Can we understand cultural components of classroom instruction?

Observers’ biases, expectations, and culturally-embedded beliefs make this task difficult
Image: Jacobs Foundation
Image: Jacobs Foundation

Increasing diversity across the globe calls for teachers, leaders, and researchers to first get better at understanding and capturing cultural elements of classroom instruction before using that information to enhance student learning.

Across the world, schools are becoming more diverse than ever before. In the United States, there are 43.2 million immigrants—a fourfold increase since the 1960s, and minoritized students are now the majority in K-12 enrollment. Globally, a record 25.9 million refugees have been forced from their homes—nearly half are under the age of 18. These international migration trends require that teachers and school leaders respond in ways that acknowledge an increasingly diverse student body and their needs.

Emerging research and theory suggests that diverse students may benefit from a specialized set of teaching practices that treat students’ diverse backgrounds as assets to their learning. This might include teachers providing classroom literature that reflects perspectives from multiple ethnicities or engaging students in projects that examine inequities in the local community.

A movement towards capturing cultural components of classroom instruction

Traditionally, rubrics used to observe classrooms have not attended to these types of culturally responsive practices. Instead, commonly used rubrics reflect ‘generic’ aspects of classroom instruction and promote the majority group’s ways of thinking, interacting, and communicating. This is an issue that various scholars have acknowledged and are beginning to address. One response has included the development of observation rubrics to measure culturally responsive classroom practices.

“Diverse students may benefit from a specialized set of teaching practices that treat students’ diverse backgrounds as assets to their learning.”

In the Teaching Diverse Youth Project, my colleague Lotte Henrichs and I used such an instrument. Our study goal was to determine if we can see cultural components of classroom practice and, if so, if this information provides additional knowledge about effective teaching. Preliminary results from our study, conducted in the Netherlands and in the United States, revealed that although culturally responsive elements were relatively absent from classrooms, when they are observed they illuminate unique aspects of classroom practice that are above and beyond ‘generic’ instructional practices.

Equally important was research team members’ reflections throughout the study. Our team consists of members from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds, in some cases different from the country in which the study was being conducted, and likewise from the students and teachers in the classrooms being observed. Thus, looking in classrooms for cultural dimensions of instruction was an incredibly complex task.

Observers’ values shape the coding of instructional practices

Our first challenge arose when trying to measure student engagement. We recognized that expectations for the roles and behaviors of teachers as well as students varied significantly across cultures and that in some cases these expectations were embedded in values regarding respect and normative expectations for adults, elders, teachers, children, and students.

“Expectations for the roles and behaviors of teachers as well as students vary significantly across cultures.”

For example, student engagement in one culture may be considered high if students are actively listening (e.g., not attending to any other activity, following the directions of the teacher). However, in another culture, these same behaviors may be considered passive and coded as low or no engagement. Likewise, observers with varied cultural values also might have different opinions on the meaning of eye contact or lack thereof between teachers and students.

By acknowledging that observers’ cultural values, educational background, and personal experiences shape the coding of instructional practices, particularly culturally-embedded ones, researchers who study such topics might benefit from documenting and reflecting upon their pre-conceived notions of classrooms and human interaction.

In closing: Can we see cultural components of classroom instruction? Our study findings indicate “yes“. However, there is ample opportunity for enhancing our ability to do so. Merely the activity of observing and trying to capture culturally-embedded components of classroom instruction generates important and rich conversations between research team members.

“This greater awareness will allow us to move to more intentional and richer suggestions for integrating and addressing culture into schools, enhancing student learning particularly for the most diverse schools.”

Observing a classroom together as a research team and then discussing the following questions: “Would you want to be a student in this classroom?” “Why or why not?” oftentimes reveals coders’ biases, expectations, and culturally-embedded belief systems. Becoming aware of these is just one of the many steps needed to improve our ability to capture and code cultural components of classroom instruction, fostering greater awareness of our own cultural biases, norms, and expectations, as well as that of others.

This will allow us to move from suggestions like “examine the diversity of your classroom library and make adjustments to address any gaps”, to more intentional and richer suggestions for integrating and addressing culture into schools like “use lessons that demonstrate various cultures’ contributions to mathematics” or “modify assessments to remove bias”, enhancing student learning particularly for the most diverse schools.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Lotte Henrichs at Utrecht University. She is a co-Principal Investigator on the Teaching Diverse Youth Project (with Alyson Lavigne at Utah State University), and has contributed to the development of this blog post. The author would also like to thank Shiquan (Vivian) Shao for her contribution to this post, and Jorge Americo Acosta Feliz—both are Research Assistants on the Teaching Diverse Youth Project’s U.S. site.

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