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The Learning Classroom: Theory Into Practice

The Classroom Mosaic: Culture and Learning

This program discusses how culturally responsive teaching enables students to create connections, access prior knowledge and experience, and develop competence. Featured are a sixth-grade teacher and two ninth-grade teachers, with expert commentary from University of Wisconsin professor Gloria Ladson-Billings and University of Arizona professor Luis Moll.

“Learning is essentially cultural, that is, we live in a culture – it comprises our experience. We use that whenever we learn something new. So teachers need to know how to understand the cultural context and experiences their students bring to the classrooms. They also need to help students find themselves in the school curriculum – to feel like they belong and are connected to school. Culture and learning go hand in hand if we really want to ensure each student’s success.” 
Linda Darling-Hammond

Key Questions

  • What role does culture play in learning?
  • How can teachers develop culturally responsive practices?

Learning Objectives

  1. Multicultural education – Teachers will become familiar with some of the causes of inequality in education, as well as the sources of diversity in classrooms. They will understand the importance of multicultural education and the different forms multicultural education can take in schools.
  2. Culturally responsive teaching – Teachers will reflect on and consider the relationship between culture and learning. Teachers will understand that culturally responsive teaching involves a genuine respect for students and belief in their potential as learners. Teachers will understand the importance of connecting to students’ experiences and will explore how to create culturally responsive, caring environments.
  3. Congruity between home and school – Teachers will consider the impact of school culture and home culture on students’ learning. They will evaluate how to make the classroom a place where students feel comfortable, see themselves represented, and engage with curriculum materials that reflect their home cultures.

Video Program

This episode discusses how culturally responsive teaching enables students to create connections, access prior knowledge and experience, and develop competence. Kathleen Hayes-Parvin, sixth grade teacher at Birney Middle School, Southfield, Michigan, and 9th grade teachers William Dean and Jeff Gilbert at East Palo Alto High School, Menlo Park, California, are featured. University of Wisconsin professor Gloria Ladson-Billings and University of Arizona professor Luis Moll provide expert commentary.

Session Content Outline

Key Questions

  • What role does culture play in learning?
  • How can teachers develop culturally responsive practices?

Learning Objectives

  • Multicultural education – Teachers will become familiar with some of the causes of inequality in education, as well as the sources of diversity in classrooms. They will understand the importance of multicultural education and the different forms multicultural education can take in schools.
  • Culturally responsive teaching – Teachers will reflect on and consider the relationship between culture and learning. Teachers will understand that culturally responsive teaching involves a genuine respect for students and belief in their potential as learners. Teachers will understand the importance of connecting to students’ experiences and will explore how to create culturally responsive, caring environments.
  • Congruity between home and school – Teachers will consider the impact of school culture and home culture on students’ learning. They will evaluate how to make the classroom a place where students feel comfortable, see themselves represented, and engage with curriculum materials that reflect their home cultures.

Session Outline

  • All of us make sense of the world through our different cultural experiences. Culture shapes how we communicate, what we do in our work and play, how we interact with one another, what customs we follow, and how we view the world.
  • The ways in which we learn cannot be separated from these cultural contexts. We all bring a set of cultural understandings, perspectives, and expectations to school with us.
  • Two questions are addressed in this session:
    • How does culture affect learning?
    • How can we make cultural knowledge a source of understanding in the classroom?

Culture, Inequality, and Schooling

  • As we move into the 21st century, the demographics of the United States continue to evolve rapidly, and schools reflect increases in students of color.
  • Too many schools in the United States do a poor job of educating low-income and minority students.
  • The reasons for these inequalities range from the policies that govern school funding, curriculum offerings, staffing, and tracking systems, to factors that depend much more on teachers’ knowledge, skills, and expectations for their students.
  • Joel Spring (1997) suggests that the culture of schools can undermine the cultures of some students. He describes several ways in which schools can “deculturize” students. These include –
    1. segregation and isolation of minority students
    2. forced change of language
    3. a curriculum whose content and textbooks reflect only the culture of the dominant group
    4. a setting in which dominated groups are not allowed to express their culture, language, or customs
    5. the use of teachers exclusively from the dominant group.
  • Students develop a wide range of coping mechanisms in response to institutional pressures that send them signals that they do not belong.
  • “Multicultural education” represents an attempt to address all of the issues that influence achievement by considering the content of materials and the nature of instruction, in light of the specific needs, perspectives, and backgrounds of students.

Multicultural Education

  • Inequities in schooling can be addressed in part by taking into account the range of experiences, histories, and cultures that students bring to the classroom.
  • James Banks describes five ways scholars and teachers have thought about multicultural education, each of which reflects an aspect of educating for and about cultural diversity. They are –
    1. content integration
    2. knowledge construction
    3. prejudice reduction
    4. equity pedagogy
    5. empowerment of school culture
  • Some worry that a multicultural curriculum will divide rather than unite students. However, far from encouraging separatism, acknowledgement of diverse experiences helps teachers and students create new associations and understandings of one another.
  • Creating new understandings requires a conscious effort on the part of both teachers and students to understand and embrace diverse perspectives.
  • Multicultural education means more than simply incorporating diverse curriculum materials. “Curriculum and materials represent the content of multicultural education, but multicultural education is above all a process…”(Nieto, 2000, p. 315).

Culturally Responsive Teaching Practices

The following elements are central to culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1994):

  • respect for students and belief in their potential as learners
  • caring environments and personal connections with students and families
  • cultural congruity between home and school
  • active teaching and a wide range of authentic assessments that tap into students’ learning

Respect for Students and Belief in Their Potential as Learners

Underlying all aspects of culturally responsive teaching is a classroom atmosphere that is respectful of all students and that holds high expectations of them as learners.

