2 – The Importance of Culturally Responsive Teaching

Kim Guillet

Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) is a term that refers to pedagogy that embraces equality and inclusion. It is based on the understanding that all students learn differently due to a variety of factors including: social-emotional needs, language, culture, and family background. Culture is used as a foundation for learning while expanding intellectual growth in all students. Educators who display a CRT mindset can help build productive, positive relationships with families, engage and motivate students, and value different perspectives in order to create strong communities of learners who will grow linguistically, socially, and academically.

Hammond (2015) has created a Ready for Rigor Framework which describes the four practice areas of Culturally Responsive Teaching: Awareness, Learning Partnerships, Information Processing, and Community Building. Based on brain research, each of these areas help to create authentic and relevant learning in our schools and assist students in becoming independent. The priority is to maximize their learning potential and close the achievement gap for culturally and linguistically diverse students.

The first practice area is Awareness of three different topics: the nature of culture, acknowledging various constructs that may lead to bias, and understanding structural racialization. Awareness will help teachers “develop a socio-political consciousness, an understanding that we live in a racialized society that gives unearned privilege to some while others experience unearned disadvantage because of race, gender, class or language” (Hammond, p.18). Culture is not only our ethnicity but it is also our every day practices, and the groups with whom we identify. Helmer and Eddy (2012) stress that we are all the products of a variety of influences and “there is not one aspect of human life that is not touched and altered by culture” (Edward T. Hall, p.90). These principles guide our behavior and our interactions. The culture iceberg analogy developed by Else Hamayan (Helmer and Eddy, p. 89) is a concrete example of how much of what we view as culture is only a small fraction compared to what is hidden under the surface. Most view the tip of the iceberg: literature, dance, and art, as the main aspects of culture, but such examples as handling emotions and the nature of friendships are embedded deep within us and seldom discussed or explored. Hammond (2015) argues that culture “is the way that every brain makes sense of the world and helps us function in our environment” (p.23) and contends there are three levels: surface, shallow, and deep. Surface culture is like the tip of the iceberg including observable elements like food, music, and holidays. Shallow culture, or the water line of the iceberg, deals with interactions, norms, and trust. Deep culture, like the bottom of the iceberg model, is made up of our unconscious cultural values that shape our self- concept and the way we live.

Teachers must have an understanding of cultural differences to successfully immerse EAL learners into their classrooms. Helmer and Eddy (2012) believe that by raising this awareness teachers will become more empathetic and understand where potential communication and cultural breakdowns may occur. Many of these conflicts can arise due to differences in educational and belief systems. Different perceptions of creativity, managing time, use of their first language, emphasis on homework, and promoting choices in school are some key aspects where some conflicts may occur. Some cultures don’t “share knowledge” in the same way, so class participation may look different, as well as how students exhibit motivation. In addition, different instructional strategies may pose a challenge for students. For some, cooperative learning, and partner or group work will not be consistent with the strategies in their previous schooling and may not seem natural at first. As well, many countries prioritize fact based learning so problem solving will need to be explicitly taught, not assumed. Discussing the students’ previous school experiences may aid in understanding for both teachers and students alike, and limit miscommunications before they occur. Acknowledging some of the differences newcomers might face when moving into the educational system in an English speaking country is another integral part of assisting our students to navigate successfully between two languages and cultures.

As well, Helmer and Eddy (2012) identify five different constructs that may cause misunderstandings: Assertiveness–Compliance, Dominance–Submission, Disclosure–Privacy, Direct–Indirect Communication, and Flexible Time–Time as a Commodity. In the first construct, how people exhibit the motivation to help themselves is considered. In North American culture, students are encouraged to assert their individualism in comparison with other cultures where people do not eagerly express their opinions. The second encompasses power dimensions related to gender, which may correlate to participation, attendance, and effort in female students. In addition, this can affect student-teacher relationships, as well as teacher-family relationships. We must be aware that some topics are off limits to discuss in many cultures and offense may be taken if families are expected to share private or taboo information. Direct and indirect styles can lead to communication breakdowns between students, student to teacher, and family to teacher. Lastly, in most English speaking countries, time is considered a commodity that should not be wasted. Efficiency is incredibly important and seen as a necessity. In some cultures, time is seen as more flexible and the pace of living is much slower and relaxed.

