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Culturally responsive instruction: Best practices and supports

Culturally responsive instruction

By Cora Goldston
September 19, 2017

This is the second article in a three-part blog series. In this series, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest takes an up-close look at cultural competency in education. This topic is important to the Midwest Achievement Gap Research Alliance’s (MAGRA’s) efforts to increase understanding and use of research to close stark and persistent academic achievement gaps—particularly the gap between Black and White students.

What is culturally responsive instruction and why does it matter for students? Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings defined culturally responsive instruction as “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes” in her book The Dreamkeepers (1994). Research suggests that culturally responsive instruction allows educators to address social barriers that cause disparities in student achievement; by tailoring instruction to be mindful of these barriers, educators can help students overcome obstacles and succeed (Rodriguez, Jones, Pang, & Park, 2004). Responsive classrooms also mitigate the effects of negative cultural stereotypes on student performance (Cohen & Garcia, 2008).

In the classroom, teachers can take several steps to encourage success for all students. Research indicates the following practices support students of all cultures (Krasnoff, 2016 [628 KB PDF icon ]; Trumbull & Pacheco, 2005):

  • Acknowledging the contributions of all students. Students of certain cultural backgrounds may be accustomed to having their questions or input dismissed. Each response is an opportunity for teachers to build deeper understanding.
  • Connecting the classroom to the real world. Students are more likely to engage if they are interested in the material and can relate to it. Teachers can incorporate more familiar touchstones into lesson plans and ask students to reflect on the connections between their schoolwork and their everyday lives.
  • Using consistent body language with all students. Teachers unconsciously exhibit more favorable body language towards students that remind them of themselves. For students who have felt marginalized because of their cultural backgrounds, positive nonverbal communication can have an important effect on engagement.
  • Having students work together in diverse groups. Collaborative activities can promote equality among peers, encourage students to participate, and open up opportunities for learning.
  • Welcoming student feedback throughout the year. Although teachers try to be vigilant, it can be difficult to know if you are meeting each student’s needs. Opening the lines of communication directly with students can provide vital information to better support students.

Cultural responsiveness doesn’t just happen in the classroom. By building connections with families, both teachers and administrators can learn more about the cultural contexts that students are bringing to their classrooms (Trumbull & Pacheco, 2005; Bertani et. al, 2010 [1.87 MB PDF icon ]). This context can be used to tailor instruction and reach a mutual teacher-student understanding of classroom norms (Bertani et. al, 2010 [1.87 MB PDF icon ]). Collaboration between school staff is also crucial to supporting all students. For example, teachers can better address a student’s behavioral needs by connecting with colleagues, conducting a well-rounded behavior analysis, and creating a plan to proactively respond (Bertani et al., 2010 [1.87 MB PDF icon ]).

Support for Midwestern educators: The Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center

States and districts need a variety of supports to provide students of all cultural backgrounds with equitable opportunities. The Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center (MAP Center) offers resources on culturally responsive education for PK-12 administrators at the district and state levels. The MAP Center is one of four regional Equity Assistance Centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education. In addition to REL Midwest’s seven states, the MAP Center serves Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. That’s more than 7,000 public school districts and almost 12 million public school students.

Dr. Seena Skelton Picture
  Dr. Seena Skelton

Dr. Seena Skelton, Director of Operations for the MAP Center, says that cultural competency is often misunderstood. She notes, “‘Culturally responsive’ and ‘culturally sustaining’ practices are terms that people tend to throw around, but when you ask people what they do, you sometimes get crickets. They aren’t quite sure.” While some research discusses cultural responsiveness as an independent topic, it is often embedded in overall instructional best practices. Research indicates that students thrive in the classrooms of teachers who have high expectations for students from all cultural backgrounds, use a variety of resources, promote positive social and academic development, and collaborate with colleagues and parents (Krasnoff, 2016 [628 KB PDF icon ]).

