Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

by Emily Liebtag

Future teachers need to be prepared to teach any type of learner, regardless of their background or culture. Due to the rather monocultural nature of the teaching workforce, it is vitally important to determine the ideal preparation and training methods to prepare our future teachers to be culturally responsive. Student diversity requires that teachers be interculturally competent and that their teacher preparation programs provide them opportunities to acquire intercultural and/or global competency skills as well as the ability to apply those skills to their classrooms.  International student teaching experiences have had positive impacts on developing the intercultural competence of participants – one component of culturally responsive teaching – and should be a focus for teacher education programs.

A Cultural Mismatch Between Student and Teacher

Students in the United States are steadily growing more diverse – as evidenced in the GTE article Making the Case.  For example, The Census Bureau estimates that by 2050, minorities are projected to make up 55% of the population.  The number of schools comprised of students who are from minority populations or speak a different language other than English is growing exponentially (Ladson-Billings, 2004), yet the demographics of the teaching workforce is consistently homogeneous and monocultural (Gay, Dingus, & Jackson, 2003).

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) school teacher staffing survey for the 2011-2013 school year, 83% of U.S. public school teachers are white.  Most grew up and attended school in middle-class, English-speaking, predominantly white communities and received their teacher preparation in predominantly white colleges and universities (Gay, Dingus, & Jackson, 2003).  The projected teacher workforce is similarly homogenous.  According to the Secretary of Education’s 2012 Title II report Preparing and Credentialing the Nation’s Teachers68% of teacher candidates are Caucasian, and 74% are women.

This presents a problem because many white educators simply have not acquired the experiential and education background that would prepare them for the growing diversity of their students. The most prominent practice in preparing white teachers to teach diverse students is teaching about culturally responsive teaching and pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 2004; Vavrus, 2002; Gay, 2002).

What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

While there are many different models of culturally responsive teaching and what it looks like in the classroom, the definition in this article was developed by Geneva Gay (2010) and is utilized here because she is an authority in the field, and widely cited by a number of scholars. Culturally responsive teaching, according to Gay is, “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant and effective for them.” These ideals are often infused into teacher education courses and/or emphasized in field placements of pre-service teachers (Zeichner, 1993), as will be discussed later in this review.

Culturally responsive instruction requires teachers are knowledgeable about students’ home cultures, language, and needs. Gay (2002) notes that today’s classrooms require teachers to educate students varying in culture, language, abilities, and many other characteristics. She also argues (2000) that effective culturally responsive teachers consistently do the following:

  • Acknowledge the legitimacy of the cultural heritages of different ethnic groups, both as legacies that affect students’ dispositions, attitudes, and approaches to learning and as worthy content to be taught in the formal curriculum.
  • Build bridges of meaningfulness between home and school experiences as well as between academic abstractions and lived sociocultural realities.
  • Use a wide variety of instructional strategies that are connected to different learning styles.
  • Teach students to know and praise their own and each others' cultural heritages.
  • Incorporate multicultural information, resources, and materials in all the subjects and skills routinely taught in schools
  • Communicate effectively in cross-cultural settings (p. 29).

Sarah Edwards (2011) found 8 dispositions common in effective culturally responsive teachers that build upon Gay's list:

  • Culturally responsive educational materials and content
  • Educators knowledgeable about all aspects of multicultural education
  • Multi-culturally supportive learning environments
  • Culturally responsive assessment batteries
  • Ongoing family and community communication and involvement
  • Ethnically and culturally responsive curriculum
  • Integration of cultural responsiveness throughout all academic areas
  • Personnel knowledgeable in culturally responsive behavior management practices (p. 210)

There is research that shows school achievement improves if students have culturally responsive teachers that address the students’ culture, language, and social status with appreciation (Gay, 2010; Grant & Tate, 1995). Specifically, diverse students who have culturally responsive teachers demonstrate an increased level of engagement, motivation, and resiliency (Ball & Tyson, 2011, Banks & Banks, 2004; Delpit, 1992). Most of the existing literature is on these positive learning outcomes; however, this article focuses on those findings specifically on academic achievement (usually measured with standardized tests).

Why Use Culturally Responsive Teaching?: Effects on Student Achievement

While there is some existing research that diverse students with culturally responsive teachers show signs of academic improvement, scholars in the field express a need for more studies to be conducted (Sleeter & Owuor, 2011). In addition, many studies use varying terms and descriptions for other types of teaching and instruction that have some of the same core principles as culturally responsive teaching, such as equity pedagogy, multicultural education, and teaching for social justice. The body of literature on culturally responsive teaching that does exist suggests it positively impacts achievement of diverse students.                  