Caring Environments and Personal Connections

  • Research suggests that effective teachers form and maintain connections with their students within their social context. Such teachers do not shy away from issues of race and culture.
  • Culturally responsive classrooms are caring places where it is acceptable to take risks, and where the classroom is a “safe place,” making school a haven from outside stresses.
  • Setting clear norms for respectful and caring behavior at the beginning of the year, as well as consistent routines that make the classroom a predictable, pleasant place, can communicate this feeling of safety.
  • Caring can be communicated by the time teachers dedicate to their students, their patience, how well they prepare for class, and the effort they put into making classes interesting.
  • The beginning of the year provides an ideal opportunity for teachers to get to know their students by asking them to describe their communities, what they like to do outside of school, what their school interests are, and how they feel about school itself.
  • A teacher may take into account what students bring to the classroom by individualizing reading lessons around the particular interests of a student, decorating classroom walls with students’ favorite heroes, or basing writing assignments on community issues that the students care about.

Cultural Congruity Between Home and School

  • Cultural continuity between home and school is another element of culturally responsive teaching and equity pedagogy. This involves making the classroom a place where students feel comfortable, see themselves represented in the curriculum and classroom environment, and engage with materials that provide connections to their home and community experience.
  • Research provides many examples of culturally specific practices that have been found to make a positive difference for student achievement.
  • Cultural congruity does not just refer to being aware of differences in communication and interaction styles. Teachers can also work with the content of the curriculum itself to make it more congruent with students’ home experiences.

Active Teaching and Authentic Assessment

Culturally responsive teachers tend to use an active, direct approach to teaching that includes –

  • demonstrating
  • modeling
  • explaining
  • giving feedback
  • reviewing
  • emphasizing higher order skills

Culturally responsive teachers tend to avoid –

  • excessive reliance on rote learning
  • drill and practice
  • punishment

One way to both make expectations clear and provide opportunities for diverse learning styles is through authentic assessment. Authentic tasks represent knowledge in ways that resemble real-world applications and allow students to integrate what they have learned. In addition, meaningful performances in real-world contexts provide opportunities for a diverse body of students to demonstrate the many strengths and intelligences they possess.


Dealing with diversity is one of the central challenges of 21st century education. It is impossible for teachers to succeed with all students without exploring how students’ learning experiences are influenced by their home languages, cultures, and contexts; the realities of race and privilege in the United States; the ongoing manifestations of institutional racism within the educational system; and the many factors that shape students’ opportunities to learn within individual classrooms.

Key Terms - New In This Section

  1. Content Integration – “the extent to which teachers use examples, data and information from a variety of cultures and groups to illustrate key concepts, principles, generalizations, and theories in their subject area discipline.” (Banks, 1993, p. 5).
  2. Culturally Responsive Teaching – practices that demonstrate:
    • respect for students and belief in their potential as learners
    • caring environments and personal connection
    • cultural congruity between home and school
    • active, direct teaching and authentic assessment
  3. Empowering School Culture – “restructuring the culture and organization of the school so that students from diverse racial, ethnic and social-class groups will experience educational equality and cultural empowerment.” (Banks, 1993, p. 7).
  4. Equity Pedagogy – instructional practices that makes knowledge accessible to all students
  5. Knowledge Construction – a process in which “teachers help students to understand how knowledge is created and how it is influenced by the racial, ethnic, and social-class position of individuals and groups” (Banks, 1993, p. 6).
  6. Prejudice Reduction – “interventions to help students to develop more positive racial attitudes and values” (Banks, 1993, p. 6)

Questions for Reflection Step-By-Step Instructions

Step 1. The video segments in The Learning Classroom were taped as teachers worked in their own classrooms. As you watch, jot down the questions you have about what you see the teacher do and how the students respond.

Step 2. When you’re done, click on the episode title from the list and compare your questions with the Questions for Reflection and responses that our project team has anticipated.

Step 3. Review the responses we have prepared to questions that match the ones you have asked. The expert responses are not “final answers,” they are provided to give you a starting point for your own reflection. What else might you add to the response you read?

Questions for Reflection

Question 1: The parent memoirs in Ms. Hayes-Parvin’s class were powerful, but I don’t see how I could make it work in my class.

Response 1: There are many issues that come up when developing the memoirs, and Hayes-Parvin mentioned a few of them – non-English speaking relatives, topics that are too sensitive to share with a class, and family circumstances that make it difficult to delve back more than a generation. One of Hayes-Parvin’s strategies is to spread the activities over a significant amount of a semester, so individual issues can be dealt with sensitively for each student. She also creates an emotionally safe environment in which the students and parents share stories, and over a period of time that encourages more and deeper participation.

Question 2: I noticed that some of the students in Kathleen Hayes-Parvin’s class have photos in their “writer’s notebooks.” Some students my not have photos from home to include in their notebooks, and thus may feel left behind. How could Kathleen handle this kind of inequity?

Response 2: Although it may seem like a minor detail to an outsider, to the student involved it is a “big deal.” That makes it important for a teacher to anticipate these inequities in their classrooms. If Kathleen recognizes that, perhaps, socio-economic differences give students different access to family photographs she might offer to take some pictures of the children for their notebooks. This could be offered to the entire class in an attempt to avoid singling out specific children.

Question 3: It is always beneficial to involve parents in their child’s education. Kathleen demonstrates how she involves parents by bringing them in to share their genealogy with the students. Considering the economic differences in the students, does she ever have problems with students who do not have access to the information, do not have an interesting story to tell, or do not have parents who are willing to come to the classroom?

Response 3: All students have an interesting story to tell. It’s up to the teacher to recognize which students in his/her class need extra help in uncovering their “stories.” Some students will be able to access this information at home with help from their parents. Others may need individual help from the teacher. Teachers can anticipate these differences and provide needed support. This may be a great opportunity for a teacher to make a connection with these students in a way that will enrich their lives dramatically.

Question 4: I notice that there are a variety of cultures represented in both classrooms shown in this episode. In a classroom of mostly Caucasian students, how does the teacher decide which cultures to focus on?