By understanding levels of culture and the differences that may contribute to bias and breakdown, teachers are exhibiting their socio-cultural consciousness (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013). Part of this socio-cultural consciousness is acknowledging how these attitudes and stereotypes may be an implicit bias that shapes our thinking and interactions with others. Unfortunately, our society maintains some factors for some groups that perpetuate discrepancies in resources and opportunities, such as housing and health care. This inequity and structural racialization may contribute to dependent learners who are vulnerable and at risk in our schools. Understanding this will help us to better support the social-emotional needs of our students and aid us in strengthening their intellectual capacity (Hammond, 2015).

The second practice area involves building Learning Partnerships with students and families. Experts in differentiation and brain research, Sousa and Tomlinson (2011) stress the importance of social relationships on human behaviour. They urge teachers to be empathetic and willing to see the world through the eyes of their students and their parents. This cultivates a mutual respect and builds strong relationships that will set the stage for warm, learner-friendly environments. The teacher must be the leader in this. “We need to consider the issue of affect, that is, how the students feel about the learning process. Students need to feel that the teacher really cares about them; if students feel supported and valued, they are far more likely to be motivated to learn” (Harmer, 2007, p. 20). Therefore, educators need to make it a priority to build positive relationships by connecting to the lives of their students, finding out their interests, and listening to their experiences.

Teachers must see the “whole child”, and not just their English language abilities. Celebrating what makes students special and unique emphasizes student strengths and values their competencies (Sousa and Tomlinson, 2011). Students gain self-confidence and motivation if they are “truly seen.” Fostering principles of identity and investment (Brown and Lee, 2015) illustrate how their emotions and self-worth are connected to their learning. In addition, knowing their educational history and their background gives a teacher a more complete picture of who they are. It is this deep knowledge of students, and a desire to make a difference, characteristics of a culturally responsive educator’s mindset (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013), that promote respect and collaboration with students and families.

The third area of CRT is Information Processing and how the brain uses culture to help interpret the world around us. Hammond (2015) references six core principles or “brain rules” that work together to keep our brains healthy and learning. The first two are integral to being part of a caring school environment: the brain seeks to minimize threats and maximize connections with others, and positive relationships keep our safety detection system in check. The relationship between one’s sense of well-being and feelings of belonging to a social community cannot be underestimated. In addition, how we process information is guided by culture. Many cultures have strong oral traditions where knowledge is passed down through the generations. This helps to build neural pathways, which means that learning will be enhanced using stories, music, and repetition, as well as social interaction. Next, attention drives learning. Each brain is ignited by novelty, relevance, and emotion so active engagement is necessary. All new information “must be coupled with existing funds of knowledge to help make sense of the world” (Hammond, p.49) and is organized based on cultural experiences. Building on students’ background knowledge, and engaging students in meaningful tasks, is critical to learning and retaining information.  This requires input, making meaning, and application of this new knowledge. Lastly, the brain stretches and changes through challenges. Intellectual capacity grows when students are stimulated and pushed beyond their comfort zone to do higher order thinking.

The fourth practice area for CRT is Community Building. Learning environments must be built as a safe space where all languages and cultures are valued; we have the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that each student is allowed to share who they are without bias or prejudice. Brown and Lee’s (2015) principle of languaculture stresses the connection between language and culture and how the two cannot be separated. As educators, we need to be committed to honoring this, helping students feel proud of who they are, and how their unique backgrounds and talents enrich our schools.

