Hilary Dack and Carol Ann Tomlinson
These four steps can help teachers become more aware of the cultures within their classrooms so they can help all learners succeed.
A speech-language pathologist who was conducting research in an Inuit school in Canada asked the principal, who was not Inuit, to give her the names of students who had language or speech problems. She received a list that included one-third of the student body. The principal noted that a number of the students did not talk in class. When the non-Inuit speech-language pathologist questioned an Inuit teacher about the students’ performance in class, the teacher responded that well-raised Inuit children learn by looking and listening, and thus they do not talk in class.
Later, the researcher asked the teacher about a talkative young student who appeared very advanced. The teacher replied, “Do you think he might have a learning problem? Some of these children who don’t have such high intelligence have trouble stopping themselves. They don’t know when to stop talking” (story from Crago’s 1988 research, as cited in National Research Council, 1999).
On the one hand, it appears the principal did not see individual students’ learning patterns as manifestations of cultural expectations or recognize that her own beliefs about student speech reflected different cultural tendencies than those of the community in which she worked. Instead, she viewed a full third of her school as deficient in speech or language. At the same time, the Inuit teacher viewed a student’s verbosity as a sign of a learning difficulty. Not a very inviting learning context for a whole lot of students.
All people are shaped by the culture in which they live. The shaping process is both subtle and pervasive, and it can be difficult for all of us to grasp that people shaped by other cultures will see and respond to the world differently than we do. After all, our own cultural lenses seem so “natural”—so “right.” The consequences of this cultural blindness can range from comedy to awkwardness to waste of human potential. In a classroom, the consequences can be dire when teachers interpret behaviors of students from cultures other than their own as disrespect, deficiency, defiance, or disinterest.
So how can educators become better attuned to cultural variance and help all their students build positive, productive lives? Here are four suggestions.
1. Recognize and appreciate cultural variance.
A decade and a half into the 21st century, we’re seeing less and less cultural homogeneity. Everyone in the world lives everywhere in the world. Places not yet touched by the increasing mobility of people of different cultures will likely soon find the world moving in their direction. Opportunities presented by permeable national borders are many—as are the challenges. This year, when white students are the minority in U.S. public schools for the first time while the majority of teachers remain white and middle class (Pew Research Center, 2014), concerns about responding effectively to students from different cultures are more pressing than ever.
Excellent teachers have always been students of their students, understanding that they cannot teach well unless they know their students. That principle now extends to studying students’ cultures, being attuned to their languages, appreciating their experiences and histories, and valuing their lenses on the world.
An important first step toward increased cultural proficiency for teachers is to expand their appreciation of cultural differences, even as they become more keenly aware of attributes and needs that are shared across cultures. Seek knowledge about the cultures students bring to your classroom. Join your students in becoming “multicultural”—in learning to live in and honor more cultures than the one into which you were born.
Mr. Greenlund creates opportunities for his students from minority cultures to join him in attending significant concerts, plays, and movies that reflect European culture—and creates just as many opportunities for these students to join him at events that reflect and emphasize their cultures. This helps both teacher and students learn to live knowledgeably, respectfully, and comfortably in more than one culture.
2. Learn about and look for culturally influenced learning patterns.
The educator’s job includes welcoming every student who walks through the door. Increasingly, these students come from backgrounds different from our own. Some will come from collectivist backgrounds, whereas others come from groups that value individualism. Some will have learned to revere their teachers from a distance, others to negotiate with their teachers as they would with a peer, and still others that they owe their teachers no respect until it’s earned. Some students hear the message that school will improve their lives but look back on a history in which school hasn’t served their community fairly or well. It’s crucial for teachers to develop awareness of the range of perspectives students bring to the classroom.
There are many different cultural patterns, and it’s unlikely that a teacher would ever understand all the patterns represented in a culturally diverse classroom. Nonetheless, the process of learning about cultural patterns is both fascinating and instructive. Each new layer of understanding provides a platform for creating a classroom in which all comers can feel at home.
Ms. Orley noticed that several of her students with a similar cultural background seemed uncomfortable when she called on them to answer questions quickly and when she asked students to complete writing prompts on the spot. She asked a colleague from the students’ cultural group if there might be a cultural connection, and her colleague explained that the culture valued reflection over speed and that young people in that culture often learn to listen and reflect before speaking.