Response 4: Even a predominantly Caucasian class may have representatives of different European heritages with unique stories to tell, and individual families usually have specific customs that may revolve around a family enterprise or interest that spans several generations. These might involve a family business, a recreational interest or a talent in the arts. The teacher may also decide to explore cultures that are prevalent in surrounding communities or school districts. In a guided discussion, the teacher can assess her students’ prior knowledge and interests in other cultures and structure the scope of the learning tasks accordingly. However the teacher decides to approach this issue, it is important to consider the curriculum and the students’ interests in making the decision.

Question 5: Looking at the high school segment with various cultures represented in the classroom, isn’t it difficult to find texts that include all cultures? Does the teacher need to be concerned about representing all cultures in each text? How does a teacher decide which cultures to represent with the texts provided?

Response 5: When students are utilizing texts to make connections with their lives it is not entirely important that the text represent each student’s culture specifically. Students should be encouraged to make connections with all types of text and especially, considering this topic, texts that represent other cultures.

Question 6: With so many cultures represented in these classrooms it would take a great amount of time to extend curriculum to connect to all of the students’ lives. How do the teachers in this segment decide how much time to spend on extension activities?

Response 6: It is important to create a culture in the classroom where all children feel represented. In this situation, if the class already has this sense of culture and safety, they should be able to come to a collective decision on how they would like to extend their learning. It is possible that some students may have interests in one culture and others in another. By providing choices for extension activities the teachers will not only have various cultures represented but will also provide avenues for the students to extend their learning in a manner in which they choose.

Question 7: In the high school classroom the students are encouraged to share their own experiences as they relate to the text. These text-to-self connections help students make sense of what they are reading and aid in reflection. How does the teacher respond to the students who are resistant to sharing personal experiences with the class?

Question 7: In the high school classroom the students are encouraged to share their own experiences as they relate to the text. These text-to-self connections help students make sense of what they are reading and aid in reflection. How does the teacher respond to the students who are resistant to sharing personal experiences with the class?


Linda Darling-Hammond
Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Education, Stanford University

Luis Moll
Professor, Dept. of Language, Reading, and Culture, University of Arizona

Gloria Ladson-Billings
Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin
Sixth Grade Teacher, Birney Middle School, Southfield, Michigan

William Dean
Ninth Grade Teacher, East Palo Alto High School, Palo Alto, California

Jeff Gilbert
Ninth Grade Teacher, East Palo Alto High School, Palo Alto, California

TRANSCRIPT OF COMMENTS BY Luis Moll, Ph.D., University of Arizona

Excerpts from an interview with Luis Moll, Professor, Department of Language, Reading, and Culture, College of Education, University of Arizona

Recorded July, 2002

Discussion of culture and the concept of “funds of knowledge”

Why does culture matter? You have to think of it in the sense of, of teaching and learning, especially within something, an artificially created setting like a school. It’s always a cultural occurrence. It’s always a cultural happening, because human beings are doing it. And we are social and we’re cultural through and through. It all has to do with the broader issue of pedagogy, and how do we create conditions for learning, and for development for, students. And culture’s at the heart of that, I think.

The concept of funds of knowledge is from anthropology. Actually, Carlos Valez and James Greenburg, two colleagues here in anthropology, coined the term on the basis of their analysis of household functioning, especially the economic activities of households and how they make ends meet. And they found that, instead of exchanging capital for labor as we would on their formal relationships, that many household members exchange other types of funds which they labeled funds of knowledge. And we all do this through the usual exchanges that constitute our household life. So, for example, I need somebody to fix my car. I don’t know anything about auto mechanics, so I call you – who happen to have some experience with it, because you worked in a garage for ten years before you switched jobs. And I invite you over to the house to have some dinner, and then I tell you, “Listen, by the way I’m having some problems with my car. Do you mind, taking a look at it?” And usually on the basis of that relationship, you’ll say, “Sure, I’ll take a look at it.” And later on, I’m an expert at refrigeration and you’re having problems with your refrigeration at home, and you remember that you helped me with the car, and you call me, and I go to your house and give you a hand. Now, those sorts of social relationships and those sorts of exchanges, exchange other types of funds. They’re not the formal relationship of capital for labor. They exchange funds of knowledge. So that all households accumulate a tremendous amount of knowledge based on the productive activities of the household members, on their schooling experiences, and on other life experiences. And we find that households generate this knowledge and this knowledge is used strategically in terms of becoming a fund for exchange with others. So that the educational implications of the concept, of this anthropological concept is that we were able to share the concept with teachers and then develop ways of visiting local households, and meeting with parents, and meeting with the children with the idea of documenting the knowledge base that exists in the house. And the primary way that we start doing this is by documenting the labor history, because a lot of the knowledge that we possess within a household comes from the history of work of the household members. So that we were able then to collaborate with teachers in developing both theory and methods in how to approach the household and how to conceptualize it in terms of, not necessarily the problems that they may have, or the level of income, or the labor that they do, but in terms of the knowledge that may exist in that home. So it creates a perception of the home that is defined by the knowledge base of the households. So when one thinks of the home, one thinks of the resources that may be potentially available in that home, especially the knowledge that may be available there that we can then take advantage of for teaching and learning within the classroom. So the concept of funds of knowledge refers to the accumulated bodies of knowledge that reside within any household. And our task in documenting this knowledge is to create the relationships with parents and with children so that they tell us about the knowledge that they have. And then the work of the teachers is to reflect upon this knowledge and to figure out how to use it pedagogically – how to take advantage of it for purposes of instruction.

