For decades, researchers have found that teachers in public schools have undervalued the potential for academic success among students of color, setting low expectations for them and thinking of cultural differences as barriers rather than assets to learning.
In response, scholars developed teaching methods and practices—broadly known as asset-based pedagogies—that incorporate students’ cultural identities and lived experiences into the classroom as tools for effective instruction. The terms for these approaches to teaching vary, from culturally responsive teaching and culturally sustaining pedagogy to the more foundational culturally relevant pedagogy. Though each term has its own components defined by different researchers over time, all these approaches to teaching center the knowledge of traditionally marginalized communities in classroom instruction. As a result, all students, and in particular students of color, are empowered to become lifelong learners and critical thinkers.
But as a growing number of states seek to pass legislation banning the teaching of the academic concept known as critical race theory in K-12 schools—as well as more broadly limiting classroom discussion on topics of race, gender, and sexuality—this work is caught in the fray. Some politicians have conflated culturally responsive teaching with separate academic concepts and initiatives, including diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. As a result, legislation gets written in ways that could stifle efforts toward equity in schools, such as policies that can help underserved students, researchers say.
This explainer unpacks what it means to be a culturally responsive teacher, how all these research terms are related, and where other academic concepts such as critical race theory tie in—or not.
What is the definition of culturally responsive teaching?
Culturally responsive teaching means using students’ customs, characteristics, experience, and perspectives as tools for better classroom instruction.
The term was coined by researcher Geneva Gay in 2000, who wrote that “when academic knowledge and skills are situated within the lived experiences and frames of reference for students, they are more personally meaningful, have higher interest appeal, and are learned more easily and thoroughly.”
It’s the kind of teaching that helps students of color see themselves and their communities as belonging in schools and other academic spaces, leading to more engagement and success.
What is culture, and why is it relevant to student learning?
Culture refers to the customs, languages, values, beliefs, and achievements of a group of people. Students’ culture and lived experiences that influence how they understand and make sense of the world or themselves are an integral part of who they are as learners. As Emily Style, the former founding co-director of the National SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity), once wrote, “Half the curriculum walks in the door with the students.”
While more than half of public school students are students of color, most schools are organized around the mainstream culture of white Americans. The culture that many students experience at home and in their communities is not always represented at school—or is represented in a stereotypical way.
Also, 80 percent of teachers are white. Research has found that teachers are just as likely to have racial biases as non-teachers, and those biases tend to influence the expectations they have for their students and their ways of managing their classrooms. For example, past research has found that white teachers have lower expectations for Black students than they do for white students, and those can turn into “self-fulfilling prophecies” when students internalize them or when teachers change their approach to students as a result of their mindsets.
One study found that white teachers were more likely to praise a poorly written essay if they thought it was written by a student of color than if they thought the essay was by a white student. Teachers’ racial biases can also result in decreased access to advanced coursework and higher rates of suspensions.
When did culturally responsive teaching start?
Culturally responsive teaching stems from the framework of culturally relevant pedagogy, which was introduced by scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings in the 1990s. Ladson-Billings was tired of the commonly held narrative that Black children were deficient and deviant, and that there was something wrong with them. Instead, she wanted to find out what was right with Black children, their families, and their communities. To do so, she researched the practices of effective teachers of Black students.
For about two years, Ladson-Billings observed teachers who were identified by both principals and Black parents as being excellent. The teachers had different ways of teaching, but they all had high expectations for their students and fostered academic success. They also all valued and integrated themselves in the community from which their students came.
Ladson-Billings distilled the commonalities in those teachers’ beliefs and practices into the framework of culturally relevant pedagogy, which she defined as a model that “not only addresses student achievement but also helps students to accept and affirm their cultural identity while developing critical perspectives that challenge inequities that schools (and other institutions) perpetuate.”
There are three components of culturally relevant pedagogy:
- student learning—prioritizing students’ intellectual growth, including their ability to problem-solve;
- cultural competence—creating an environment where students affirm and appreciate their culture of origin while also developing fluency in at least one other culture; and
- critical consciousness—teaching students how to identify, analyze, and solve real-world problems, especially those that result in societal inequities against marginalized groups.
So, what are the characteristics of culturally responsive teaching?
Gay’s research shows five essential components of culturally responsive teaching:
- A strong knowledge base about cultural diversity. Teachers should understand different racial and ethnic groups’ cultural values, traditions, and contributions to society, and incorporate that knowledge into their instruction.
- Culturally relevant curricula. Teachers should include multiple perspectives in their instruction and make sure the images displayed in classrooms—such as on bulletin boards—represent a wide range of diversity. Teachers should also contextualize issues within race, class, ethnicity, and gender.
- High expectations for all students. Teachers should help students achieve academic success while still validating their cultural identities.
- An appreciation for different communication styles. Teachers should understand different communication styles and modify classroom interactions accordingly. For example, many communities of color have an active, participatory style of communication. A teacher who doesn’t understand this cultural context might think a student is being rude and tell the student to be quiet. The student may then shut down.
- The use of multicultural instructional examples. Teachers should connect students’ prior knowledge and cultural experiences with new knowledge.
Doesn’t that require teachers to reinforce stereotypes about students of color and even discriminate against white children?
In short, no. While the academic framework of culturally responsive teaching and other asset-based pedagogies emerged from how to best support students of color, it evolved into a teaching approach that serves all students, regardless of their racial background.
Sharroky Hollie, the director of the nonprofit Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning, works with teachers to practice what he calls cultural and linguistic responsiveness. In his work, he talks about the rings of culture, meaning the various aspects of students’ identities that can impact how they interact with the world around them.
To Hollie, it’s not just about thinking of ways to validate and incorporate a student’s racial background into the classroom. It’s not about thinking of students in a one-dimensional, stereotypical way. Culturally responsive teachers must also consider the student’s gender, age, socio-economic status, whether they live in the suburbs or a rural area, and more.
“It’s not as simplistic as we’re trying to value our students of color,” he said. “We’re actually trying to value the rings of culture that they bring to our schools, regardless of their racial background.”
For instance, in predominately white school districts, there are white students who, due to where they live or their family’s socio-economic status, are underserved by their school district and could benefit from a culturally responsive approach to education, Hollie said.
What is culturally sustaining pedagogy, and how is it different than culturally relevant teaching?
Schools are still places where white norms are considered the default standard in the curricula, behavioral expectations, linguistic practices, and more. Culturally sustaining pedagogy says that students of color should not be expected to adhere to white middle-class norms, but their own cultural ways of being should be explored, honored, and nurtured by educators.
Django Paris, who coined the term in 2012, and co-author H. Samy Alim once told Education Week that culturally sustaining pedagogy “positions dynamic cultural dexterity as a necessary good, and sees the outcome of learning as additive, rather than subtractive, as remaining whole, rather than framed as broken, as critically enriching strengths rather than replacing deficits. … As such, CSP explicitly calls for schooling to be a site for sustaining—rather than eradicating—the cultural ways of being of communities of color.”
The framework builds on the work of Ladson-Billing and others but offers a “loving critique” that cultural relevance in the curriculum is not enough for students in today’s world, given demographic shifts toward a more diverse society. Paris and Alim also argue that asset-based pedagogies, like culturally relevant teaching, traditionally haven’t paid enough attention to young people’s more fluid relationships with their identities.
Ladson-Billings has embraced the evolution of her foundational pedagogy, writing in 2014 that “culturally sustaining pedagogy uses culturally relevant pedagogy as the place where the beat drops.” She also told Education Week that she is now paying close attention to how teenagers shape culture, an aspect that wasn’t present in her original work.
It’s important to remember that these asset-based pedagogies—culturally responsive, culturally relevant, and culturally sustainable, among others—are not in conflict with each other. While their frameworks vary, they all have the same goal of dismantling a deficit approach to educating students of color and focusing instead on their strengths, assets, and communities in the classroom.
What does the research say about the effectiveness of these teaching frameworks?