Ms. Orley quickly made two simple adjustments. In class discussions, she decided to sometimes signal an upcoming question by saying, for example, “I want to hear from a couple of additional students on the question we’re discussing. Then I’m going to ask for your thinking about _____.” Similarly, she began saying early in a lesson, “As we conclude our lesson today, I’m going to ask you to summarize your understanding by writing about _____.” Interestingly, those changes made a noticeable difference in the comfort and performance of the students about whom she’d been concerned and had the same effect on several students in the class from other cultural backgrounds.
3. Look beyond cultural patterns to see individuals.
Important as it is to grow in understanding of cultural patterns that can affect learning, it’s also essential to understand that no pattern in a culture applies to all individuals within that culture. True cultural sensitivity requires person sensitivity as well. Seeing each student as his or her own person means avoiding developing expectations of the student solely on the basis of cultural background. It never makes sense to assume that all Latinos will _______ or all American Indians are ______ or all Hmong students prefer ________.
Any student’s learning will be shaped not only by that student’s culture, but also by his or her readiness needs, home context, personal talents and interests, cognitive development, and a host of other factors. Let’s assume, for example, that three students in the same classroom speak Spanish as their first language and happen to prefer a group-oriented approach to learning. If one student is male and two are female, their learning may (or may not) be affected by gender differences. One of the students may have had excellent school experiences prior to coming to the United States, and the other two students may never have developed a strong foundation of literacy in their first language.
One student may have parents who can make time to help with homework, and another may come from a home in which the parents don’t—or can’t—spend much time with their children. Two of the students may find math to be liberating because they can understand many of its ideas through numbers rather than words. The third may find math an overwhelming language in itself and see it as requiring two languages she does not grasp fluently. Further, one of the students may have traveled extensively whereas the two others may never have left their small village until coming to the United States. Cultural background is just one of many factors that affect student learning, and not all students fit the expected profile of students from a given culture.
4. Plan inviting curriculum and instruction.
Teachers who seek to maximize learning for all their students invest heavily in creating a curriculum that both engages students and guides them to understand what they study. Such a curriculum involves studying history, literature, music, and language in a way that connects new ideas and events with students’ varied cultures and experiences. It includes studying math and science with awareness of and appreciation for people from around the world who have pushed forward our understanding of those disciplines. It ensures that students see what they study as addressing contemporary problems in a broad range of settings. It guides learners to see the interconnectedness of knowledge and human experience over time and across places. In other words, the curriculum leads students to explore content through universal lenses rather than only parochial ones.
A teacher who looks at students as individuals—no matter what their cultural experiences are—will attend to their varied points of readiness, their interests, their exceptionalities, their status among peers, and so on when planning curriculum and instruction. This differentiation is essential to the academic growth and motivation of students from all cultural backgrounds. A teacher who differentiates robustly creates environments and processes that make room for students’ varied approaches to learning—including those shaped by culture.
One way of planning for the inevitable variety of approaches to learning in culturally diverse classrooms is to develop a series of continuums along which students may work and which reflect cultural as well as personal patterns. Although there is no correct set of continuums, it may be useful to select a few of these possibilities for initial planning:
- Needs to observe——Needs to test ideas
- Needs external structures——Creates own structures
- On-demand response——Reflective response
- Challenging of authority——Respectful of authority
- Fixed sense of time——Flexible sense of time
Although these continuums may represent some areas of variance across cultures, it is unwise to assume that four students in a class will fall at the same place on a continuum simply because they share a cultural background. Further, it is unwarranted to assume that any one student will fall in the same place on a continuum in all learning contexts. The idea when using the continuums is to plan for a range of approaches that reflect a variety of points on these spectrums, rather than favoring only those approaches that are familiar and comfortable for the teacher.
How might teachers use these continuums? Here are a few options:
- Use them to identify and challenge your own teaching predispositions and habits.
- Offer students choices of ways to work on the basis of some of the continuums.
- Help students reflect on which ways of working serve them best.
- Encourage students to try new approaches to learning so they expand their repertoire of learning strategies.
To apply her understanding of the competitive/collaborative continuum, Mrs. Lawrence sometimes provides students with two options to prepare in class for an upcoming complex task or test. One option is a quiz bowl, in which students compete in teams of three to see which team can get the highest score in answering a set of teacher- or teacher-and-student-developed questions. The second option is tag team, in which students collaborate in groups of about four to propose answers to the same questions, explain their thinking, and ask one another for elaborations that clarify their understanding. Some students tend to alternate between quiz bowl and tag team, but others seem consistently drawn to either the more competitive or the more collaborative option.