So, when you start doing this research on funds of knowledge, you start thinking about everything in relation to funds of knowledge. So when you see a group of kids, you see the kids of course, they’re individual kids. But they all belong to particular social networks – family social networks, kin, friends. And all those social networks are ways of connecting to knowledge, either again, to knowledge from work, or knowledge from schooling, or knowledge from life. So they all represent potential social networks that one can utilize to gain access to knowledge for use within classroom practice. But notice that you start then defining the home setting of the kids and the family conditions of the kids in positive ways. In terms of the resources and the wherewithal and the knowledge that they’ve accumulated through life and how we can use that knowledge as opposed to defining the households in constraining ways. “Oh, they haven’t had much schooling, therefore how can they be helpful to us as teachers? Oh, they may not have had much schooling, but they’ve had many other life experiences that may be quite valuable and it’s my responsibility to find out a little bit about it.” And if I can involve the kids in the inquiry of documenting the knowledge base that exists in their communities, then even better, because it provides them, provides the children as well, with both theory and methods in how to document this knowledge.

[Discussion of the segment in “The Classroom Mosaic” featuring William Dean and Jeff Gilbert at East Palo Alto High School]

Yeah, there are a variety of ways that teachers can organize activities to tap into funds of knowledge. For example, one of my favorite ways is when teachers develop theme cycles with literature and then strategically connect what’s in the stories to the experiences and the knowledge that the kids or their families may have. And so you remember in one of the video segments that they were reading a story and connecting it to the experiences and analyzing it in terms of not only the text that they’re reading, but the text of their lives and the lives of others.

In the East Palo Alto school, they were doing a very nice job of relating the analysis of text and talking about text, learning how to talk about text while building on the students’ experiences and their families’ experiences as additional content to help them develop those strategies of talking about text.

The consequences vary, depending on the teachers and the sorts of activities that they create for the kids. But what we’re after is to create some consciousness – for the teachers and the children – to learn how to use the everyday experiences that are available to them as resources for thinking – to develop a theoretical vocabulary. You’ll recall in the East Palo Alto school, the teacher was helping the kids develop a particular or special vocabulary, as part of their inquiry. Likewise, to develop a theoretical vocabulary to identify knowledge, to talk about cultural experiences and how to make sense of them, and to deliberately start relating the academic knowledge that they must acquire in the classroom to other sorts of knowledge that is available to them as well, creating that link, those connections, those mediated connections, we call them in our research between academic knowledge and other funds of knowledge available within the kids’ environment.

I tend to see the connection between the home culture and the classroom culture as beneficial. It’s not that every lesson that the teacher organizes must have a connection to the household. And it is not that everything that the teacher introduces must have immediate relevance for the children. I don’t think the teachers in East Palo Alto or in Detroit were necessarily after that. But it is that we’re trying to create strategic connections. That is, to make it clear to themselves as teachers, to the children as learners, that there is a worthwhile resource, an intellectual resource, as well as a cultural resource that is an abundant resource in their environment, and that includes their families and their experiences. So that it is worthwhile to create those things, to personalize instruction, the way that they were doing it, and they were doing a very good job of it, in order to hook the kids into the content, to lure them into the activity, and to engage them in this form of learning as inquiry that was found in both classrooms. So it’s not that everything you do must have a home connection, but man, it’s a powerful resource to have those connections with households and with parents. And, I think our pedagogy must take that into account, as opposed to closing the door to any possibilities of creating connections that take you beyond the classroom walls.

Is there a difference between culturally responsive teaching and good teaching? Ah, they’re probably related. I see the concept of culturally responsive teacher in the following way – where the teacher tries to become knowledgeable of the social history of the children, of the resources that may be available in what the families do. And, it becomes yet another tool in their teaching kit, and a very important one, because it is one that can facilitate these connections, these personal connections between curriculum and students. But it’s also this constant awareness that we’re involved in a cultural activity when we’re doing teaching, and that it behooves us then to expand a little bit the resources that we’re using for instruction – to go beyond the classroom walls and figure out what else is out there that I can use within my professional tool kit to help the kids learn and help the kids develop. So, can you do good teaching without being culturally responsive? Perhaps, but it has limitations because sooner or later you’re going to encounter content that the kids won’t engage, and then the tendency is to blame the kids as opposed to doing as the teacher in the Detroit school was doing – as well as in East Palo Alto – to figure out, “Wait a minute, what do I have to do to engage the kids, and what is available to me in terms of the social relationship with parents or others that can, that I can use to engage the kids in these intellectual activities.”

[Looking at the family memoirs segment in “The Classroom Mosaic”]

That was a very interesting classroom in which they were doing the family memoirs, and the parents were coming in to contribute to the lessons. There are a couple of observations there that related to the work that we’ve done. One is that to bring parents into the classrooms to contribute, you have to create a relationship to facilitate that participation. And it is through the creation of social relationships that we’re able to generate such partnerships with parents around schooling. But this doesn’t occur overnight, right? The teaches have to cultivate these relationships with the idea that the parents become a resource to help them with the academic teaching and the academic learning that must go on. But notice that the parent was coming into the class not to erase the blackboard, not to help the kids, to help the teacher clean up the room – that the parents were coming into that classroom to contribute intellectually to the agenda of the classroom. And that’s a very interesting definition because you are defining parents as intellectually capable and worthwhile, that they have the knowledge, the wherewithal to come and contribute to the content of the lessons, so they can become intellectual partners with the teachers and the kids in achieving the goals of schooling.

Discussion of cultural differences within the classroom

Cultural differences can, of course, have an influence on how teaching and learning takes place within the classroom. And one can think of numerous examples of ways of interacting that the children may be used to at home, or with their families or with their friends. And those ways of interacting are not privileged within the classroom, so there might be some difficulty in the child learning what is expected of me, in terms of how to interact within this setting. But, all children experience a mismatch to some extent between ways of interacting in the home and ways of interacting in the classroom. What’s important, I think, is for the teachers to be conscious that there are a variety of ways that the children may be used to interacting that may or may not include what she’s expecting or he is expecting in the classroom, and not to create a formidable barrier out of those discrepancies in ways of interacting. It is relatively straightforward for the children to be socializing, to how it’s done in the classroom and what the teacher’s expecting of me in ways of interacting in the classroom. So, yes, we should be aware of these different ways of interacting that may be culturally based. But, let’s also be reasonable in thinking that, hey, kids learn pretty quickly. We may not penalize them for their ways of their interacting – let me try to understand how they’re interacting. And at the same time, let me teach them what I expect of them, in terms of interactions that count within the classroom. So it’s not as much a barrier, but of the teacher being conscious that all of our ways of interacting are culturally based, and I might have to make some adjustments in the classroom to make sure I accommodate the kids, just as the kids are accommodating to what I expect them to do as well – this mutual accommodation.

