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Every Learner Everywhere
Achieving the Dream

Curricula that Account for All Students: A Look at Culturally Responsive Teaching in Higher Ed

Students of color and low-income students in college are often presented with curricula designed for majority white students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. Culturally responsive teaching attempts to be more inclusive by viewing the cultural knowledge of students as an asset and then scaffolding that knowledge to the concepts being taught.

Getting below the surface

“When education isn’t relevant, it’s hard to grab on to,” says Ruanda Garth-McCullough, Ph.D., Associate Director of Teaching and Learning at Achieving the Dream. “Culturally responsive teaching charges educators to make what they’re teaching relevant to the students.”

Culturally responsive teaching is more than engaging students with pop culture references, of course, but doing so “is just good teaching,” says Garth-McCullough. “You should know who the students are that you’re serving. You should analyze your curriculum to see if what you’re teaching reflects who you’re teaching. Whose voices are you privileging?”

As a starting point, Garth-McCullough suggests instructors analyze the readings and assignments on the syllabus and analyze the gender, class, and race of the authors, then ask whose voices are being privileged. What implicit statements is the syllabus making about what cultural knowledge is valued, or is “correct”?

Garth-McCullough says a good outline of this subject is Zaretta Hammond’s 2014 book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Though primarily about K-12 education and cognitive development, the three “levels” of culturally responsive teaching that Hammond describes provides a useful framework for college and university faculty:

  • Surface — observable and concrete elements of culture, such as food and music
  • Shallow — cultural norms and attitudes, communication styles, nonverbal cues
  • Deep — tacit cultural knowledge, worldview, guiding ethics

Each of these levels of culture informs how students learn. For example, at a surface level, students will connect differently to the voices and examples that appear in the curriculum.

Meanwhile, culturally responsive teaching working at a deep level understands that students from different cultures will respond differently to competitive work environments or to projects that emphasize individual effort versus collective knowledge.

Instructors who want to truly engage students need to be aware of how all students experience the curriculum, course policies, and classroom dynamics, says Garth-McCullough: “Too often we give students the message to check all your cultural information at the door —  your beliefs, your ways of being — so we can transform you in this ‘academic’ way.”

But when students of color are essentially asked to start from scratch in the classroom, it only exacerbates the disparities that already exist in the educational system.

Oftentimes, before making sure diverse voices are represented, instructors first need to ensure texts and other course materials aren’t actively hostile toward students of color. For example, the State University of New York surveyed a criminal justice course to find the main textbook almost exclusively showed images of Black and Brown males as the criminals. They used a grant from Achieving the Dream (ATD) to create a new open-access text that didn’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes and that was more representative of U.S. crime statistics.

Culturally responsive teaching across the institution

Reaching students from different cultural backgrounds is a skill faculty are hungry for, notes Garth-McCullough, citing the popularity of the culturally responsive teaching track at ATD’s most recent Teaching and Learning Summit. ATD also offers equity webinars online and workshops at community college campuses.

A lot of this is necessarily individual work, with faculty identifying their own role in how they shut out some student experiences. However, when culturally responsive teaching is left as an individual preference, it’s hard to get institution-wide traction.

“I think where most institutions struggle is in making faculty development in this area optional,” says Garth-McCullough. She points to several colleges that are making culturally responsive teaching an institutional priority:

“We lose ground when training is optional,” says Garth-McCullough. “I would love to see a time when this is as important as training on how to log in to Blackboard.”

Reaching students, wherever they are

This work can make people feel vulnerable, especially when they aren’t used to talking about race or inequities. The key is to focus on centering the student’s needs and identifying the shortfalls of the existing curriculum rather than putting the blame on students for not being “college ready.”

Writing for the Faculty Focus blog, Gwen Bass, Ph.D., and Michael Lawrence-Riddell emphasize that culturally responsive teaching has a lot in common with inclusive course design. Both concepts are about “making space for all learners” by “providing multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement.”

While the culturally responsive classroom is a journey rather than something that will happen over the course of a single semester, Garth-McCullough recommends starting by making the invitation to students of color intentional and explicit. “They need to know that their cultural knowledge is welcomed, seen as an asset, and valued in this academic space.”

By centering student cultural knowledge as part of a university’s strategic plan and investing in faculty training, institutions can begin to make progress.

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