Every Learner Everywhere

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy That Sparks Genius in College and University Students

Culturally responsive pedagogy is an important part of centering equity in higher education by treating the experiences and perspectives of every student as an asset rather than as a deficit.

While culturally responsive pedagogy is crucial to nurturing student well-being and achievement, many people misunderstand what it is and how to enact it in the classroom, be it online, blended, or face to face.

Fostering a climate of inclusivity in education for Black, Latino, Indigenous, poverty-affected, and first-generation learners is often oversimplified and reduced to a “literature, foods and festivals” approach, says Dr. Kristal Moore Clemons, director of CDF Freedom Schools. Her career has focused on advancing racial and gender equity in digital learning through her work in K-12 education, higher education, and nonprofit management, and recently she became one of the consultants in the Every Learner Everywhere Expert Network.

Drawing from scholars like Gloria Ladson-Billings, author of The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, and Geneva Gay, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, Clemons defines culturally responsive pedagogy as “including students’ cultural experiences in all aspects of the learning.”

Clemons acknowledges this might feel challenging for some educators who aren’t sure where to start. “I think some people have trouble with culturally responsive pedagogy because it’s not a checklist you do every day in your class,” she says. “Rather, it’s different ways you can connect with your students on a day-to-day basis.”

This includes seemingly basic steps like asking a student how to correctly pronounce their name or playing an icebreaker game to ensure students are centered and feel safe and comfortable learning.

Shift the deficit mindset

Broadly speaking, Clemons advocates bringing a positive perspective of students and their communities into the classroom. Sometimes educators have preconceived notions about students, like that they’re going to be on their phones throughout the class or disengaged and inattentive. Even those teachers who lead with an open-minded approach may find their positive attitude dissipates over time.

She is sympathetic to how easy it is to become jaded: “You start with these great visions. ‘Everybody’s going to be here on time and fully engaged.’ But then it chips away at you, year by year, and you get disappointed.”

When this happens, Clemons urges instructors and administrators to recognize the challenges are not about you, but related to the social and political structure in which students live. Shift the deficit mindset by insisting on positive boundaries.

“A lot of times we don’t speak our goals and ideals to our students,” she says. “Even though I might think to myself, ‘Oh, these folks are going to play games,’ I say out loud, “I expect everyone to be here. I look forward to seeing you on Zoom at 8:49. Because I know you want to be on time for our 9:00 a.m. class. Communicate high expectations and teach to their potential.”

Engage in reciprocal learning

Clemons recommends that instructors shift attention from the routine demands of the job to understand how what you’re teaching meshes with your students’ lived experiences. For example, she takes a few minutes before starting class to connect with students on a personal level through current events.

“News and pop culture may be different for me and for a 20-year-old,” she says. “Not only does it give them an opportunity to be the content expert at that moment, but it also lets me know how they’re feeling about what’s going on in the world.”

The beauty of culturally responsive teaching is that it’s not a one-way street. Clemons refers to the point by revolutionary pedagogical theorist Paulo Freire that the teacher can become the student at any point in the learning process, and the student can become the teacher. The instructor is the content expert, but students are the experts in their lived experiences. Unless faculty ask, they have no idea how the content is being received by students.

A willingness to be vulnerable is all it takes, according to Clemons. This does not mean you don’t set boundaries or have expectations, but it does mean allowing space for students to express their opinions and share their understanding of your subject matter.

Clemons explains, “A lot of times in research, they say we’re giving students a voice. But now the trend is amplifying students’ voices.”

By allowing learners to become the content expert at times, you convey a core tenet of culturally responsive pedagogy — that your college classroom is not a dictatorship but a reciprocal learning exchange.

Spark the genius

To center equity in higher education, Clemons urges colleagues to think through the ethics of care.

“We know you’re the best content expert out there,” she says. “But take a step back and think about how you can instill that same love for your content into your students. Because they’re not going to get it if they don’t feel that excitement.”

The goal, she adds, is to “spark the genius” of students, a call to action she first heard in a conference presentation from Karsonya Wise Whitehead and La Vonne Neal, and building off Whitehead’s book on that theme. We chose to be in higher education, Clemons explains, and it’s our responsibility to make sure students are excited about learning. Culturally responsive pedagogy is a critical part of that.

In examining curricula that account for all students, Dr. Ruanda Garth-McCullough suggests instructors can find a helpful framework in Zaretta Hammond’s 2014 book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. At the deepest level of culturally relevant pedagogy, tacit knowledge can provide guiding ethics and an expansive worldview.

Teachers can train themselves to pay attention to cues and not take anything for granted. This includes something as simple as how you set up a classroom. Are you inviting students to engage on an equal plane, or is there an unconscious hierarchy at play?

Clemons says, “Whenever I walk into a classroom and the desks are in a row, I put them in a circle. I only lecture from the front when I’m going through my slides. But then once I finish, I sit back in the circle with the students.”

Maintain the gain

During and, hopefully, after the pandemic, it may be tempting to focus on what learners have lost. But defaulting to a perspective that sees students as behind creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Clemons recommends focusing instead on what students gain during the challenges they face and exploring how they can extend those gains.

For example, distance learning isn’t easy, and the digital divide is a serious problem, but not every student has experienced the challenge in the same way. “For some, there’s a lot of anxiety around coming to campus when you know that you’re not accepted,” Clemons says. “For them, when you’re online, the fear that other students will make you feel ‘less than’ is alleviated, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Finding commonality where it exists and appreciating and understanding differences is at the core of culturally responsive pedagogy. This student-centric paradigm opens the doors to opportunity and empowers the teacher as a facilitator and arbiter of a more equitable, inclusive experience.