Discussion of culture and stereotyping

We worry a lot about notions of culture that convey a certain static sense. We usually refer to those as normative models of culture. And most people are used to talking about culture in these ways. Like, for example, when we say, “Well you know, the French are like this, but the British are like that. Or, Mexicans are like this, or Cubans are like that.” And we’re all used to talking about culture in these normative ways. But that easily leads to rather stereotypic ways of thinking about culture and cultural practices.

We prefer to think of culture in much more concrete ways, in much more material ways – what we sometimes refer to as cultural practice understanding, or what anthropologists call perceptual notions of culture – where the idea is to concentrate on the practices and the processes, how people engage life. Tim Engle, the British anthropologist, puts it this way, and I like the way he puts it – he puts it,”It’s not as much how people live in cultures, but it is how people live culturally – that is, how they use their strategies for life, their learning, their experiences, their social relationships, to engage life.” So when we do our research with teachers, that’s what we’re interested in – how do the people that we’re studying, whatever their cultural background, how do they engage life? What can we learn from them? What knowledge and wherewithal do they have, do they possess? How can we document that? And how can we make it useful for teachers and kids within, within the schools. So we’re constantly checking ourselves that we’re not falling into this trap we could call it, of considering culture in rather stereotypic, static ways, but to keep in mind this enormous heterogeneity within any cultural group – so that to think of these normative models is really quite deceptive, and that we have to consider the dynamic, and the variety, and the diversity of experiences that occur within groups, not to mention across cultural groups.

Discussion of Moll’s work connecting schools and families

Well, the way that we’ve gone about attempting to create these connections between teachers and parents has been through the household visits. Now, these are not just any old household visits. Many teachers have experiences with household visits, but they’re usually motivated by a particular problem – “Mrs. Smith I need to meet with you because Johnny is being, uh, disruptive in class.” I ask virtually any parent, “What is the first thing that crosses your mind when you get a phone call from the teacher?” They say, “Oh my goodness, here’s a problem. I wonder what he or she has done now?” Right? What we’re trying to do in the research that we’ve conducted is to redefine that – for the teachers to make household visit, but not just for the sake of the visit, but with a theoretical agenda of documenting the knowledge base of the household, documenting the social and work experiences of the family. But to do that, in order to be able to have parents trust you enough to tell you about their lives and about their experiences, you have to first create a relationship. And we create relationships by exchanging information. We call it ethnographic interviews where it’s a mix between a conversation, a friendly conversation and with, a guided conversation, though, because it’s a part of an interview, because you have an agenda, right, a research agenda when you enter the home that you make public to the families as you enter, so that, through that conversation you start creating the relationship. So, for example, in the training that we do with the teachers, we tell them, “Reveal a little something about yourself as well, so that it becomes a mutual exchange of information, as opposed to a survey, with the families. But what the teachers get out of these interviews is not simply the documentation of knowledge, but it is the formation of social relationships with the families. We make repeated visits. We help the teachers develop case studies of families, and we make a minimum of three visits per family, and this is how it goes. The first visit is quite formal, everything is in its place. The second visit becomes a little bit more informal and you’re expected – the relationship is forming. And by the third visit, you’re being invited for dinner or you’re being invited to participate in a family activity. And so you have all these clues that a social relationship is forming and with it certain responsibilities for the teacher. But it is through those relationships that then you can strategically start creating your theory and your practice and how to make connections with families or with other significant people in the communities for the purposes of schooling.

Discussion of the background on Moll’s work

When we started the research on funds of knowledge it was a collaborative effort between anthropologists at the university and those of us in education. From the beginning of our work we tried to create a link between this concept of funds of knowledge, it’s an anthropological concept, and the Vygotskian cultural-historical approach. Now, Vygotsky proposed that thinking is socially and culturally constituted, and in great part it occurs through the resources that we acquire to help us develop our thinking. We acquire tools such as literacy and mathematics and we use other resources, such as our social relationships, and ways of discourse, ways of interacting, to help develop how we think and what we think. So we thought that the concept of funds of knowledge – thinking of knowledge and the family’s knowledge as a cultural resource would fit right into yet another one of those resources for thinking that are available for human beings – in this instance, for teachers and students within schools. So we have an indirect link to Vygotsky’s ideas – taking his social and cultural perspective and then trying to figure out how does the funds of knowledge mediate what teachers and kids are able to do within the classrooms. That’s one connection. The second connection is that we purposely create a setting for teachers that serves as a mediating structure. In here we’re using the concept of mediation in the Vygotskian sense of the term. And it’s a place where teachers will get together after school with us and with other colleagues in order to think. And that’s really a luxury in most schools for the teachers to have time to think, especially with others. We call it a mediating structure because that study group that we form with teachers is the place where we bring the documentation and the experiences that we have in our household visits. We bring it there for analysis and reflection. And as we’re in those study groups, it’s where we also do some planning on how we can use this stuff from the households for classroom teaching. And it is also where we reflect upon practice, upon the teacher’s practice within that collaborative study group setting. So it mediates the connection between the homes and the home visits and the classroom practices. So that we felt it created a triangle – household, classrooms and then study group settings where the teachers get a chance to think about these issues with other colleagues.

