Culturally Responsive Teaching with Dr. Ken Springer

Portrait of two happy students and their teacher having fun with laptop in the classroom

It’s a hot morning in June, and an 8th grade “goth girl” is having a conversation with an 8th grade “country girl.”  The two girls are students in a summer psychology class for gifted students.  

These particular girls are having one of those “Why do you…?” conversations.  The country girl is asking questions like “Why do you always wear black?” The goth girl is asking questions like “Why do you listen to such awful music?”  Their tone is not very pleasant.

As teachers, we encounter clashes of culture like this all the time.  In this instance, I was lucky that the students were merely disagreeing about matters of taste.  Students are taught from an early age to respect personal preferences for things like clothing and music.  After I reminded the two girls about the importance of mutual respect, they quickly agreed to disagree. Although their personal tastes in fashion and music didn’t change, by the end of the term they were on friendly terms and had begun to share more with each other about their lifestyles.

Unfortunately, not all cultural differences are so easily resolved.  Differences among students, between students and teachers, and between teachers create a variety of challenges in educational settings.  Some of these differences pertain to “surface” elements of culture, like clothing and music, while others reflect deeper differences in beliefs, values, and ways of understanding the world.

As teachers we hope to identify and reduce cultural conflict in our instructional environment.  However, cultural differences should not be viewed as a set of “challenges” that require intervention.  Although cultural differences can be challenging, these differences provide opportunities for us to enhance our students’ learning.  This is where culturally responsive teaching comes in.

Simply put, culturally responsive teaching consists of instructional practices that recognize, honor, and leverage cultural diversity in educational settings, with the goal of ensuring the academic success of all students.  

Culturally responsive teaching is opposed to “cultural blindness”, which assumes that the principles of good teaching can be applied to all students uniformly.  Culturally responsive teaching assumes that although each student is unique, he or she will also be shaped by a variety of cultural influences. Each student – and each teacher – is influenced by his or her own race and ethnicity, nationality, social class, linguistic background, religious beliefs, gender identity, and so on.  

Principles of Culturally Responsive Teaching

One of the key principles of culturally responsive teaching is the need to maintain high expectations for all students.  We do not expect less of English Language Learners, for example, or of students who come from families living in poverty.  Rather, we use knowledge about cultural background to help identify the support each student needs to be successful.

Why maintain high expectations for a student?  High expectations show that you care about the student.  High expectations set standards for both you and the student to meet.  Moreover, research tells us that your expectations will influence student performance, whether you realize it or not.  If your expectations for a student are consistently high, the way you interact with the student will enhance his or her learning.  Perhaps you explain a concept in more detail. Or, after answering a question the student poses, you invite the student to apply the answer to a new scenario.  Or, if the student is struggling to complete an assignment well, you don’t just give up and assume that the work will be mediocre. You figure out exactly what support the student needs to be successful, and you provide that support.

A second principle of culturally responsive teaching is the importance of recognizing and honoring all students’ cultural backgrounds.  Why would a teacher do this?  It shows that the teacher cares about the student.  It engages the student. It promotes a sense of identity, pride, and self-confidence.  In the classroom, honoring student culture not only benefits individual students but also fosters a sense of community.  By respecting each particular cultural heritage you teach your class the importance of respecting all cultural heritages.  This includes respecting each others’ tastes in fashion and music, as with the two girls in my psychology class, along with respect for deeper elements of culture such as belief systems and values.

Honoring a student’s culture could be as simple as talking about a holiday.  For example, VIPKid teachers working with students in China could mention the Dragon Boat Festival, which takes place in June.  The Dragon Boat Festival is associated with many stories and customs. However, the teacher should be cautious when discussing this festival with a Chinese student, because not all families celebrate it to the same extent.  You may embarrass the Chinese student if you’ve read a Wikipedia entry and pepper the student with questions.  The student may not recognize the stories and customs you describe. The student may not even know what festival you’re referring to, since it’s most commonly referred to in China by a different name that doesn’t translate well. (Maybe insert what would be, or tip for how to broach such holidays? For example, should we suggest that the teacher ask about the festival?)  So, let the student be your guide. If you know a holiday is coming next week, for example, you can ask an open-ended question like: Are you doing anything special next week? If the student mentions a holiday, you can ask: Will your family do anything special on that day?

A third principle of culturally responsive teaching is the need to build bridges between the student’s home culture and the educational setting.  A key example is making the curriculum meaningful and engaging by incorporating culture into instruction. Earlier I mentioned holidays, which are among the “surface” elements of culture.  Cultures also differ in ways of understanding and thinking about the world. Thus, building bridges between home and educational settings also means figuring out how to join students in the way they think rather than imposing on them the way you think.  

A simple example would be how you interact with an overly passive student.  As a teacher, you may think that the student is merely shy, or disinterested, and that you just have to break the ice and everything will be fine.  However, the student may be passive owing to very different ways of thinking, and so changing the behavior might not be easy. The first step is to understand the cause of the passivity.  While some students are passive by nature, regardless of background, others show passivity for culturally-specific reasons. A student from Mexico may be passive because she has learned that engaging the teacher more actively would be considered aggressive.  The student from China may be passive because he is used to more emphasis on rote learning in school than an American peer would experience. These are just a few of many ways that passivity reflects cultural influences. Recognizing these influences is the first step toward helping individual students become more active.

Finally, as I suggested earlier, cultural differences among students, between students and teachers, and between teachers should be considered opportunities rather than challenges.  Consider again our overly passive students. Of course we want to help these students take a more proactive role in their learning, because as members of a “teacher culture” we believe in the benefits of being an active learner.  But “passivity” is a strength too and can be acknowledged as well as nurtured. The student who is passive out of respect to the teacher has already learned something important about respect. The student who is passive owing to experience with rote learning has already learned something about patience.  In short, cultural differences between student and teacher are always a potential source of strength.


About the Author

Dr. Ken Springer is a professor of education and Chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Springer has an abiding interest in culturally responsive teaching. He has worked with teachers in multicultural settings in the Dallas Metroplex, served as a board member and program director for Mi Escuelita, taught classes on diverse learners to teachers pursuing graduate degrees, and spent a year as a visiting professor in China, where he continues to maintain professional connections through teacher training, research on differences between US and Chinese students, and consulting activities.