Culturally responsive teaching holds the greatest promise of closing students’ learning gaps by helping them rapidly build their brainpower or what many call intellectual capacity. More school districts and education organizations are calling for teachers to regularly use culturally responsive instruction in the classroom. It’s even showing up in teaching standards across the country. Yet, there’s often conflicting definitions, few guiding principles, and even less guidance on how to operationalize it in the classroom.

As part of my research when writing Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain I would ask teachers what they thought the term meant and more often than not they’d say it’s a way to get disengaged students of color motivated in the classroom by tying the lesson to Africa, Mexico, or by using hip-hop music. Teachers often look for a collection of so-called “best practices” for African American or Latino students.

In reality, cultural responsiveness is more of a process than a strategy. Its end game is more cognitive than affective. The process begins when a teacher recognizes the cultural capital and tools students of color bring to the classroom. She then responds positively by noticing, naming, and affirming when students use them in the service of learning. The teacher is “responsive” when she is able to mirror these cultural ways of learning in her instruction, using similar strategies and tools to scaffold learning.

The biggest challenge I see teachers struggle with when first embracing this approach is trying to operationalize it in their classrooms. They worry that they have to learn 19 different cultures – their customs, holidays, foods, and language. This simply isn’t true. Here are three easy starting points for teachers to help make culturally responsive teaching manageable in your classroom.

  1. Organize around the principles of collectivism

A key organizing principle of culturally responsive teaching is collectivism – a focus on group interdependence, harmony, and collaborative work. In the United States, the dominant culture is individualistic. We celebrate people who “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” We have a strong focus on competition and becoming the “top dog.” On the other hand, collectivism can be summed up in the African proverb, “I am because we are.” We recognize that individualism and collectivism exist on a continuum. Some cultures are individualistic with little or no collectivistic elements, while others might be primarily collectivistic with strong elements of individualism. Turns out that the culture of many African American, Latino, Pacific Islander, Native American, and Asian communities leans more toward collectivism, also called communalism.

I don’t want to stereotype cultures into an oversimplified frame, but instead want to offer the archetypes of collectivism and individualism as a way of understanding the general cultural orientation that connects diverse students in the classroom. Keep in mind that how collectivism is expressed across communities varies. What might be acceptable in one collectivist-oriented community might not be acceptable in another. What does stay the same is the focus on relationships and cooperative learning. It is simply a starting point for building on the shared culture of your students.

  1. Reframe teacher-student interactions, especially cross-cultural relationships with diverse students.

In a collectivist, community-based culture, relationships are the foundation of all social, political, and cognitive endeavors. In the culturally responsive classroom, we need a less authoritative relationship with students and more of a learning partnership that supports them to take ownership of their learning.

The learning partnership is made up of three components that work together to turn this unshakeable belief into reality. Think of it as an equation: rapport + alliance = cognitive insight.  Each part of the learning partnership is essential.

Each phase acts as a steppingstone to the next. You can’t ignore one and expect to develop the others.

First, building rapport focuses on establishing an authentic emotional connection with students that builds trust. Neuroscience tells us the brain feels safest and relaxed when we are connected to others we trust to treat us well. It responds to this connection by secreting oxytocin, called the bonding hormone. Oxytocin acts as “affective glue” that creates a unique student-teacher bond.

In the alliance phase, we use this emotional connection and trust to come together as a team of two to tackle a specific learning challenge. The student and teacher each agrees to bring their will and skill to the effort. Because there’s trust, the teacher can raise the bar and “push” the student into his zone of proximal development without having the student withdraw, become defensive, or disengage. It’s in this phase that we help students acquire the tools to grow an academic mindset and become independent learners. This alliance sets the stage for cognitive insight.

Cognitive insight is about making the invisible visible so the teacher is able to get a better understanding of the student’s thinking routines and learning moves. When diverse students feel unheard, unseen, and unaffirmed, they often go through the motions of “doing school” while hiding their cognitive capacity. When there’s rapport and alliance, the student allows himself to be vulnerable and reveal what is getting in the way of his learning. In the process, the student becomes more aware of his own learning moves and can begin directing his learning.

In this phase, both the teacher and student will gain a better sense of the student’s particular learning strengths, content misconceptions, and challenge areas. Too often, teachers try to figure out a student’s learning process based on test scores or other types of assessments, but these things don’t offer any real understanding of the student’s learning moves. Getting low performing learners to be open and vulnerable enough to show you their learning moves begins with deep trust.

  1. Integrate their cultural learning tools into your instructional repertoire.

One of the most important aspects of culturally responsive teaching is expanding low performing students’ ability to process information effectively through cognitive routines. The goal is to get students to turn inert information into useable knowledge. Train yourself to recognize the cultural learning tools students bring to school. Too often we miss them. For example, when diverse students come from oral traditions, the most common cultural tools for processing information utilize the brain’s memory systems – music, repetition, metaphor, recitation, physical manipulation of content, and story. Many popular instructional techniques like Marzano’s non-linguistic representations or graphic organizers that call for a “non-example” are based on this idea of engaging the brain’s natural tendencies to process new content actively.

There’s nothing magical or mysterious about culturally responsive teaching. We have to pull back the curtain and help teachers develop a better understanding of the principles and processes that undergird it. If we want to maximize its potential then we have to make it a priority for our individual and collective professional learning.

If you are interested in learning more making it manageable, get Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain or sign up for my 6-week virtual boot camp on culturally responsive teaching coming in late March 2015 at

Written by

Zaretta Hammond is a former classroom English teacher who has been doing instructional design, school coaching, and professional development around the issues of equity, literacy, and culturally responsive teaching for the past 18 years.  She teaches as a lecturer at St. Mary’s College’s Kalmanovitz School of in Moraga, California. She is the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain (2015). 

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