Discussion of ways to support culturally responsive teaching

There are several ways that schools can support what we’re calling culturally responsive teaching. But a primary way is by creating time and space for the teachers to think with each other. Teaching is a very hectic profession. I like to tell teachers that if we take their schedule, their work schedule and we apply it to the university, we would paralyze the university, because there would be no time for doing it, to do anything else. No time for research, no time for reading, no time for discussion with colleagues, no time for writing, for thinking. So that one of the ways that administrators can contribute is to create the time and space, a setting, once a week, twice a week where teachers can meet with their colleagues and think about what is it that they’re doing. And then part of the agenda within those settings can be, how can we take full advantage of the resources in the local community, the resources found in local households, and the social relationships that we created, and the people that we know. Or to create those links, right, between cultural experiences and teaching and learning in the classroom.

TRANSCRIPT OF COMMENTS BY Gloria Ladson-Billings, Ph.D. University of Wisconsin-Madison

Excerpts from an interview with Gloria Ladson-Billings, Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Recorded July 29, 2002.

Discussion of culture and learning

There’s always this question about the relationship between culture and learning. And I try to remind, people that much of our education has been based on one, maybe two disciplines – psychology and sociology. And for all that they have to offer us, they’re incomplete without understanding that there’s a third discipline that could be considered. And that’s anthropology, whose major focus is culture. Culture is such an everyday, already there experience for us that we don’t notice it. It’s like the idea of being a fish in water. We just don’t notice the water. So, I would say over the past twenty to twenty-five years we’ve begun to understand that culture really does play a very important role in learning. It’s around us and with us. It’s every moment. The way in which we think is culturally mediated. The way in which we understand the world is culturally mediated. And until we understand ourselves as cultural beings – not just the kids, but the adults also are cultural beings – then we really don’t understand the way in which we do the things we do and why we do the things that we do. So culture is a powerful mediator of our learning and our understanding. The relationship between culture and cognition is so tight, that it’s very difficult to even ferret out which part’s cultural, which part’s cognition.

From my perspective, culturally responsive teaching, or, as I like to term it, culturally relevant teaching, has three main features. The first is academic achievement – that, by and large, no matter what else it is that schools are set to do, they are charged with the responsibility of helping kids to achieve academically, to learn something. The second part of it is what I’d call cultural consciousness. And what I mean by this is that kids have a firm and clear understanding of their own cultural background, its worth, its positives and negatives, but it makes sense to them in ways that help them link up with their academic achievement. And then the third component is what I’d call a social-political consciousness. It’s not enough to “know something” and be smart, or to know about yourself. You also have to understand how knowing about yourself, knowing things, about others, and knowing information, relate to the larger social and political picture – so the kids can begin to, to really answer for themselves that question – “Why do I have to know this?” What social-political consciousness does for kids is help them place their knowledge in a broader perspective, to ask the hard questions about why the system does or doesn’t work in certain ways, and to ask themselves, “What can I do about this?”

One of the ways that we ensure that we’re teaching in culturally responsive ways is to, first of all, understand the role that culture has on our own learning. The typical teacher is really sort of outer-directed and focused on the kids and how the kids are learning, and what the kids are learning. And I guess I would ask teachers to be a little bit more introspective and ask themselves, “How is it that I learned this in this way? What was difficult for me to learn? What was easy for me to learn?” There’s an activity that I do with pre-service teachers in which I ask them to write an educational autobiography, and in it they write about the things that were difficult for them to learn and the things that were easy for them to learn. And as they share them with each other they see that even though they’re all college students, all at the same school, you know – they needed to have had really high grade point averages and good SAT or ACT scores – there is incredible variation in their educational autobiographies, and that different people learn differently. Just that kind of awareness is very important as you go into a classroom where you have to deal with sometimes 25-30 children or 150 adolescents in a day – that you bring, everybody’s bringing in a piece of cultural baggage, and the teacher’s bringing in baggage, too.

[looking at the memoirs sequence in “The Classroom Mosaic”]
The first teacher in the sixth-grade class was doing work with memoirs, and what I saw as really culturally relevant about that approach was that she was really asking kids to think about their own background, their own family histories and tying it to a larger project. So, the kids actually were bringing their own culture into the classroom in a very tangible way. What I thought was really powerful about it was the way in which they got to share that information so that it became really the stuff of the curriculum. It wasn’t just study about myself, it was studying about myself so that you also can learn about me and learn about the places that I am from and my family.

The notion of funds of knowledge is something that Luis Moll from Arizona helped us understand, that these families, these communities, actually do have resources. There’s lots of things that people know that are not well documented, that are not well understood by a typical classroom curriculum. So the point of having kids or teachers go into the community is to have them be able to unearth – it’s almost a kind of educational archeology where you begin to pull out of these communities information that is useful, that is important, that is relevant, and bring it into the classroom to make sense of it and to share it.

The sixth graders that we viewed gave really good examples of the way in which one’s own home culture and community can be brought into the classroom. They pulled on what Luis Moll would call funds of knowledge. That is, that they’re incredible resources in communities, they’re incredible resources in families that typically have been overlooked by schools and standard school curriculum. So what you saw in that segment was kids going home, talking to their parents, not just about, “How do I do an assignment,” but, “What can you share to help me do this assignment to help make it understandable?” And it was not just about kids focusing on themselves, so much as it was the combination of their understanding of their own background and sharing that background with other students, so that it becomes really a part of what Michael Apple would call the official curriculum – you bring into the classroom those ideas, those perspectives, those different experiences that you just can’t get out of a text book.

One of the interesting things in this segment with the sixth graders and working on memoirs was the teacher’s response to the fact that our families are changing. Not everybody comes from a nuclear family. Not everybody comes from a family in which there’s a mom and a dad who were birth parents. The sort of marvelous thing about the changing society is that what constitutes a family has been expanded and really reflects what people probably have been doing for centuries. And the classroom is finally catching up with that, the idea that some children may indeed come from families in which they have been adopted into those families, or they may come from families that represent particular social stresses where they have to be foster care or some kind of temporary family. That’s still their experience, and that experience is still important to acknowledge – to have kids feel comfortable and willing to share. And here was a teacher who had actually come up with a way to make sure that all of the children were included.

