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A recent article in EdWeek, which covers K-12 schools, draws on a nationally representative survey of district leaders, principals and teachers to identify “The Teaching Strategies Educators Say Will Outlast the Pandemic.”

The findings won’t come as a shock, but they deserve our attention anyway. After all, what happens in K-12 invariably finds its way into colleges and universities.

Most of the predictions will strike you as unsurprising:

  • Greater use of technology to monitor and track student progress
  • Greater integration of technology into instruction
  • More students assigned to clusters or cohorts
  • More flipped learning
  • More remote learning
  • More online resources
  • Better training and support for teachers to cover controversial topics in developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant ways
  • More mental health support and health care services
  • More tutoring and academic support

But one item stands out: that instruction will become more culturally responsive.

A third of the districts said that they are already doing a lot to make instruction culturally responsive. Another 44 percent said they are taking “some” steps, and 18 percent said they are doing “a little.” Only 6 percent said they were doing nothing at all.

Culturally responsive teaching can, of course, meaning many things.

Among the common definitions are these:

It’s not surprising that culturally responsive teaching, a term introduced two decades ago by Gloria Ladson-Billings, the former Kellner Family Distinguished Professor of Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has provoked controversy. After all, explicit goals spelled out in many state guides are to strengthen students’ racial and ethnic identities and to support “students’ critical consciousness or their ability to recognize and critique societal inequalities.”

In many instances, the actual advice offered in K-12 teacher training materials is pretty anodyne. For example, post world maps that highlight students’ countries of origin or signs or banners can welcome students in the different languages they speak. Display books that promote themes of diversity, tolerance and community. Use problem-, project- and place-based learning strategies that allow students to “hear stories that sound like theirs, and learn about the histories that are connected to their experiences.”

But in other instances, the recommendations are highly charged. Illinois recently approved a rule requiring teacher training programs in the state to adopt “culturally responsive teaching and leading” standards no later than 2025.

As the Chicago Tribune noted, under the state’s proposed rules, college students working toward a teaching degree will have to receive training in “systems of oppression” and “power and privilege.” The students will also have to “assess how their biases and perceptions affect their teaching practice and how they access tools to mitigate their own behavior (racism, sexism, homophobia, unearned privilege, Eurocentrism, etc.).” In addition, teachers would be encouraged to work against “oppressive conditions” inside and outside their schools.

New America, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, has, in turn, defended culturally responsive teaching, arguing that “a trove of studies favorably link racial and ethnic pride and belonging to school engagement, interest in learning, and even better grades,” that “a stronger racial identity can even buffer the effects of racial discrimination and stereotype threat,” and “that confusion, ambivalence, and anxiety about their racial identity can sap students’ engagement and, in turn, derail their academic performance.”

What does any of this have to do with higher education? Is it likely that culturally relevant teaching will have any impact on our curricula, pedagogy, instructional content or assessment strategies beyond what institutions are already doing?

I think the answer is a qualified yes.

But, you might respond, aren’t colleges and universities already striving to make their student bodies more representative of society as a whole? Aren’t these schools making their course offerings and classrooms more inclusive and their reading lists more diverse? Aren’t these institutions putting in place new graduation requirements that are attentive to race, ethnicity, gender and, at times, class? Aren’t many of our institutions requiring applicants for faculty positions to submit diversity statement?

What more could we do? A recent volume, Culturally Responsive Teaching and Reflection in Higher Education, edited by Sharlene Voogd Cochrane, Meenakshi Chhabra, Marjorie A. Jones and Deborah Sprag, and a recent article, “Evidence-Based Practices for Culturally Responsive Medical Education,” by Tracey Weiler and Erica Caton, offers some possible answers.

Weiler and Caton stress the importance of designing a course with greater intentionality and with greater responsiveness to your students’ emotional and learning needs and recognition of their experiences, perspectives and longer-term goals.

How should you do that?

  • Make sure your learning objectives are SMART—that is, specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and targeted at specific learning goals.
  • Discuss the purpose and goals of each activity, assignment and assessment before these are undertaken.
  • Gauge and monitor student understanding, for example, by asking them to explain and apply difficult concepts or by having them explain their thought processes when solving problems.
  • Vary your assessments and be sure to include some that students will consider authentic and meaningful.
  • Construct rubrics, preferably in partnership with your students, and explain how you use these rubrics to evaluate their work.
  • Provide timely feedback and be sure to recognize effort and progress.

Excellent advice, in my opinion.

Cochrane, Chhabra, Jones and Sprag and their volume’s contributors take a somewhat different approach. They urge instructors to treat their students as more than recipients of knowledge or learners of skills, but as complex individuals with a wide array of hopes, fears and aspirations.

For example, more than a few first-generation students feel like outsiders or impostors and are asking themselves whether college-going will break their connection with their family or community, betray their upbringing, or devalue parts of themselves. Other students may be troubled by conflicts between what they’ve learned outside college and what they’re learning in your class. Don’t let such concerns go ignored or unexamined.

Remember: you are not merely a teacher-scholar or subject matter expert. Be prepared to share the challenges and obstacles that you’ve encountered. Remember, learning hinges on mind-set. In many instances, psychology and emotions can be a barrier to student success. In today’s extraordinarily diverse classrooms, a successful instructor needs to speak to the affective as well as the cognitive.

In an earlier blog posting, I offered a defense of cultural literacy that I think needs to be modified somewhat in response to the ideas advanced by proponents of culturally relevant teaching. I have never thought of cultural literacy merely as a matter of memorization and regurgitation of a laundry list of time-worn references, but, instead, as wrestling with certain shared artistic, cultural, intellectual and religious traditions. One way to do that is to add a word to the term and call this “critical cultural literacy”—an idea first advanced by the great scholar of literacy Harvey Graff.

By “critical,” I do not mean censorious or condemnatory or fault-finding, but analytic. But I also want to use that word in its Frankfurt School sense—as an instrument of emancipation, as a way to liberate ourselves from “the coercions of blind and unrecognized history” and from the unreflective acceptance of received prejudices, preconceptions and prejudgments.

The true value of culturally relevant teaching should not be to reinforce or repudiate pre-existing identities, but to subject these identities, and indeed all ideas, to critical scrutiny.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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