Mrs. Lawrence finds students to be more invested in the review when they have a choice and also finds that any class discussion that follows the review is more thoughtful and focused than when she used only one review strategy. A teacher who is a persistent observer of students will see which approaches have the most power to facilitate student learning, and, in time, the teacher will likely find it natural to plan with even more continuums in mind.
Teachers Who Issue the Invitation
John Hattie (2012) suggests that learning becomes inviting when teachers demonstrate respect (demonstrating the belief that every student is valuable, able, and responsible); trust (fostering student collaboration that makes every student a contributor to the learning process); optimism (sending a clear message that each student has the potential to learn what is necessary for success); and intentionality (making evident that every step in the lesson was specifically designed to invite each student to learn). Teachers can achieve this in a variety of ways.
Ms. Alexis gathers information about her students on the first day of school and systematically adds to that information throughout the year. She uses an app to take quick notes as she watches her students work, noting their strengths, potential entry points into varied topics and skills, and personal interests and stories. She also encourages parents to share stories about their children.
This information helps her design or select instructional approaches that are more flexible and more likely to succeed with the full range of students she teaches. For example, recently, she wanted to use examples from “real life” to demonstrate a scientific principle at work. Her knowledge of her students’ interests led her to use examples from soccer, farming, and a particular science fiction novel. Then she gave students time to meet in one of five other interest-based groups to develop their own examples of the principle at work, encouraging them to draw on examples from their own experiences. The group options included topics of particular interest to students from a range of cultural backgrounds.
Mrs. Fountas and several of her colleagues started a focus group that meets monthly to study the cultures represented in their classrooms. The discussions are often led by community members from the students’ cultures or by someone who works regularly with families in those cultures. The teachers provide a discussion template for guest leaders as well as particular questions they have about the culture and its approaches to learning. In a recent meeting, conversation centered on ways in which students would see numbers used in their community and how they might come to see math as important in their lives.
Mrs. Olivas consistently calls on her U.S. History students to think about how their own experiences are similar to or different from the ideas they discuss in class. As they analyze historical events, they often examine how time, place, economic status, geography, and so on shape people’s experiences and beliefs about issues and events. She has students read primary source documents from different perspectives so students can see how varied views of events and issues evolve.
During one semester, they examined divergent and changing views about immigration in the United States, the role of women in society, rights of American Indians, and economic inequality. In each instance, Ms. Olivas asked students to share their own perspectives on the topics by drawing from their own cultures and lived experiences. She also provided regular opportunities for students to reflect on ways in which examining multiple perspectives expands their thinking about issues.
Mr. Atkinson often gives his students the choice of working independently or in a group to plan their work, solve problems, and edit early efforts. Students quickly rearrange classroom furniture to create spaces for both collaborative groups and students who elect to “solo” during a particular task.
Mrs. Leighton finds ways for her quieter students to express and share ideas. Knowing that each student has the tools to succeed in class, she sees it as her role to help each student use the tools they have to best advantage. She often asks students to share in a small group a piece of work they’ve completed and to talk about why they chose to do it in the way they did.
Ms. Elias showed her middle schoolers some learning continuums she had developed to help her plan for their learning. She asked them to put their names on the continuums at a point they thought might reflect how they’d work best in her class. When she saw the clusters of names spread across most of the continuums, she said to her students, “Let me put a green X where I’m often most comfortable.” In many instances, her mark was at or near the extreme left of the continuum. She said to her students, “I’m going to learn so much from you this year about ways we can make learning a real fit for everyone here. You’re going to be very good for me!”
Teachers who issue invitations for all their students to learn systematically educate themselves about and value cultural distinctions, see students as unique individuals, and plan teaching and learning in ways likely to connect each student with important content, with one another, and with success.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.
National Research Council. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Pew Research Center (2014, August 18). Dept. of Ed. projects public schools will be “majority-minority” this fall. Fact-Tank: News in the Numbers. Retrieved from www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/08/18/u-s-public-schools-expected-to-be-majority-minority-starting-this-fall
Hilary Dack is a doctoral student in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundation, and Policy at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She is the author of The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners (2nd ed., ASCD, 2014) and, with Tonya R. Moon, Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom (ASCD, 2013).
March 2015 | Volume 72 | Number 6Culturally Diverse Classrooms Pages 10-15