The Other CRT: Culturally Appropriate Teaching
A recent article in EdWeekwhich covers K-12 schools, draws on a nationally representative survey of district leaders, principals and teachers to identify “teaching strategies that educators say will survive the pandemic”.
The results won’t come as a shock, but they’re still worth our attention. After all, what happens in K-12 invariably ends up in colleges and universities.
Most of the predictions will come as no surprise to you:
- Increased use of technology to monitor and track student progress
- Better integration of technology in teaching
- More students assigned to clusters or cohorts
- No more flipped learning
- More distance learning
- More online resources
- Better training and support for teachers to cover controversial topics in a developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant way
- More mental health support and healthcare services
- More tutoring and academic support
But one thing stands out: this teaching will become more culturally sensitive.
A third of districts said they are already doing a lot to make teaching culturally appropriate. 44% said they were taking “some” action and 18% said they were doing “a little”. Only 6% said they did nothing at all.
Culturally appropriate teaching can, of course, mean many things.
Common definitions include:
It’s no surprise that culturally responsive teaching, a term introduced two decades ago by Gloria Ladson-Billings, the distinguished former Kellner family professor of urban education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison , sparked controversy. After all, the explicit goals stated in many state guides are to reinforce students’ racial and ethnic identity and to support “students’ critical awareness or ability to recognize and critique social inequalities.”
In many cases, the actual advice offered in K-12 teacher training materials is fairly innocuous. For example, display world maps that highlight students’ home countries, or display signs or banners that can greet students in the different languages they speak. Display books that promote the themes of diversity, tolerance and community. Use problem-, project-, and place-based learning strategies that allow students to “hear stories that are similar to their own and learn more about stories that relate to their experiences.”
But in other cases, the recommendations are very loaded. Illinois recently approved a rule requiring state teacher education programs to adopt “culturally responsive teaching and leadership” standards by 2025.
As the Chicago Grandstand noted that under the state’s proposed rules, students pursuing a teaching degree will need to receive training on “systems of oppression” and “power and privilege.” Students will also be expected to “evaluate how their biases and perceptions affect their teaching practice and how they access tools to mitigate their own behavior (racism, sexism, homophobia, unearned privilege, Eurocentrism, etc.)”. In addition, teachers would be encouraged to fight “oppressive conditions” inside and outside their schools.
New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, has in turn championed culturally responsive education, arguing that “a multitude of studies favorably link racial and ethnic pride and belonging to one’s academic engagement, interest in learning and even better grades, “that “a stronger racial identity can even cushion the effects of racial discrimination and the threat of stereotypes” and “that confusion, ambivalence and anxiety about their racial identity can undermine students’ engagement and, in turn, derail their academic performance.”
What does all this have to do with higher education? Is culturally appropriate teaching likely to impact our curriculum, pedagogy, instructional content, or assessment strategies beyond what schools are already doing?
I think the answer is a mixed yes.
But, you might answer, aren’t colleges and universities already trying to make their student populations more representative of society as a whole? Aren’t these schools making their course offerings and classrooms more inclusive and their reading lists more diverse? Aren’t these institutions implementing new graduation requirements that take into account race, ethnicity, gender and, sometimes, class? Don’t many of our institutions require applicants for faculty positions to submit a diversity statement?
What more could we do? A recent volume Culturally Sensitive Teaching and Reflection in Higher Educationedited by Sharlene Voogd Cochrane, Meenakshi Chhabra, Marjorie A. Jones, and Deborah Sprag, and a recent article, “Evidence-Based Practices for Culturally Responsive Medical Education,” by Tracey Weiler and Erica Caton, offers some possible answers.
Weiler and Caton stress the importance of designing a course with greater intentionality and responsiveness to your students’ learning and emotional needs and an acknowledgment of their longer-term experiences, perspectives, and goals.
How should you do this?
- Make sure your learning objectives are SMART, meaning specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and targeted to specific learning objectives.
- Discuss the purpose and objectives of each activity, assignment and assessment before undertaking them.
- Assess and monitor student understanding, such as asking them to explain and apply difficult concepts or asking them to explain their thought process when solving problems.
- Vary your assessments and be sure to include some that students will find authentic and meaningful.
- Build rubrics, preferably in partnership with your students, and explain how you use these rubrics to assess their work.
- Provide timely feedback and be sure to recognize effort and progress.
Excellent advice, in my opinion.
Cochrane, Chhabra, Jones and Sprag and the contributors to their volume take a somewhat different approach. They urge instructors to treat their students not just as recipients of knowledge or as learners of skills, but as complex individuals with a wide range of hopes, fears, and aspirations.
For example, more than a few first-generation students feel like outsiders or impostors and wonder if going to college will sever their connection to their family or community, betray their upbringing, or devalue parts of themselves. Other students may be confused by conflicts between what they learned outside of college and what they learn in your classroom. Don’t allow such concerns to be ignored or unexamined.
Remember: you are not just a teacher-scholar or subject matter expert. Be prepared to share the challenges and obstacles you have encountered. Remember that learning depends on the state of mind. In many cases, psychology and emotions can be a barrier to student success. In today’s extraordinarily diverse classrooms, a successful teacher must address the affective as well as the cognitive.
In a previous blog post, I offered a defense of cultural literacy that I believe needs to be modified somewhat in response to ideas put forward by proponents of culturally relevant teaching. I never thought of cultural literacy simply as a matter of memorizing and regurgitating a long list of time-worn references, but rather as a struggle with certain shared artistic, cultural, intellectual and religious traditions. One way to do this is to add a word to the term and call it “critical cultural literacy” – an idea first put forward by leading literacy scholar Harvey Graff.
By “critical” I don’t mean censoring or condemning or criticizing, but analytical. But I also want to use this word in its Frankfurt School sense – as an instrument of emancipation, as a means of freeing ourselves from the “constraints of blind, unrecognized history” and the thoughtless acceptance of prejudice. , preconceived ideas and received prejudices.
The true value of culturally relevant teaching should not be to reinforce or repudiate pre-existing identities, but to subject those identities, and indeed all ideas, to critical examination.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.