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Acquiring knowledge of cultural characteristics and contributions

Culture includes many things. Some of these have particularly important implications for teaching and learning. According to Gay (2002) teachers need to know the particular values, traditions, communication patterns, learning styles and relation patterns of the different ethnic and cultural groups of which their students are a part. For example, teachers need to know which groups value communal interaction and cooperative problem-solving versus individualism and competitiveness, how different groups structure relationships between adults and children for children’s learning and how different groups socialize boys and girls into adult roles and how they structure interaction between the sexes. Of particular importance, teachers need to know the communicative styles of different groups. All of these bear upon how students learn and what kinds of instructional approaches will be most effective with them. For example, researchers have found that because African, Asian, Native American and Latino groups tend to value communal responsibility, cooperative learning groups and peer coaching tend to be effective with these groups. Similarly, the use of music, dramatic elements and movement in academic tasks tends to improve African American students’ achievement. Along the same lines, girls, particularly white girls, tend to participate more and thus learn more in smaller learning groups than in whole-class activities.

Along with developing knowledge and understanding of the particular practices and characteristics of different ethnic groups, culturally relevant teaching also requires that teachers know the contributions that these different groups have made to the broader society and to the relevant disciplines. Knowing this information can help you to create more accurate representations of the contributions different groups have made to society and the disciplines than those typically provided in mass-produced textbooks and to increase students’ motivation and sense of possibilities. Given the existence of institutionalized sexism and racism, many girls, African-American and Latino students do not believe that they can perform well in subjects such as math or science. Similarly, many boys think that writing and reading are not “masculine” activities. It is important that you provide students with countervailing evidence even as you help them examine the social, economic, cultural and political factors that contribute to the under-representation of particular groups in particular discipline and professions.

There are several ways to acquire this kind of knowledge:

Research and Read: Read about the different ethnic and social groups that your students are part of. It is important to become familiar with the particular characteristics of these groups. Though we use the words “Hispanic” or “Latino” as if they represent one identity, like “Asian” or “Asian-American,” these terms refer to numerous ethnic groups that have their own particular cultural characteristics and different experiences in relation to schools. Make sure that you know what specific ethnic groups your students are part of and research and read about the cultural practices, ways of thinking, communicative styles and relationship practices of these particular groups.

Some references that will help you get started are listed below. As you read, attend to the following points:

  • the values, traditions and ways of thinking of the various cultural and social groups
  • the groups’ communicative styles and patterns
  • the groups’ relational patterns between adults and children, among children and between girls and boys/men and women
  • the implications of these characteristics and practices for your teaching

*Note: Remember that your students are individuals and that they belong to multiple social groups. Not all individuals will act in the same way, nor will all individuals within a group agree on particular values, traditions and relational patterns. What your reading can help you develop is an understanding of how people’s actions and identities are informed by their race, class and gender and by the location that these different groups hold in our society (access to resources, opportunities and power). Use the pages to take notes and identify classroom implications:

Culturally relevant teaching resources

Tool: Contributions worksheet