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March 18, 2021

Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain

This school year, I have the privilege of working shoulder to shoulder with teachers who are rolling up their sleeves and asking hard questions about how they can better serve their under-performing students who are disproportionately English learners, poor students, and students of color. They are working to incorporate culturally responsive practices into their classrooms.

I believe culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is a powerful method for accelerating student learning. But truth be told, most educators are not really sure what it is or what it looks like. For some, it seems mysterious. A number of leaders discount it because it seems too “touchy feely” or only focused on raising students’ self-esteem, when they need to raise achievement levels. But CRT is so much more than that. It’s the reason why I wrote Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. (Brief podcast on CRT)

Two of the biggest challenges I see teachers struggle with when first embracing CRT, is understanding the role culture actually plays in instruction and how to operationalize culturally responsive practices. They worry that they have to learn 19 different cultures — everyone’s individual customs, holidays, foods, and language. This simply isn’t true. Here are four other big ideas about culturally responsive teaching to keep in mind:

  1. Culturally responsive teaching isn’t the same as multicultural education or social justice education. Too often we use the terms culturally responsive teaching and multicultural education interchangeably, when they’re different things. They are related, but only culturally responsive teaching focuses on building students’ learning power. It’s important to remember that CRT isn’t about diversity training, but about helping students reach deeper levels of understanding. Dimensions of Equity
  2. Culturally responsive teaching builds students’ brain power by Improving information processing skills using cultural learning tools. This isn’t an aspect of CRT we talk about a lot. Instead, educators like to focus on the affective elements. Keep in mind one way that the achievement gap manifests itself is by creating dependent learners who find it hard to do critical thinking or independent learning. When we focus on using culture as a cognitive scaffold, then we’re able to leverage students’ neural pathways that make learning easier.
  3. Culturally responsive teaching is grounded in social and cognitive neuroscience. Neuroscience is giving us new findings every day that support why culturally responsive practices work. For example, social neuroscience reminds us that relationships are the on-ramp to learning, meaning if a student doesn’t feel heard or seen, then it leads to increased stress. Stress hormones like cortisol impair the brain’s executive function. So in order to create a learning environment conducive to all students learning, we need to lower stress hormones by building those relationships.
  4. Culturally responsive teaching requires teachers to recognize the cultural orientation we call “collectivism.” Teachers are often confused about how culture plays a role in culturally responsive teaching. They think they have to mention race, ethnicity, or cultural artifacts like ethnic food, music, or literature all the time for every different group. Instead, a key starting point to making cultural responsiveness manageable is to organize instructional activities around collectivist cultural principles — group harmony and interdependence. Vygotsky talks about this as “socio-cultural learning” and highlights that it is necessary to move students into their zone of proximal development.

Here’s another important point to make: Culturally responsive teaching isn’t a program or set of strategies. First and foremost, it is a mindset. That means that it’s equally important to do the ongoing “inside-out” work to build your social-emotional capacity to work across social, linguistic, racial, and/or economic difference with students and their families. Too often I hear educators say that they are “color-blind” or don’t understand the socio-political issues that lead to inequities in education — like disproportionate discipline outcomes for boys of color or low achievement data for English learners, poor students, and students of color in general.

We have to make it our personal business to build our emotional stamina to address our own blind spots and biases. One of the nation’s leading implicit bias scholars, Patricia Devine of the University of Wisconsin, compares implicit bias to habits that, with intention and practice, can be broken. Her research has found that three conditions need to be in place for individuals to successfully “de-bias”:

  1. Intention: You have to acknowledge that you harbor unconscious biases and are motivated to change.
  2. Attention: You have to pay attention to your triggers and know when stereotypical responses or assumptions are activated.
  3. Time: You have to make time to practice new strategies designed to “break” your automatic associations that link a negative judgment to behavior that is culturally different from yours.

“De-biasing” requires a level of metacognition. In this case, you’re not thinking about your thinking, but thinking about your unconscious reacting. Remember, it isn’t about getting rid of our biases, it’s about rewiring our brains to not respond unconsciously to the negative dominant narratives about the learning capacity of poor students, students of color, and English learners. We have to tame our amygdala, our brain’s fight or flight defense mechanism, and take advantage of neuroplasticity – our brain’s ability to change itself and respond differently to emotionally charged situations, like talking about race, culture, and inequity.

At the end of professional development sessions with teachers, I usually share this quote from Atul Gawande, author of the Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right: “Better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.” Operationalizing CRT may seem overwhelming, but start with something small but high leverage, and grow your comfort and skill level. We can do this!


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