African American students in an urban school in California who received Culturally Responsive Standards Based Instruction (CRSBI), a curriculum focused on the aforementioned main tenants of culturally responsive teaching as defined by Gay (2010) combined with California Standards, were 58% more likely to pass English Language Arts and 72% more likely in Math on the California Standards Test those who had not throughout the state (Jones, 2008). Students in Chicago who were several years below grade level passed the requirement to get into high school in one year with relevant pedagogy that accounted for cultural differences (Tatum, 2000). 

In New Zealand, Maori  had higher results on their academic evaluations and reported they were more prepared to enter a university when their teachers employed strategies learned through professional development focused on mentoring and understanding culture (Bishop, Berryman, Cavanagh, & Teddy, 2009). Low-income Latino students, when taught a curriculum infused with culturally relevant ideas aimed at improving learning for their particular population outscored their White peers on state reading, writing, and math exams. In addition, their graduation rates exceeded those of the White students at the respective sites in which they attended school, when it had been 40% before (Cammarota & Romero, 2009).

Culturally responsive teaching also makes a difference to students in higher education.  Diverse students at California State University, Monterey Bay who took courses in ethnic studies where the professor intentionally used culturally responsive pedagogy had higher academic performance than their peers at the same institution (Sleeter, 2011).              

Culturally responsive teaching appears to have positive impacts on student achievement. While more comprehensive and large-scale studies of student outcomes would add to the field, the existing literature consistently supports culturally responsive teaching efforts.  Knowing that culturally responsive teaching can positively impact the outcomes of diverse student achievement, it is relevant to understand how to foster a more culturally responsive workforce.

As previously discussed, there are many different characteristics that culturally responsive teachers possess. One of the most critical first steps in becoming a culturally responsive teacher is to be globally competent.  As Helen Marx states, “To teach in culturally responsive ways, teachers must be interculturally competent (2008).”  Therefore, it is important to understand global competence to best understand how teacher education programs may approach training teachers to have these skills.

As a result of the aforementioned miss-match between teachers and their students, the demand to prepare future educators to be equipped with these culturally relevant skills and knowledge is intensifying (Causey, Thomas, & Armento, 2000). Unfortunately, while many teacher education programs have tried domestic cross-cultural field experiences and multicultural education classes to try to prepare future teachers to be culturally responsive, the impact of these efforts are inconclusive (McAllister & Irvine, 2000). International student teaching programs, however, have shown to have a positive impact on the development of cultural competence of pre-service teachers - explored more in this article on GTE.


Bishop, R., Berryman, M., Cavanagh, T., & Teddy, L. (2009). Te kotahitanga: Addressing educational disparities facing Māori students in New Zealand. Teaching and Teacher Education25(5), 734-742.

Causey, V. E., Thomas, C. D., & Armento, B. J. (2000). Cultural Diversity Is Basically a Foreign Term to Me: The Challenges of Diversity for Preservice Teacher Education. Teaching And Teacher Education16 (1), 33-45.

Edwards, S. (2011). Developing diversity dispositions for White culturally responsive teachers. Action in Teacher Education, 33 (5/6), 493-508.

Gay, G.  (2000).  Culturally Responsive Teaching:  Theory, Research, and Practice.  New York:  Teachers College Press.

Gay, G., Dingus, J. E., & Jackson, C. W. (2003, July). The presence and performance of teachers of color in the profession. Unpublished report prepared for the National Collaborative on Diversity in the Teaching Force, Washington, D.C.

Grant, C. A., & Tate, W. E. (1995). Multicultural education through the lens of the multicultural education research literature, In J. A. Banks & C.A.M. Banks (Eds.), Handbook of research on multicultural education (pp. 145-166). New York, NY: MacMillan.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2004). New directions in multicultural education: Complexities, boundaries, and critical race theory. In J. A. Banks & C.A.M. Banks (Eds.), Handbook of research on multicultural education (2nd ed., pp. 50-65). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Marx, H. A. (2008). Please mind the gap: A pre-service teacher's intercultural  development during a study abroad program. Unpublished Dissertation:  University of Connecticut. 

Sleeter, C. E., & Owuor, J. (2011). Research on the impact of teacher preparation to teach diverse students: The research we have and the research we need. Action in Teacher Education, 33(5/6), 524-536.

Tatum, A. (2000). Breaking down the barriers that disenfranchise African American adolescent readers in low level tracks. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy,          44(1), 52-64.

Vavrus, M. (2002). Transforming the multicultural education of teachers: Theory, research and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Zeichner, K. M. (1993). Educating teachers for cultural diversity. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University, National Center for Research on Teacher Learning.

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