Race Equity Ed Blog

Rethinking Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

By Chezare A. Warren, Ph.D.
Posted August 10, 2012

When asked, too few of America’s teachers and school leaders can adequately articulate what culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) encompasses. I’ve found that CRP has too often been limited to isolated, disjointed lessons unrelated to the realities of students’ lives. The vast majority of U.S. public school teachers do not share the race or socioeconomic status of their students. Thus, the preparation of culturally responsive pedagogues to effectively communicate with and respond to the unique needs of culturally diverse learners in the 21st century is of paramount concern. 

The process of becoming culturally responsive includes negotiating interactions and building relationships with students based on their personal and cultural strengths. I have mentored Mario for over a decade. I first met him as a sixth grader at the local middle school peripheral to the institution where I earned my bachelor’s degree. Overcoming a number of personal, financial, and academic challenges, Mario went to college and recently graduated summa cum laude. During his graduation celebration this past spring, I listened as one of his former instructors, a White female faculty member, told story after story of how she helped Mario “find his way” at a predominantly White university where so many other Black males had failed to maximize their full potential. She exclaimed, “I tell Mario the further up he goes, the more endangered he is. Black males are not programmed for success.” Shocked by this woman’s unabashed declarations, I began reflecting on the implications of my own teaching and mentoring of so-called “disadvantaged” youth like Mario.

Students become disadvantaged only after educators and others classify them as such. As a result of this label and others (e.g., “at risk”), school stakeholders tend to treat young people as damaged goods. This deficit language undoubtedly influences how a teacher interprets students’ cultural expression and how he or she acts in response. Some “helping” leads to the unconscious, almost invisible subjugation of students, particularly Black males as they are disproportionately misplaced in special education programs and too frequently suspended from school for “behavioral problems”. Further, teachers usurp student social and cultural capital, in part because too many educators are inadequately trained to recognize, appreciate, and affirm students’ cultural expertise. Actions like these are routine and standard in schools, but completely antithetical to the development of an authentically rich culturally responsive pedagogy.

As I grappled with my contribution to these phenomena during my K-12 teaching career, many of my White colleagues held the assumption that I entered the profession a culturally responsive teacher because I am Black and all my students were Black. Like the faculty member had done in Mario’s case, I had also constructed an understanding of each student’s culture based on my own limited, privileged viewpoints. Consequently, my conceptions of Blackness and poverty guided how I interacted with students in my professional practice. I hadn’t grown up under the same conditions or during the same time period as the students I taught. What I knew of their experiences was created out of my own imagination and personal history.

Hence, the process of becoming culturally responsive for me was not clearly defined. Instead it was full of awkward moments, wrong answers, and confounding realizations.

As education scholars, practitioners, and teacher educators, what we think and believe as it relates to what students actually need from us must take a backseat to the labor-intensive task of learning the students. Becoming culturally responsive includes an in-depth understanding of students’ racial, linguistic, familial, and intellectual diversity. Studying neighborhoods/communities, staying current about pop culture trends, and carving out time daily to chat with youth about issues important to them are useful ways to learn the student

As time goes on the world changes, and in similar fashion the challenges associated with the effective education of the nation’s most vulnerable student populations evolve as well. Culturally responsive pedagogy is an intellectual, moral, social, and ethical orientation that frames a teacher’s instructional planning, design, and implementation. CRP cannot be limited to the simple inclusion of black and brown faces in one lesson or another. Rather, a culturally responsive educator organizes learning experiences that are tailor-made to meet the contemporary needs of the students of color sitting in front of him or her. A more equitable U.S. schooling system requires that more attention be given to the process of enacting CRP. If not, it will remain a vocational buzz phrase with little effect other than to camouflage dominant pedagogical norms masquerading as cultural competence.

Chezare is a former postdoctoral research fellow in the Penn GSE Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. His Ph.D. in Policy Studies in Urban Education is from the University of Illinois at Chicago.