What influence does culture have on a student’s school success?

Page 2: Cultural Responsiveness

Native American ShieldCultural competence refers to an ability to learn from and respectfully relate to other cultural backgrounds, heritages, and traditions. It comes from acknowledging and understanding one’s own culture and values while respecting those of others. Teachers—most of who come from white middle-class backgrounds and who often do not reflect the diversity of their students—work hard to provide meaningful and effective instruction. However, it is often the case that unperceived cultural differences in the classroom lead teachers to choose instructional methods that may conflict with the needs of their students.

To become culturally responsive, teachers should engage in an ongoing process of:

  • Understanding that culture has a role in education
  • Actively learning about students’ cultures and communities
  • Learning about the beliefs and values of a variety of cultures, whether or not those cultures are represented in the class
  • Broadening their awareness and gaining insight into issues facing diverse students, families, and communities

Research Shows

  • The face of America’s teachers remains homogeneous, even as the diversity of students continues to grow. As of 2008, 83% of the teaching force was white, whereas 41% of students were from non-white backgrounds.
    (U.S. DOE, 2007–2008a)
  • As of 2009, the majority of students in some states were racially or ethnically diverse: California (73%), New Mexico (75%), and Texas (67%), whereas more than half of the teachers in those states were white.
    (U.S. DOE, 2012)

Teacher Reflection

If you don’t think about diversity in the classroom then you are shortchanging the students, and you’re not looking at how they learn best.

Pre-service teacher

Another way for teachers to become culturally responsive is to practice on-going reflection—an undertaking through which teachers identify their thoughts, values, and behaviors about their own and other cultures. Such reflection allows teachers to gain deeper levels of self-knowledge and recognize how their personal worldviews can influence their teaching and shape their students’ concepts of self. It creates opportunities to reconsider stereotypes and gives teachers the chance to consider how their instruction might be improved.

Teachers may find it uncomfortable or difficult to reflect upon their own culture. Some might even believe that they do not have a culture—that is, their opinions, values, and expectations about education and behavior are part of the dominant cultural perspective and, therefore, are regarded as the norm. As a result, many teachers do not recognize that their own culture influences their expectations about students and, in turn, affects their students’ performance.


Becoming culturally responsive is a journey, not a destination. Click here to begin the journey.

Learning About Other Cultures

Kids on a Jungle GymThere are many ways for teachers to learn about other cultures. They might attend a professional development workshop, interview students and individuals from diverse groups, or read cultural biographies or histories. By doing these things, teachers can begin to recognize that some of their students experience the world in different ways. Teachers better understand and affirm students when they do not adopt a culture-blind attitude—one that ignores differences.

clde_02_redmazeAs teachers learn about their students’ cultures, they should be careful not to make assumptions or generalizations based on cultural stereotypes. A number of factors have an effect on a family’s beliefs and the ways in which that family lives: the length of time they have been in the country, their level of acculturation, socioeconomic status, educational background, and reason for immigration, among others. For example, Sam and Sarah share the same last name, Chinn. Sarah’s family has lived in the United States for two generations. She attends weekly Chinese language classes and speaks Chinese with her grandmother. Her family follows many traditional Chinese customs, including those involving the preparation of meals. By contrast, Sam Chinn’s family has lived in the United States for three generations. Sam does not speak or understand Chinese and possesses little knowledge of Chinese cultural traditions and beliefs.

As teachers learn about other cultures, they should also be mindful of their students from diverse backgrounds who have disabilities. Cultural perceptions about disabilities may also vary between and within cultures. Disabilities may be viewed in a variety of ways, for example as:

  • A condition to be corrected
  • A natural personal characteristic
  • A reflection of an individual’s differences for which adaptations and accommodations should be made
  • Something that brings shame or pity to families
  • A spiritual gift or blessing

Research Shows

  • Pre-service teachers who participated in a course on diversity reported that they had never thought about issues related to race and culture. Those who reported having experiences with diverse cultures and races stated that those experiences occurred outside of the school setting.
    (Milner, 2006)
  • Prospective teachers from European-American backgrounds saw themselves as “normal” and believed that students from diverse backgrounds needed to be knowledgeable and accepting of the beliefs held by the dominant culture. They did not identify a connection between diversity and learning.
    (Milner, 2005)

Cultural Connection

Native American Weavings

Mr. Bennett understands that if his students are to learn the required curriculum, he must teach them the supporting vocabulary. This year, his students will be using words such as similar, congruent, compare, and contrast. As he thinks about ways to get this information across to his students, Mr. Bennett recalls that Navajo rugs are decorated with patterns that illustrate the concepts he is teaching. He decides to imbed this instruction into his lessons as a means both of teaching his students their vocabulary words and introducing them to Navajo culture.

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