A student’s individuality is also very much connected to a first language.  “Learning to think, feel, act, and communicate in an L2 is a complex socio-affective process of perceiving yourself as an integral part of a social community. The process involves self-awareness, investment, agency, and a determination, amidst a host of power issues, to form your own identity within the social relationships of a community” (Brown and Lee, p. 78). Coelho (2012) urges schools to incorporate languages to “draw on the linguistic resources of the community” as a component of identity, pride and self-esteem as well as a resource to families, as a tool for learning, and as a resource to the whole community. If English is emphasized as the only language of learning, educators have the potential to produce inequitable learning experiences (Sterzuk & Nelson, 2016).

Research studies about bilingualism illustrate the positive effects on students. Educators must “directly address the dual language and literacy needs of immigrant children, welcome all languages into the classroom, and provide enriching language and literacy experiences for all children” (Chumak-Horbatsch, p.46). Teachers are the bridge that can help strengthen this by providing inclusive practices which continue to strengthen the home- school connection. Parents should be invited into classrooms as partners in their child’s learning journey. Some learning opportunities for families include reading dual language books, sharing about their countries, adding their mother tongue to class bulletin boards, and helping their children with research and vocabulary connections in their first language.

Moreover, there should be a balance among viewpoints and perspectives. Students should see themselves in the curriculum, as the teacher utilizes appropriate materials that are non-biased and from different cultural contexts. “It is necessary to change what we teach, adding diverse cultural perspectives and encouraging students to recognize and speak out against prejudice and discrimination” (Coelho, p.166). We must be reflective and collaborative in our practice, continuing to think deeply about how we choose what is learned, what literature is selected from a variety of cultures and viewpoints, and methods that will be effective for the needs of our students.

Another important aspect of the learner environment is the need to set high standards with all students, including those who are linguistically and culturally diverse. When students are able to reach self-motivated goals, have input in tasks with the opportunities for choice, this fosters agency. “Agency, which lies at the heart of language learning, is the ability of learners to make choices, take control, self-regulate, and thereby pursue their goals as individual within a sociocultural context. Teachers are called on to offer appropriate affective and pedagogical support in their students’ struggle for autonomy, development of identities, and journey toward empowerment” (Brown and Lee, 2015, p.84). Self-determination and high intellectual performance helps to build the risk-taking environment where language learning can occur.

Educators should “think of culturally responsive teaching as a mindset, a way of thinking about and organizing instruction to allow for great flexibility in teaching” (Hammond, p.5). As an EAL specialist, I see the relevance of culturally responsive teaching every day, and how it is the foundation of building a safe, and inclusive learning environment for all students. Understanding your own cultural lens helps you to relate to different perspectives and be more empathetic to families, many of whom are vulnerable and underserved. Each student must be treated with dignity and respect and ensuring fair and equitable opportunities needs to be the basis for all that we do. Culture, as a catalyst for learning, lends accessibility to and expanded possibilities for success with curriculum outcomes.  Building on strengths and student interests makes students feel capable and empowered. Culturally responsive teaching encompasses differentiated learning and ensures all students grow linguistically, socially, and academically



Brown, D.H., & Lee, H. (2015). Teaching by principles: An integrative approach to language pedagogy (4th ed.). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Chumak-Horbatsch, Roma. (2012). Linguistically appropriate practice: A guide for working with young immigrant children. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Coelho, E. (2012). Language and learning in multilingual classrooms: A practical approach. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching & the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. California: Corwin.

Harmer, J. (2007). Chapter One: Learners. In How to teach English. (2nd Edition). Essex, England: Pearson Education Ltd.

Helmer, S., & Eddy, C. (2012). Look at me when I talk to you: EAL learners in non-EAL classrooms. Toronto, ON: Pippin Publishing.

Ontario Ministry of Education Student Achievement Division. (2013). Culturally responsive Pedagogy. Monograph. K-12 capacity building series. Secretariat Special Edition #35 Retrieved from: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/cbs_responsivepedagogy.pdf

Sousa, D., & Tomlinson, C. (2011). Differentiation and the brain. Solution Tree Press.

Sterzuk, A., & Nelson, C. (2016). “Nobody told me they didn’t speak English!”: Teacher language views and student linguistic repertoires in Hutterite Colony schools in Canada. In Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 15(6) 376-388

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