A shared sense of place – empowering culturally responsive teaching

Socially diverse multicultural and multiracial people on an isolated white background. Happy old and young women and men with children, as well as people with disabilities standing together.

What is culturally responsive teaching?

To be a culturally responsive teacher is to be “able to understand and consider the different cultural backgrounds of the people (we) teach“. The University of Sydney is an immensely culturally diverse place, and to both teach and learn effectively it is imperative that we consider this diversity in our practice. Cultural responsiveness can be thought of as a key action in the practice of cultural competence, one of our nine graduate qualities. We use ‘culture’ here as an all-encompassing term; it includes things like race, ethnicity, and nationality, but beyond that refers to all the things that make us who we are and that affect how we see and experience the world.

The NSW Health Agency for Clinical Innovation defines cultural responsiveness as:

…a new way of thinking about culture. It means being open to new ideas that may conflict with the ideas, beliefs and values of your own culture, and being able to see these differences as equal. It means being respectful of everyone’s backgrounds, beliefs, values, customs, knowledge, lifestyle and social behaviours.

Practicing culturally responsive teaching

Culturally responsive teaching can help to build relationship-rich educational environments and foster a sense of belonging and purpose for all students, including those from underrepresented social, cultural, and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Whilst traditional teaching approaches emphasise the role of the teacher as the expert, this involves a perceptual shift to a role as facilitator. Northeastern University defines five culturally responsive teaching strategies:

  1. Activate students’ prior knowledge. Encourage students to draw on their prior knowledge in order to encourage them to contribute to group discussions.
  2. Make learning contextual. Explicitly relate content to students’ lives, experiences, aims, and values. This may also mean considering students’ future careers and the ways in which they will need to be culturally responsive in their professional lives.
  3. Encourage students to leverage their cultural capital. Link material to your students’ backgrounds, paying particular attention to those in the minority so that they have a voice. The Knowing Your Students report can be used to understand the make up of your class, but be careful about identifying individual countries of origin and make sure to consider intersections and identities that aren’t represented in the report.
  4. Reconsider examples and resources. Consider the diversity of students when selecting examples, readings, exemplars, and even images. Students are affirmed by seeing content that they can relate to. Not seeing themselves reflected in it will reinforce imposter syndrome and a feeling that Sydney is not a place where they belong and are therefore likely to succeed.
  5. Build relationships. An important message from students since the start of the pandemic has been how much they value their relationships with their teachers and the support they provide. In large classes, this may involve use of data and tools such as SRES.

In the article Culturally Responsive Teaching Is Not a Quick Fix, Ferlazzo poses three reflective questions for culturally responsive teaching:

  1. Are my class rules and expectations culturally empowering to my students? Work with students to create a set of classroom expectations together, such as use of preferred names, how to ask questions, handle challenging conversations, and turning videos on and off in Zoom classes.
  2. Am I teaching in a way that my students learn best? Think about the way students now learn rather than the way we did and do. As noted below, didactic lectures have been shown not to be inclusive. Seeking feedback from students at a mid-point in semester can also help align teaching and learning strategies.
  3. Am I being a cultural ally to my students in support of their academic success? Develop alliances and trust with students by using their preferred names, getting to know them better and working with them on their individual academic goals alongside those of the unit of study.

Use student-centred, active learning approaches

Move away from lectures and consider the proven merits of active learning approaches in improving outcomes for all students and for drastically reducing achievement gaps. A strengths-based approach draws on the unique knowledge and skills that participants bring to the environment, ensuring that students are met wherever they are in their learning journey and drawing on diversity to enhance learning for all. The importance of student-centred instruction and the role of the teacher as a facilitator of learning are two of the key factors in culturally responsive teaching. Some students may be expecting a didactic or teacher-focussed education; consider this when designing your approach and take them on the journey with you throughout semester. As Freeman and Theobald state:

For colleges to achieve antiracism, equity and inclusion, one of the most effective actions will be for professors to stop talking so much in their classrooms.

Tell me more!

  1. Make time to develop a sense of belonging in each unit by using short activities such as My journey, Values affirmation and Framing interventions. These benefit all students but have been shown to be particularly helpful for students from underrepresented backgrounds.
  2. Read Zaretta Hammond’s book ‘Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain’.
  3. Read the One Sydney. Many People Strategy and consider how to embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ knowledges and cultures in your teaching and curriculum.
  4. Complete and encourage your students to study resources such as:
  5. The Modular Professional Learning Framework offers a number of modules that could assist in developing responsive and inclusive strategies. M20 Supporting diverse experiences in learning and teaching, M03 Inclusivity and diversity, and M08 Engaging students in lectures and large classes are just a few.
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