To support culturally responsive education efforts, the MAP Center offers a variety of resources, including free online tools, professional learning events, and individual partnerships with states and districts to address more comprehensive needs. Dr. Skelton explains, “The technical assistance varies from school system to school system, and it’s designed to be responsive to each system’s needs.” Tailoring assistance to the state or district is a crucial piece of the MAP Center’s work; the MAP Center sees school systems as equal partners in the work. Hear more about the MAP Center’s relationship with its partners.
(transcript below)

This year, one of the MAP Center’s professional learning events will focus on school improvement initiatives that go beyond “closing the achievement gap.” As Dr. Skelton notes, current conversation around improving academic achievement can put undue responsibility on students, when there are several factors that affect a student’s academic success. Hear Dr. Skelton describe shifting conversations around academic achievement.
(transcript below)

“One of the byproducts of the discourse in education around achievement gaps, and even the way achievement data is depicted, is that it puts the onus on students—students are not performing,” Dr. Skelton says.

In reality, other critical points in the educational system have a profound effect on students.

“We’re examining barriers, whether they are produced and replicated because of policies we have in place, because of ways in which teachers are practicing and making instructional decisions, or because of the way our classrooms, schools, districts, and SEAs are structured,” Dr. Skelton says.

Across the region, the MAP Center is seeing changes at the state, district, and educator levels.

Dr. Skelton notes, “Some of the impact that we’re seeing is a shift in educator knowledge, awareness, and understanding of issues of inequity—what does systemic inequity look like?”

And she says administrators in the region are taking a hard look at school structures that might disproportionately affect some students: “We’re seeing some policy changes among our partners to more equitable policies about how curriculum decisions are being made and how discipline and behavior management are occurring.”

To learn more about the MAP Center, visit the center’s website. You can also find a list of curated resources from the Center below.

MAP Center library resources related to cultural competency

  • Equity By Design Briefs: Briefs that provide strategies to implement research evidence on cultural competency and equity into educational practice.
  • Becoming Culturally Responsive Educators: Rethinking Teacher Education Pedagogy (National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems): A rationale for culturally responsive teacher education pedagogy, with guidelines for its use.
  • Cultural Competence Assessment Tools (New York State Center of Excellence for Cultural Competence): Tools to help organizations and providers evaluate their cultural competence.
  • Culturally Responsive Classroom Management Strategies [156 KB PDF icon ] (Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, New York University): The merits of cultural responsiveness in management of diverse classrooms, with guidelines on how teachers can become more culturally responsive.

Stay tuned for one more blog post in the Bringing Cultural Awareness to the Classroom series, on Minnesota’s American Indian students.

Transcript of first audio clip from Dr. Seena Skelton: We frame the way we approach technical assistance in a very specific way. We value and understand that our partners bring to bear expertise, experience, and information about their systems that we don’t necessarily have. We could never really know their system as well as they know their own system, and we value what they bring to the table, in terms of their understanding of their own system. So we do not position ourselves as “external experts” who come in and fix or correct what’s wrong in a system. Rather, we position ourselves as collaborative partners. We bring to bear specific expertise related to educational equity, related to culturally responsive practices, related to issues of civil rights.

Transcript of second audio clip from Dr. Seena Skelton: Where we are seeing some impact is from conceptualizing the gap as “students are not performing” to really conceptualizing the gap as the system is not performing in a way that enables all students to access robust learning opportunities, which are needed in order to have positive outcomes for all students. So it’s a systems issue as opposed to an issue with the students.

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Author(s) Information

Cora Goldston Staff Picture

Cora Goldston

Communications Associate | REL Midwest


Beating the odds (2)

Charter Schools (2)

College and Career Readiness (42)

Data Use (32)

Discipline (4)

Early Childhood (31)

Educator Effectiveness (36)

English Learners (10)

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Math (1)

Online Courses (7)

Research Tools (2)

Rural (14)

Teacher Preparation (24)

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