by Ray Granda, Chief Academic Officer
In 1994, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings coined the term culturally relevant teaching (CRT) and defined the concept as ‘a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.’ When educators practice culturally relevant teaching, they build bridges that connect students’ home-life reality with their school-life experiences. This approach allows students to experience the curriculum in a way that makes sense in the context of their lives, empowering them to succeed and helping them develop confidence as learners. Dr. Ladson-Billings found that students that did not see themselves or their culture represented in their classrooms were more at risk for academic failure.
It is critical to student success to develop proficiency with essential mathematical skills, concepts, and relationships while honoring each learner’s individuality, community, culture, and prior life experience.
Over the past twenty-five years, there have been numerous studies that validate the importance of CRT and the impact of bringing culturally responsive and relevant mathematics to life in classroom instruction. However, it is impossible to apply a universal definition of what effective CRT might look like in practice. Instead of painting the picture in broad brush strokes and seeking a uniform approach in application, educators must instead look carefully at the students that make up each individual and unique classroom community.
Teachers can start by taking any standards-aligned lesson that includes a series of problems and exercises through which students will seek to solve real-world problems using mathematics, then asking this series of questions to help identify ways to frame the lesson in culturally relevant or responsive ways.
Educators are called to build their cultural knowledge of the students in their classrooms and then use it to deliver instruction that empowers all students to effectively receive, learn, process, and apply information.
Ultimately, culturally relevant teaching should validate that each student has ways of thinking and reasoning that are important and worth sharing. Learners should not only be invited into mathematics instruction as equal participants but should also be able to catch the vision of mathematics as a tool that is useful in helping them examine and understand their world.
A Qualitative Meta-synthesis of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy & Culturally Responsive Teaching: Unpacking Mathematics Teaching Practices, by Casedy A. Thomas and Robert Q. Berry III, both of the University of Virginia, outlines these five findings that focus on classroom interactions, teacher practices, and student experiences with culturally relevant teaching within mathematics education:
Dr. Ladson-Billings, in her 1995 article But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, says that “culturally relevant teachers utilize students’ culture as a vehicle for learning.” When students in an inclusive learning environment feel heard, understood, respected, and valued, they also feel empowered and are more apt to thrive. Bringing culturally relevant teaching to life in mathematics education is critical in ensuring that all students can experience math in a meaningful way.