What is CRE?
Culturally responsive education (CRE) or culturally responsive teaching (CRT), refers to teaching that connects the curriculum to students’ experiences, perspectives, histories, and cultures.
When we talk about culture can, we’re referring to the norms, beliefs, and behaviors passed down from one generation to the next. This covers aspects like the languages we speak, the clothes we wear, whether we like direct eye contact, and the value systems we operate around.
Given the fact that there is a diverse range of different cultures in our schools, it also means there is a diverse range of social norms, beliefs, and behaviors too. CRE, therefore, takes this diversity of culture into consideration.
It’s all about valuing students’ experiences and providing opportunities within the classroom for them to connect with their culture and use their voices to share their experiences with others. By doing this, we are enabling students to sustain a connection with their language, religion, culture, and identity – while also equipping them with the skills they need to navigate life.
This means curriculum and teaching that goes beyond ‘test taking’ and the accumulation of knowledge – it’s about giving real-world context to academic context and allowing students to make connections between the material and their own experiences in the world.
If a class is learning about important figures in science, it could be looking at examples who are people of color. It could also involve discussing the lack of representation of women and people of color throughout the history of science – and why this was the case.
While teaching, educators will move between zones, depending on the context of the teaching. During one-to-one teaching, it is not uncommon for them to occupy a student’s personal zone as a means of establishing trust.
Why is CRE so important?
As the traditional education system is formed on predominately white structures and practices, it contains many forms of over and covert oppression. This could be in instructional materials and assessments, teacher expectations, attitudes, and admissions. These areas combine to impact the student’s overall experience – meaning that students of color are often negatively affected by things like low teacher expectations and exclusionary disciplinary practices.
Culturally responsive education ensures that lessons are more inclusive and reflective of the experiences of students from all backgrounds. Research has shown that teaching students from Ethnic Minorities “through their own cultural and experiential filters” (i.e., making a meaningful connection between students’ cultural background knowledge and their experiences at school) can actually improve their academic achievement.
In this way, CRE offers a way to mitigate the negative impacts of oppression, improving outcomes for those students. It actually goes beyond making changes in the classroom; it creates positive change in wider society.
At times, CRE can mean having difficult conversations in the classroom. But as John. F. Kennedy once said, ‘Growth is uncomfortable; you have to embrace the discomfort if you want to expand.’
How can we foster CRE in the classroom?
1. Uncover your biases
When you’re driving, you have to know where your blind spot is before introducing ways to work around it. Project Implicit is an online test developed by Harvard University that helps people uncover their implicit biases.
2. Enable students-as-leaders
Creating opportunities for co-teaching (i.e., when students contribute to the lesson structure) is an essential part of cultivating CRE in the classroom. It disrupts the traditional authoritarian ‘chalk and talk’ practices of eras gone by, creating an atmosphere of collaboration and compassion instead.
Having students as leaders ultimately builds inclusivity, develops their sense of agency, and makes them aware that their perspectives matter.
3. Give students a choice
Oppressive environments are often those where people feel they have no voice and no choice. When students are given the freedom to engage in education in a way that plays on their strengths and interests, they perform better and have greater satisfaction. It’s, therefore, essential to give students the opportunity to engage with the curriculum in a more personal manner.
For example, when completing solo projects about an author or a person in history, ask your students to pick their own subjects. This will enable students to make personalized connections with the curriculum and it also lets them choose the information they wish to share with the class – providing a diverse range of perspectives when it comes to presenting work.
4. Build safe spaces
To engage in open and, at times, difficult dialogue, students first need to feel like they are in a safe and non-judgmental environment. It’s worth developing some ground rules and establishing a set of guidelines about how discussions happen.
Just as a physician or therapist eases their patient into a difficult conversation, the same approach rings true when cultivating CRE in the classroom.
At the start of a lesson, you can give your students an overview of the lesson plan, which includes the themes and talking points. This prepares them for what will come up during the lesson and gives everyone time and space to settle into the discussion or alert the teacher if they are uncomfortable with the lesson material.