Mathematics: Culturally Relevant Teaching​

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.

  1. What life experiences will the learners bring into this activity? Each student brings interests, prior knowledge and experience, skills, and strategies to the table. How can a specific   lesson be connected in a meaningful way to the life experiences that have shaped the learners?
  2. What mathematical skills and opportunities will be practiced? Teachers must first understand the math itself and be prepared to answer students’ questions in relevant ways. The next step is to use problems and examples that students relate to in giving them opportunities to learn, practice, and master the skills.
  3. Why does the math matter? Understanding the families, communities, and cultures of the individual learners in a classroom can help teachers provide opportunities for connecting   mathematics skills to real-life scenarios relatable to students. Applying math to authentic, familiar, and current environments, contexts, issues, and future careers can cultivate a relevant and responsive environment.

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:

  • Teachers demonstrating genuine interest in building rapport and meaningful relationships with students, knowing and understanding students, and discovering their interests and motivations can more effectively tailor instruction and create positive learning environments in which students are active contributors.  Building relational trust is a critical component of CRT.
  • The knowledge of context, and teaching practices that use context, are crucial in making mathematics accessible and relevant for all learners, helping to build bridges between home, community, culture, and school. Emily Style’s Essay Curriculum as Window & Mirror explains that contexts can be either a window or a mirror, depending upon whether or not they reflect a student’s cultural experiences. “A mirror is a story that reflects your own culture and helps you build your identity,” according to Styles. “A window is a resource that offers you a view into someone else’s experience.” It is an essential part of CRT to allow all students to experience both mirrors and windows.
  • Cultural competency. As teachers develop knowledge, understanding, and appreciation for their students and the communities, cultures, and belief systems they represent, they can better incorporate CRT into their teaching practices and classroom instruction.
  • High expectations. Teachers must see their students as capable learners and have high expectations of themselves and their learners.  When those high expectations encompass both academic achievement and the comprehensive achievement of the whole learner, teachers can create educational environments rich with empowerment, engagement, and active learning.
  • Teacher efficacy and beliefs. Teachers are most effective when they have confidence in themselves and their ability to deliver high-quality, culturally relevant mathematics instruction that builds on students’ current knowledge and mathematical identities.  Providing space for students to be curious and apply their understanding of the world into mathematics education that is inquiry-based, highly interactive, student-centric, and based on learners’ interests and needs helps to support the development of positive dispositions about math.

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.