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  • Writer's pictureJerica Knox, PhD

Back to the Basics of Cultural Responsiveness: What It Is and What It Is Not

Jerica Knox, PhD

Postdoctoral Fellow

Culturally relevant (or responsive) pedagogy was initially conceptualized to explain the intersection of culture and teaching and to increase academic achievement in students of color (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Teaching is never culturally neutral, and neither are classrooms. Culture influences the way teachers teach and the way students interpret what is taught. When these cultural lenses do not match—which is often true for racially and linguistically minoritized students—opportunities to connect with instruction are reduced (Gay, 2013).

So, what do culturally responsive teachers do? They acknowledge the influence of culture on teaching and learning and integrate students’ ways of knowing into instruction. They also affirm students’ cultures and increase their learning of others’ backgrounds as well as increase students’ ability to identify, analyze, and solve societal inequities (Gay, 2013; Ladson-Billings, 1995). In doing so, students are better able to connect to the instruction, learn, and achieve. Indeed, increasing academic achievement is integral to culturally responsive pedagogy. Culturally responsive education has demonstrated promising positive impact on students’ achievement, engagement, and academic efficacy (Bottiani et al., 2020; Kelley et al., 2015).

While cultural responsiveness has gained momentum in K-12 education, scholars in the field note that the concept has often been misused or poorly implemented as evidenced by practices that are not actually culturally responsive (Sleeter et al., 2012). Though perhaps well-intended, some attempts at cultural responsiveness may result in further marginalization and harm of racially and linguistically minoritized students. Below are some common misconceptions and misuses of culturally responsive pedagogy and recommendations for pushing beyond them.

The Celebration Method of Cultural Responsiveness

Cultural responsiveness is often understood as simply a celebration of culture (Sleeter et al., 2011). This may look like hosting a cultural event where students bring in food from their culture or displaying flags from different countries around the classroom. While there is nothing wrong with celebrating the variety of students in a classroom, limiting cultural responsiveness to the observance of diversity fails to target academic achievement. Remember, the goal of cultural responsiveness is to increase academic achievement in racially and linguistically marginalized students. Celebration alone may promote a positive school climate, but it is unlikely to impact the academic and cognitive performance of students. Instead, educators should continue to offer cultural celebrations and apply lessons learned from these celebrations to foster learning and instruction.

The ABC 123 Method of Cultural Responsiveness

Another way educators may misapply cultural responsiveness is by treating the concept as a checklist of practices versus a comprehensive system approach (Evans et al., 2020; Sleeter et al., 2012). For example, professional development on cultural responsiveness often results in educators asking for an actionable set of strategies to use in the classroom. We call this the ABC 123 method of cultural responsiveness because it illustrates that teachers are compelled to follow a cultural responsiveness rubric wherein the practices are always the same, similar to the alphabet or number line. In reality, cultural responsiveness looks different in and across classrooms, teachers, students, and years. Reducing cultural responsiveness to a set of steps inadvertently assumes that every practice will work for every student and classroom, which is antithetical to the purpose of cultural responsiveness. Instead, teachers may ask themselves: What will work for this particular classroom with this group of students? What do I know about myself and my students that I can use as a bridge to teach the content? This approach offers a more dynamic method of applying a culturally responsive lens by each individual teacher to each unique student, classroom, and school.

The Excite to Engage Method of Cultural Responsiveness

Cultural responsiveness may be reduced to the addition of something “exciting” to instruction to get students engaged. For example, Evans and colleagues (2020) describe a teacher playing a hip hop song at the beginning of the class period, followed by regular instruction. The students were excited while the song was playing, however, they quickly disengaged when regular instruction resumed, and the teacher decided that cultural responsiveness did not “work”. Similar to the celebration method, the excite to engage method of cultural responsiveness may not actually improve academic achievement. It may engage students temporarily; however, the content of the engagement may have less to do with empowering students intellectually and simply reflect a clumsy attempt at engaging them with the standard, non-culturally responsive curriculum. Instead, educators could look at the curriculum and course content more broadly and, preferably with input from students, and integrate resources and learning tools that reflect students’ cultures and communities. In the example above, rather than playing a song and then proceeding to typical instruction, a culturally responsive teacher could ask students how to best integrate hip hop into course activities as an avenue for their learning.

Other misconceptions and misuses of culturally responsive pedagogy exist, and it will be important for educators to continuously reflect on their practices to ensure alignment with the actual processes and purpose of cultural responsiveness. Some questions to ask yourself include: (1) Are my racially and linguistically minoritized students achieving? (2) Do my culturally responsive practices influence academic achievement? Continuously reflecting on these questions increases the probability of engaging in authentic culturally responsive pedagogy. Failure to ask oneself these important questions may result in continued misuse of cultural responsiveness in teaching and a missed opportunity to promote academic achievement of racially and linguistically minoritized students.


Bottiani, J. H., McDaniel, H. L., Henderson, L., Castillo, J. E., & Bradshaw, C. P. (2020). Buffering effects of racial discrimination on school engagement: The role of culturally responsive teachers and caring school police. Journal of School Health, 90(12), 1019-1029.

Gay, G. (2013). Teaching to and through cultural diversity. Curriculum inquiry, 43(1), 48-70.

Kelley, H. M., Siwatu, K. O., Tost, J. R., & Martinez, J. (2015). Culturally familiar tasks on reading performance and self-efficacy of culturally and linguistically diverse students. Educational Psychology in Practice (31), 5, 293-313.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that's just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into practice, 34(3), 159-165.

Sleeter, C. E. (2011). An agenda to strengthen culturally responsive pedagogy. English teaching: Practice and critique, 10(2), 7-23.

Sleeter, C. E. (2012). Confronting the marginalization of culturally responsive pedagogy. Urban education, 47(3), 562-584.


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