[looking at the segment in “The Classroom Mosaic” featuring William Dean and Jeff Gilbert]
In the segment from East Palo Alto, I think the teachers were trying to help the students, first of all, to take some ownership of the curriculum. The traditional classroom is one in which there is a hierarchical relationship between the teacher and the student. The teacher has the knowledge, the student is supposed to receive it. And what I think we saw in that segment is that teachers are trying to change the relationship between themselves, the students, and the knowledge. So, rather than the teacher being this sort of fount of knowledge, they were trying to get kids to, construct knowledge on their own, to share it, to recycle it. So you really didn’t see a lot in the way of “teaching,” if you think of teaching as the teacher standing up in front of the kids. What you actually saw were kids teaching themselves, teaching each other – which I think is really, really powerful because then kids understand that this knowledge is available on a lot of different levels.

Discussion of metacognitive thinking

I think there’s no way for a teacher to teach kids how to perform critically without demonstrating that kind of critical thinking themselves. I think one of the reasons that we are so much like our parents, or the people that we live with is because we see them day in and day out go through particular thought processes and patterns of behavior. What kids see in classrooms are often isolated segments and snapshots of teachers’ thinking. So we have to be much more explicit in our discussion of our thinking. Teachers have to be willing to ask a question aloud that they have about their own work. They have to be willing to share with students – “This is what we’re trying to do, this is what I hope we’re going to get to; I’m not sure if we’re going to get there.” And be willing to have kids understand that there are risks involved in both teaching and learning. The process of thinking critically is something that kids actually have to begin to see.

One of the things that we can begin to do in K-12 classrooms is to explicitly say to kids things like, “I used to think that so and so were so, but then I learned that it was this way. And that was really hard for me to think about this in a different way.” To actually do the kind of metacognitive work more explicitly for kids helps them understand that it’s okay to be conflicted about an idea, to be unsure, to take a risk.

In the two segments, both the middle school and the high school, we saw teachers who talked about their previous experiences in classrooms. They talked about the way in which they’ve tried to work. The sixth grade teacher for example, makes an explicit reference to having come from a country that one of the students identifies as the place of his family’s origin. So right away, you have a teacher who’s sort of made a connection saying, “This is not just about you, this is about me, too. That I, too, have a personal history that gets shared.” With the high school teacher, he talks about having taught for about 12 years and having had some successes with certain things, and struggling with them. So it makes him understand that there was nothing magical about whatever it was he started out with, that every context demands another re-looking and rethinking. And so his willingness to rethink his own practice is a good example of being more introspective and clear about his own professional work.

I think we sell children short, we think that there are lots of things that they can’t do or that they can’t understand. And often it’s not the concept that they can’t get, it’s the way it’s presented. So kids can, for example, understand the concept of fairness. I had the delightful experience of being in a classroom with a first and second grade class where the teacher was trying to get kids to understand the way in which scarcity and want causes people to be under such duress and pressure that they do things that are socially unacceptable. And the way she did it was by distributing cookies unequally. She gave some kids two cookies. She gave some kids one cookie and she gave some kids no cookies. Well you can imagine having six and seven-year olds with unequal numbers of cookies. And it was so bizarre for them not to have everybody have the same amount of cookies. What was interesting is that they didn’t get mad at her, they began to get mad at each other. “Give me one, you’ve got two.” “That’s not fair.” And, when the kids began to do this, she was, of course, in control as teacher, and she’d say, “Well, stop and say, “Okay, why are you mad at Jesus?'” “Well, he’s got two, and I should get one.” “Well, Jesus, why aren’t you giving?” “Well, it’s not my fault that he didn’t get any.”

So there was this really sort of microcosm of the unequal distribution of wealth that was going on. And now she certainly couldn’t start the class by saying we’re going to talk about unequal distribution of wealth. Kids wouldn’t get it. But they could get the fact that when you have huge disparities between haves and have-nots, have-nots begin to act in socially unacceptable ways and haves often work in ways that protect their own self-interest. So here with very young children you could teach a very sophisticated concept.

Most of us grew up in a time when whatever an adult said was correct. We accepted it. We didn’t challenge it. We didn’t question it. We now know that knowledge is really something quite flexible. It’s not fixed. Things that we thought we knew in the 1950s and 1960s, we know are not necessarily so. So we understand knowledge to be changing. If you watch the evening news, every night you hear a new thing about a new report and you understand that knowledge is changing. To view it critically is to always ask yourself, “Okay, in what context is this so? For what population does this make sense? Under what circumstances?” And those are the kinds of questions that we want kids to be able to do. If you look at something like the work that Debbie Meier did with the Central Park East, the very questions that drove that program were questions that viewed knowledge critically – “How do we know this? Why do we have to learn this? Of what import is this? What’s the evidence?” Those are the kinds of questions that we constantly want learners, whether they are in kindergarten or graduate school, to be asking.

Discussion of parent involvement in creating classrooms that support learning

The question that often comes up with school change and innovation is, “What is the role of the community?” And I would really press people to go back and look at high performing schools. There are very few high performing schools, particularly those in upper-middle class communities, that don’t have a lot of parent involvement. And having that parent involvement or parent support doesn’t necessarily mean that a parent has to be on every planning committee, or a parent has to okay or veto decisions, but that they have to be well-informed, they have to have access, and they have to understand that, their participation is not only welcome, but it’s sought. When you look at a school that’s doing well, parents have figured out how to do that. Often the question will become, however, in the schools that we can’t get all of our parents. Well, the truth is nobody gets all of their parents. But you get a core of parents. You get parents that are visible, available, that are interested, and what happens is other parents who may not ever show up to the school building know that I can call Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones to ask them, because they are well informed, and I trust their judgment, that they play, they play a pivotal role in the community. I think we’ve often taken this all or nothing approach in education, and sometimes we just need a good, stable core. That may even be true of the teachers. When you look in urban schools for example, you know that there’s high turnover. So the idea that you help do school reform with every single teacher is probably not feasible, because every year you have a new group of teachers who may come in. But if you can get a stable core, if you can get a third of a, a teaching staff that buys into new ideas and new ways of doing things, their expertise spreads, it gets shared. They are seen as knowledgeable, and they’re seen as people who can actually help other people. Ideally what you have in a school is a learning community. So you don’t just have, kids learning, but you have everybody who participates in that community learning. Perhaps really what you have is a teaching-learning community, in which every person who participates is teaching, and every person that participates is learning.

Often I give talks about culturally relevant teaching and during the question and answer segment, there’s a question I almost always get. And I get it so often that sometimes I write it down and show the audience that I knew this question was going to come up. And I’ve even written an article entitled, “But That’s Just Good Teaching.” In fact, that’s what people will say, “Well, what you’ve described to us is just good teaching.” And I respond, “Yes, you’re right, it is good teaching. But my question is, why is it that so little of it is going on in classrooms where children are of different races and ethnicities and language groups?” I would argue that many, many kids do have access to what might be termed culturally relevant teaching, and they tend to be in districts serving very high achievers, where there are higher income communities, where the parents themselves demand that the teachers work at very, very levels with their kids’ academic achievement. But they validate and affirm kids’ own cultural backgrounds, and that they raise hard questions with them. That typically doesn’t happen in classrooms serving poor, urban children or poor, rural children because there is this sense that, for whatever reason, that these children can’t. And you can fill in the blank after “they can’t ___.” What I would argue is that if we begin to teach all students to the highest possible levels, if the expectation for kids to learn to be able to pull on their cultural context, their background, their community, their own individual, experiences, and if we have kids raise hard questions about the nature of our society and their place in the world, then we indeed will begin to see this. But this is hard work. It’s not easy. There’s no recipe for it. There’s no handy-dandy five-step guide to it. It is a process of becoming a professional, of asking important questions about the nature of teaching and learning, of being willing to change – of always asking oneself, “How could I do a better job?”

Every teacher I’ve encountered has wanted to be a successful teacher. I just cannot believe that people get up in the morning and say, “I wanna be unsuccessful.” But what does success mean? How do they define that? And a big part of culturally relevant teaching is about having this vision of success that is an inclusion vision. It’s saying all of the kids, no matter where they’re from, no matter what their circumstances are, have the potential to be successful in this classroom. And it’s really my job to help them attain that success. Many of us, I think, have grown accustomed to some degree of failure. It’s sort of endemic in our society that there’s the best and there’s the rest. And so culturally relevant teaching is really asking you to have a totally different orientation towards teaching and learning. It’s asking you to think about, “What would it take for this classroom to represent the best? What kind of work do I have to do? How do I get the best out of every youngster who is here?” It’s a very, very different orientation, I think, to teaching and learning. Much of our teaching has been predicated, as I said, on psychology and sociology – which are very useful disciplines. But there’s something about anthropology and its focus on culture that makes us think a little more broadly about what resources we could tap to help people be successful in the classroom, be really active engaged, involved learners. There’s something about one’s own background that provides a wonderful stepping stone to bigger and better things. If you take, for example, those youngsters who come to us having mastered a language other than English, we shouldn’t think about that as a deficit. We need to think about that as a resource because they’re going to use that language to, acquire new languages, to acquire English and other languages. I try to remind people that we dream in our native languages, you know, and what you dream really holds potential for what you can become. So we really need teachers to really take the opportunity to sort of stretch themselves intellectually, to care about their own intellectual lives and what they’re learning, and how they’re learning as they wait to have them think more deeply about kids’ learning.

I think of the things that I really want people not to take away from a notion of culturally relevant teaching is an idea of somehow I’m teaching “the other.” And I sort of have “the other” in quotes – that strange, exotic, different person. If you ask someone what America is, it is about this incredible amalgamation of peoples and ideas. For example, to think of American Indian students as “the other,” well that would be sort of bizarre given that they’re documented as the first people to be here. To think of African-American students as “the other,” when most African-Americans basically trace their heritage back to a time that precedes most of the major European immigration. To think of Latino students as “the other,” when particularly Mexican-Americans or Puerto Ricans students have been in the continent on this place that has shifted, and changed, and the boundaries have moved, and gone back and forth – they’ve been here a very, very long time. So I think it’s important for us to make a distinction between, what might be thought of as founding groups of America, if you will, and this wonderful, new immigration where people are becoming Americans. In fact, we’re all becoming Americans.


Web-Based Readings

Brandt, R. (1994, May). On educating for diversity: a conversation with James A. Banks. Educational Leadership, 51(8). Retrieved 1/12/03.

This article describes types of multicultural education.
Banks, J. (1994). Educating for Diversity: Transforming the Mainstream Curriculum, Educational Leadership,51(8). Retrieved 1/12/03.
This article describes dimensions of multicultural education.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How children learn (Chapter 4, see selected pages 108-111). In How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Related Links

Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation
Facing History and Ourselves works with teachers to consider ways of bringing material in the classroom related to diversity, racism, and prejudice. Included on the Web site are study guides, book and video recommendations, and information about professional development opportunities.

George Lucas Educational Foundation
The George Lucas Educational Foundation Web site provides feature articles and interviews related to school-community partnerships. See, in particular, articles and expert interviews on home visits under the ?Involved communities: Parent involvement? section of the Web site.

National Urban Alliance
NUA is a research-based organization that utilizes cultural research as well as cognitive development, reasoning, thinking, and higher-order comprehension skills research to improve education.

Teaching Tolerance
Teaching Tolerance is a project at the Southern Poverty Law Center that produces a free magazine with classroom strategies and curriculum ideas that focus on diversity and tolerance. The Web site includes an online version of the magazine, classroom resources and activities, and information about grants for teachers developing anti-bias projects in their classrooms.

The Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence
University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Education
1640 Tolman Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
Phone: 510-643-9024
fax 510-643-6239
Located at the University of California Berkeley, CREDE developed standards for effective pedagogy for all students.