A 2016 synthesis of decades of research on culturally responsive teaching and related frameworks found that engaging in culturally affirming practices across subject matters, including mathematics and science, led to positive increases in students’ understanding and engagement with academic skills and concepts. For instance, students in high school math class could learn about statistics by assessing the probabilities of racial profiling cases in various neighborhoods or using other datasets applicable to their communities that bring up questions about justice and injustice.
Culturally responsive teaching and similar approaches to teaching also increased students’ motivation, interest in content, and the perception of themselves as capable students, among other benefits, the study found. Brittany Aronson, an associate professor in educational leadership at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a co-author of the study, said, whenever teachers drew direct connections between classroom lessons and students’ experiences outside of school, students could see greater value in the academic content as it applies to the real world. Such work helps students see themselves as knowledge producers and researchers.
Overall, teaching that makes school relevant to students helps them succeed both in terms of quantitative measures such as high test scores, and more qualitative measures such as becoming life-long learners able to ask critical questions about the world around them, both in and out of school, Aronson said.
What are some examples of culturally responsive teaching?
Teachers who practice culturally responsive teaching have a classroom full of books featuring characters and images that represent a variety of ages, genders, ethnicities, and other types of diversity. They share the achievements and expertise of people from different ethnic groups in every subject area. They include multiple perspectives when discussing historical and contemporary events, including those from oppressed groups who are often left out of the narrative. And they encourage students to draw on their prior knowledge and cultural experiences to make connections to the academic content.
Culturally responsive teaching also must have an element of critical consciousness, where students are empowered to critique and analyze societal inequities. For example, Teddi Beam-Conroy, an associate teaching professor at the University of Washington, was teaching the Declaration of Independence to a class of 5th graders. When they got to the line that said, “All men are created equal,” Beam-Conroy asked her students, “Who were the men who were considered equal at that point?” To illustrate the point, she asked everyone to stand up—and then told them to sit down if they didn’t identify as male, if they didn’t identify as white, or if their parents rented instead of owned a home.
That exercise opened the door to a conversation about how Americans weren’t all equal in the late 18th century. Beam-Conroy’s students discussed when women and African Americans got the right to vote—and what implications that has had on the composition of U.S. Congress or the Supreme Court. The critical consciousness piece is “examining how historically, power has been distributed and guarded among particular folks who make the laws,” Beam-Conroy said. “Fifth graders can understand that.”
Culturally responsive teaching can also involve a deeper reimagining of classroom codes of conduct. For instance, in some students’ culture, talking while someone else talks shows how invested and engaged they are in the conversation, said Hollie with the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning. Culturally responsive teachers find ways to incorporate that verbal overlap into their lesson rather than seeing it as rude or worthy of discipline.
To better understand the dynamics of culturally relevant teaching, browse the terms below.
- asset-based pedagogies: teaching methods and practices that incorporate students’ cultural identities and lived experiences into the classroom as tools for effective instruction. These types of pedagogies seek to dismantle a deficit approach to educating students of color and instead focusing on their strengths, assets, and communities in the classroom. Examples include culturally relevant teaching, culturally responsive teaching, and culturally sustaining teaching, among others.
- critical consciousness: teaching students how to identify, analyze, and solve real-world problems, especially those that result in societal inequities against marginalized groups
- critical race theory: an academic concept with the core idea that race is a social construct, and racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies
- culture: the customs, languages, values, beliefs, and achievements of a group of people
- cultural competence: the ability to understand, appreciate, and interact with people from other cultures. Students should be taught to value and affirm their culture of origin while also developing fluency in at least one other culture.
- cultural identity: how an individual or group identifies themselves according to ties to one or more cultures
- culturally relevant pedagogy: a way of teaching that fosters student achievement while helping students to accept and affirm their cultural identity, as well as develop critical perspectives that challenge societal inequities
- culturally responsive teaching: a pedagogy that uses students’ customs, characteristics, experiences, and perspectives as tools for better classroom instruction. Students of color see themselves and their communities as belonging in academic spaces.
- culturally sustaining pedagogy: a way of teaching that explores, honors, and nurtures students’ and communities’ cultural ways of being. This approach considers the evolving identities and languages of students.
- pedagogy: teaching methods and practices; more broadly the art and science of the teaching profession
- racial biases: perceptions of, attitudes toward and treatment of a person or group based on their race
What isn’t culturally responsive teaching?
