April/May 2019 — The “Science” of Multicultural Learning

Natalie Slivinski
May 22, 2019 · 5 min read

Learning is unique to every individual student, and it depends a lot on their cultural background.

Credit: American Psychological Association.

Learning is a very personal experience. Research shows that for students to really engage in a subject, they must be able to relate to it somehow, on a personal level.

Philip Bell, a professor of Learning Sciences & Human Development at the University of Washington, once did a study that worked with immigrant families in Seattle to try to understand how they learn about STEM. The mother of one student from Haiti told Philip the story about how her daughter, Brenda, had grown up fascinated with the mortar and pestle that her grandmother used to cook family meals. She and her cousins would sneak it off to the bathroom to “make potions.” As she got older, Brenda expressed a desire to become a chemist.

However, despite her aspirations, Brenda wasn’t engaging in science lessons at school. Something was missing.

“She was not engaging in science, even chemistry, in the classroom. We worked with the teachers to do culturally relevant instruction — to overlap the learning of subject matter with the lives of the kids — and Brenda came alive. She engaged deeply. The teacher was surprised, thinking we’d gotten through to her. But we didn’t get through to her — she just decided to bring the sense of herself to school that day because there was an opening. Her learning agenda had a place.”
- Philip Bell, Director of the Institute for Science and Math Education, University of Washington. Watch the entire video of his EDU Talk here.

Classrooms in the U.S. are full of students like Brenda, who are itching to learn about science but struggle to find a way to relate to it — or even, sometimes, to understand it at all — because of the way it’s being taught. More and more of these students are from minority backgrounds that have long been under-represented in STEM. This means it’s more critical than ever for educators to be what’s called “culturally competent.” Cultural competency means being able to find ways to engage with students from many different backgrounds and cultures in order to help them learn.

Students learning at a girls’ school in Dharwad, India. Credit: Akela Photography.

Here’s a simple example: Consider students who speak English as a second language (ESL). If a science teacher uses jargon in their lessons, an ESL student who never learned those words growing up might have a really hard time understanding the concepts being taught. Other more straightforward examples might include talking about food common to different countries, learning about the natural environment in parts of the world familiar to specific students, or simply having kids interact with grown-up scientists that look like them.

But cultural competence happens on multiple levels. It means taking the time to learn about individual students’ backgrounds. It means knowing that culture is complex, and often not obvious at a glance — for instance, kids from a Mexican family who were raised in the suburbs of Seattle might identify much more closely with their white peers than with the Mexican culture of their parents, despite their heritage. Communication styles between different cultures are diverse, too — students from one background might be a lot more comfortable shouting out answers than students from another background. In this case, it’s easy for the “quieter” students to get lost in the shuffle.

Credit: ForClass.com

Entire schools can use cultural competency too, not just individual teachers. Schools can make an effort to partner up with other organizations that are already well-known and trusted by families in their community. This might include a church, museum, community center, library, or even another school. Schools can also work to find ways of reaching under-served families who might have more limited access because of problems with transportation, money, time, or computer access.

And remember: Diversity doesn’t just mean ethnic diversity. It also means differences in educational background, poverty status, quality of life at home, sexual orientation, family structure, and disability. Every experience in a student’s life plays a part in the way he or she learns new things.

Curio is developing tools and classroom materials that are easily accessible to kids from all sorts of backgrounds. By using art, especially student-created art, the Curio Classroom is easy to relate to from the very start. It can incorporate different animal species, natural environments, and local surroundings from any number of different areas familiar to individual students. It can also reach across language barriers and poses very few limits for kids with disabilities.

Because the tools are so mobile, they can also be brought into lower income schools who might not have the resources for major pieces of advanced educational technology.

Every kid is absolutely unique. By making the learning experience personal, these kinds of tools reach individual students on a much deeper level than traditional teaching methods. Research shows that by injecting fun, play, and cultural awareness into lessons, educators can help under-represented kids learn better than ever — and this is especially important with a complex subject area like STEM, where it’s particularly hard to keep students on board.


Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education: “Focusing on Cultural Competency in STEM Education.

Imagine Learning: “6 Tips for Teaching in a Diverse Classroom.

Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning: “Diversity in the Classroom.

YouTube: “EDU Talks: Play — Philip Bell.” UW College of Education.

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