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What is culturally responsive teaching?

By Educators Team at Understood

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

At a Glance

  • Culturally responsive teaching is a rich, intentional approach woven into every aspect of student learning.

  • It focuses on the assets students bring to the classroom rather than what students can’t do.

  • It raises expectations and makes learning relevant for all students. 

Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is a research-based approach to teaching. It connects students’ cultures, languages, and life experiences with what they learn in school. These connections help students access rigorous curriculum and develop higher-level academic skills. 

Our brains are wired to make connections. It’s easier for our brains to learn and store information when we have a hook to hang it on. That hook is background knowledge. Students bring this knowledge to the classroom every day.

But for students of color, English language learners (ELLs), and other underserved student populations, those assets are often overlooked. When that happens, educators miss the chance to use them to support learning. (See recent work by Zaretta Hammond for the neuroscience behind this.)

CRT values and reflects the assets of all students. By doing that, it raises academic expectations for all learners. It also sends the message that multiculturalism is an asset.

Dive deeper

The benefits of culturally responsive teaching

Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced the concept of culturally responsive teaching. She saw it as a way to maximize students’ academic achievement by integrating their cultural references in the classroom. Since then, a deep field of research has developed around CRT, including important work by leaders like Geneva Gay and Sonia Nieto. 

More teachers are using CRT to best teach diverse student populations. They’re also finding it’s a powerful way to reach all students. Here’s why:

1. It raises expectations for all students.

With CRT, teachers move away from a deficit mindset (focusing on what a student can’t do). Instead, they identify students’ assets and use them to create rigorous, student-centered instruction. This is especially important for students from underserved groups whose skills are often underestimated.

2. It helps schools better meet students’ needs.

Underserved students may face implicit bias because of their race, culture, or language. (Implicit bias refers to the unconscious attitudes or stereotypes we all hold.) As a result, these students are often overrepresented in . Other times, their needs go undetected. They’re also often underrepresented in gifted education. By using an assets mindset, schools are more likely to better identify and serve all students. 

3. It builds cultural competence.

An inclusive curriculum helps teachers and students understand different perspectives, appreciate others’ strengths, and build empathy. CRT can also help teachers reflect on how their own identity and experiences impact their attitudes and teaching practices.

4. It helps students feel valued and empowered.

When students see themselves represented in the curriculum, they feel like they belong. They’re more likely to develop the trust it takes to build a relationship with a teacher. 

A sense of belonging makes learning easier and builds students’ self-confidence. Learn more about the brain science behind this

How CRT, UDL, and SEL work together

Culturally responsive teaching and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) work together to create equitable learning for all students. Both approaches include the use of students’ backgrounds and high expectations in the classroom. And both use instruction that engages students with their needs in mind.

CRT also supports social-emotional learning (SEL). It helps teachers get to know their students. When planning SEL lessons, teachers can use that knowledge to make sure their lessons value students. Pairing SEL with CRT also helps students navigate contexts both inside and outside of school.

Learn more about UDL and SEL .

For educators: How to use CRT in the classroom

To put culturally responsive teaching into practice, follow these ideas:

  • Identify students’ assets.

  • Create a welcoming classroom environment and develop authentic, caring relationships.

  • Examine the curriculum to increase rigor and relevance. 

  • Explore resources to deepen your own understanding.

Explore a guide to using CRT in the classroom , which includes distance learning strategies. 

For educators: How to partner with families

Family partnerships are an essential part of culturally responsive teaching. Think about how to make your family outreach more culturally responsive by asking:

  • What strengths and interests can you identify among your students’ families? 

  • Is the school sending messages that all families are welcome at the school? Are there barriers to engaging families that you want to address?

  • How can you include families, regardless of language, in school activities?

Learn more about why family partnerships are important to student outcomes. And get tips for engaging with families of English language learners .

Lydia Breiseth (director of Colorín Colorado), Shivohn García, PhD (senior director of the Impact team at Understood), and Shaquala Butler ( Understood Teacher Fellow ) contributed to this article. 

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom