Three Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies for the Science Classroom
How Science Teachers Can Better Support Their Culturally and Ethnically Diverse Students
Culturally relevant teaching is important in all disciplines, but for science in particular, K-12 teachers typically have not had teacher education or learned teaching approaches that center on the experiences of students from culturally and ethnically diverse backgrounds.
In her white paper linked below, Dr. Felicia Moore Mensah, Associate Dean of and Professor of Science Education at Columbia University, presents two teaching approaches that have been used successfully with students from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds: culturally relevant and culturally responsive pedagogy.
Cultural Foundations in the Classroom
Teaching culturally and ethnically diverse learners in the science classroom begins with the students, says Dr. Mensah. Students enter classrooms with an array of experiences that come from their personal and cultural backgrounds as well as from their interactions in the world. These experiences are seldom used in making connections with the science content taught in schools.
As teachers learn more about students and their needs as learners, different pedagogical strategies are used that invite student participation and increase student engagement. Understanding and supporting culturally and ethnically diverse learners requires making classroom learning environments safe, engaging, and relevant. — Dr. Felicia Moore Mensah, Teachers College, Columbia University
Though there are similarities and differences between culturally relevant teaching and culturally responsive teaching, they are often used interchangeably by educators. Basically, these approaches differ in their orientation, yet they are similar in their focus on the academic success of students from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
- Culturally-Relevant Teaching: Gloria Ladson-Bilings defines culturally relevant pedagogy as an approach to teaching that uses students’ cultural knowledge and backgrounds, affirming their cultural identity while also assisting them in developing critical perspectives that challenges inequities in schools and other institutions.
- Culturally-Responsive Teaching: Geneva Gay theorizes that cultural responsive teaching uses students’ cultural frames of reference to teach curriculum and content. Teaching is focused on the personal and cultural strengths, intellectual capabilities, and prior accomplishments of students.
Collectively, culturally relevant pedagogy from Ladson-Billings and culturally responsive teaching from Gay hold that curriculum, content, and teaching strategies for students of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds offer students opportunity and access to gain significant knowledge and skills in the classroom, while upholding the unique ways that students learn, communicate, and interact.
Understand Who the Students Are
Dr. Mensah writes that the first approach to incorporate culturally relevant teaching approaches in K-12 science classrooms is to think about who the students are and what assets and talents they bring to the classroom setting.
By inviting students’ backgrounds and experiences into the classroom, teachers can support their science content knowledge, skill development, and engagement in the classroom.
Understand What the Students Want
A second approach, according to Dr. Mensah, is to consider the pedagogical supports that students desire and those that will aid their learning of science.
- K-5 Classrooms: teachers can collect information about their students’ experiences in science outside of school through short intake forms, questionnaires, surveys, and short interviews. They can use the information they collected to incorporate topics of interest into lesson plans.
- 6–8 Classrooms: Teachers can allow middle school students to collect data on issues that are important to them and their communities. From data, they can analyze it from different perspectives and suggest how science can be used to solve to problems. Teachers can allow students to propose what they would like to do for classroom projects based upon what they are learning in the science classroom.
- 9–12 Classrooms: Teachers can promote more collaborative learning and teaching in high school classrooms. Students can work together in teams and assist in teaching science concepts and content to their classmates. In the process, students focus on developing scientific language as they explain concepts in science that also connect to them in personal ways.
Understand What the Students Need
There are many different instructional methods teachers can use to ensure their culturally and ethnically diverse students feel supported in the classroom, Dr. Mensah writes.
For example, teachers can use whiteboards for student responses, either individually, in small groups, or for whole-class learning. They can also use butcher paper and bulletin boards in the classroom to respond to questions, to post questions, to draw, or to create graphic organizers. Because technology is a critical component in society, teachers should encourage the use of educational games that correspond to skill and content development in science.
For classroom learning, teachers should provide ample opportunities for students to share their thinking and encourage students to respond to each other’s comments and questions. By using flexible groupings, science teachers can help students work with different peers on assignments, thus increasing the opportunity for students to learn from each other, to get to know each other more, and to build classroom community.
Teaching culturally and ethnically diverse students in the science classroom requires that teachers not only acknowledge, but also utilize the cultural capital that students bring to the classroom. Their cultural knowledge, frames of reference, linguistic styles, interests, performance styles, and prior knowledge are assets that make science learning more effective and relevant for them.
As a starting point, teachers need to get to know their students more deeply. They can adjust their approaches to teaching by making classroom learning environments more collaborative, offering student choices, and inviting different ways of communicating, sharing, and listening into their science classrooms.
To read Dr. Mensah’s paper in full, click here.
For more teaching strategies that support culturally and ethnically diverse students in the science classroom, visit our research portal and the articles below.
PreK-12 Science Research & Efficacy
View the latest research for our Literacy programs.
Culturally Responsive Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)
By Dr. Anne Snyder and Claire Cook, Applied Learning Scientists
4 Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy.” Theory into practice 34, no. 3 (1995): 159–165. 5
Gay, Geneva. Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press, 2010.