Researchers note that some educators say they’re practicing culturally responsive teaching, but it’s an overly simplified version. For example, for some teachers, a multicultural school potluck meal or adding diverse books to their classroom library sufficiently counts as affirming students’ culture in education. But culturally responsive teaching is deeper, more critical work.
“There’s a tendency to truncate culturally responsive teaching to be about a whole myriad of things—it’s about relationships, it’s about anti-racist education, it’s about diverse books,” said Zaretta Hammond, the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. “It’s like that old parable of the king who asks nine blind men to describe an elephant. Each one grabs a different part of the elephant. ‘Oh, it’s flat and wide’—he’s got the ear. ‘No, it’s like a rope’—he’s got the tail. No one has the whole picture.”
Too often, she said, white progressive educators view culturally responsive teaching as an add-on to their regular instruction instead of a fundamental shift in their pedagogy. For example, a teacher might think students of color just need to see themselves in order to feel motivated and do the work, so she’ll incorporate diverse books into her classroom or syllabus—but not change anything to the content or her way of instruction.
Another common misconception is that culturally responsive teaching is a way of addressing student trauma, which is a deficit-based ideology that assumes the universal experience of people of color is one of trauma, Hammond said.
How widespread is culturally responsive teaching?
A 2019 analysis by the think tank New America found that all states include some combination of culturally responsive teaching competencies into their professional teaching standards, but some are more widely incorporated than others. For example, every state’s standards says teachers must work with families and develop relationships to learn more about students’ cultural background, and 28 states say that teachers should bring real-world issues into the classroom, but only three states—Alabama, Minnesota, and Washington—advise that teachers learn how institutional racism and other biases can hinder students.
Most teacher-preparation programs have also incorporated culturally responsive teaching into their courses. And some school districts, including New York City and Baltimore City, have adopted a culturally responsive and/or sustaining approach to education.
Still, experts say it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many teachers have adopted these asset-based pedagogies because some may use only certain tenets. For instance, helping students develop a critical consciousness is often ignored.
What does all of this have to do with critical race theory?
Critical race theory, broadly speaking, is an academic concept with the core idea that race is a social construct, and racism is not only the product of individual bias or prejudice but is also embedded in policies and systems, such as a legal system—or as some scholars such as Ladson-Billings propose, an educational system.
Aspiring K-12 teachers in graduate level courses may study aspects of critical race theory to better understand how school systems are designed in ways that don’t serve the needs of students of color. But critical race theory is not taught as a guide for classroom instruction, nor is it typically used as a culturally relevant or culturally responsive lesson plan for kids and teens, said Aronson with Miami University.
Asset-based pedagogies, like culturally relevant or culturally responsive teaching, are not the same thing as critical race theory. They have different theoretical bases and different goals. However, there might be some commonalities—for example, the questions students are encouraged to ask about social systems, including education, may ring close to the consciousness critical race theory is meant to evoke.
Because these pedagogies directly address aspects of students’ cultural identities and how those identifiers are present in classroom conversations, legislation against critical race theory—or protests at school board meetings—often end up lumping these concepts together and targeting them in bans and investigations.
For instance, in his first executive order earlier this year, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, ordered the superintendent of public instruction to “review the department of education’s cultural competency training to determine if it or any portion promotes inherently divisive concepts.” Divisive concepts as defined by the executive order includes “critical race theory and its progeny.”
And in Florida last year, publishers of mathematics instructional materials were told that “in an effort to make sure Florida students have the highest quality instructional materials, we are advising publishers and school districts to not incorporate unsolicited strategies, such as social emotional learning and culturally responsive teaching.” That memorandum led to the recent rejection of more than 50 math textbooks from next school year’s curriculum.
In an interview with Education Week, Ladson-Billings stressed that culturally relevant teaching, as she defined it, has nothing to do with critical race theory. But opponents to critical race theory have glossed over those nuances, she said, adding that deliberative public debate is hard when people don’t know what they’re talking about.
“The attack on anything that allows more participation and moves us toward equity is going full force,” she said.