Adelaide L. Sanford Institute
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The concept of culturally responsive education builds on the notion of a culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1994). Culturally responsive education provides for intergenerational transmission of knowledge about our values, beliefs, traditions, customs, rituals and sensibilities along with the understanding of the need to sustain them. Culturally responsive education, in daily practice, utilizes a pedagogy that is both humanizing and liberating. The cultural resources of African-descended people “work as a psychological tool kit of coping strategies … that are not mere reactions to historical oppression.” They are “the bricks out of which senses of identity and group membership are constructed” (Lee, 2005).

In order to provide our students with a culturally responsive education, we must:
•Foster the development of high achievement and performance in literacy, mathematics, the humanities, and technologies that are necessary to negotiate full participation in the society;

•Promote pride, self-respect and high self-esteem;

•Instill and support citizenship skills by promoting questioning and critical thinking skills, and by teaching and modeling democratic values;

•Encourage the use of a wide variety of instructional strategies that are connected to different learning styles;

•Define good teaching as knowledge of content and methodology as well as knowledge of one’s students and how they learn; and

•Provide historical overviews of the nation-state, the continent and the world that accurately represent the contributions of all ethnic groups to the storehouse of human knowledge.

The achievement of ethnic pride, self-sufficiency, equity, wealth, and power for African-descended people in the United States — or wherever in the world they may be — will require a collective, although not monolithic, cultural and political worldview. This type of world-view can only be transmitted through a process of culturally responsive education, strategically guided by an African cultural orientation and understanding of how societal power relations are maintained.

What school practitioners believe about the possibilities for teaching and learning for students of African ancestry has a profound impact on what they choose to teach, how they teach it, and how they determine what their students have learned.

The culturally responsive pedagogy needed to achieve these goals will ensure that students:
•Experience academic success;

•Have the skills and acumen necessary to support and expand the transmission of the culture throughout the African Diaspora;

•Develop and/or maintain cultural competence;

•Develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge and critique the status quo of the current social order and the cultural norms, values, mores, and institutions that produce and maintain social inequities;

•Develop authentic knowledge about their own and others’ cultural heritages;

•Build bridges of meaning between home and school experiences as well as between academic abstractions and current socio-cultural realities; and

•View concepts, issues, themes, and problems in ways that reflect and respect multi-ethnic perspectives.

Through culturally responsive education we learn “to determine what is in our collective interests as African-descended people, distinguish our interests from those of others, and recognize when our interests are consistent and inconsistent with those of others. Every cultural group must provide for this transmission of cultural knowledge or it will cease to exist” (Shujaa, 2004).

Role of educators
It is essential to give all students access to a culturally relevant and responsive standards – based curriculum and to employ practices and procedures that are consistent with the characteristics of the students served. Cultural sensitivity and cultural competence are essential skills necessary to ensure that all students reach their potential. When classroom instruction is not in sync with the behaviors and values that students bring to school and those required for academic success, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to ensure that all students benefit from the instruction and services provided.

Cultural sensitivity requires educators to be aware of and sincerely believe in the intellectual potential of all students, to accept their responsibility to teach all students without ignoring, demeaning, or neglecting their students’ cultural identities and to organize instruction and services based on strengths rather than deficits. Cultural competence goes further in that it assumes that educators have the prerequisite knowledge about the characteristics of diverse student populations served and the skills required to redesign teaching and learning experiences to incorporate that knowledge into their daily practice. Rather than ignoring or denying the existence of cultural influences on student behavior and their own, the culturally competent educator uses cultural knowledge to design teaching and learning environments and interventions.

How do we know it when we see it?
A school-community that is culturally responsive is one where educators use the socio-cultural backgrounds, prior experiences, and worldviews of their students together with their learning, behavioral and communication styles in all aspects of the teaching/learning process to maximize student success. Aspects of this type of teaching have been described by scholars who emphasize its roots in traditional West African culture (Perry and Delpit 1998; Hilliard 1997, 1995; Asante 1988; Gay and Baber 1987; Boykin 1986; et. al.). Analysis of their descriptions reveals nine interrelated dimensions: 1. Spirituality, 2. Harmony, 3. Movement, 4. Verve, 5. Affect, 6.Communalism, 7. Expressive individualism, 8. Oral tradition, and 9. Social time perspective (Banks, 1987).

For example, in the early grades, during classroom instruction, build on the student’s kinesthetic strengths. Learning activities should be designed that enable young children to move as they learn. Quiet activities should be alternated with active learning. Exercise patience with the rambunctious and outgoing nature of African American males. At preadolescence select books by Walter Dean Myers (who writes about inner-city adventures). Organize learning environments around social relationships and activities, not around competitive or individual behaviors. Encourage students to support one another’s learning and work collaboratively and collectively. These school environments use curriculum content and instructional practices that connect what is to be learned to what the student already knows and adjusts strategies based on student needs. Students are made to feel that they are part of a family, community, and culture. Young people then will feel that they are respected and valued.

Culturally relevant service delivery is good for all students and it does not imply that only people of color can deliver quality instruction to diverse populations. It does, however, require that the pre-dispositions that underlie their repertoire of skills accept the fact that all students bring with them the cultural and social capital to be successful and that those characteristics must be used to create cultures of success.

“If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and I will help to make the desert bear fruit.” Ralph Ellison, (1986, 75)

Culture as a Teaching Tool

STEP 1. KNOWLEDGE:Learn as much as possible about the values, beliefs and behaviors of your students.

STEP 2. OBSERVATION:Watch carefully to see what your students consider

STEP 3. QUESTIONING:Ask about things that you do not understand.

STEP 4. AFFIRMATION:Acknowledge student strengths as well as the things that are different from and even contrary to your values.

STEP 5. CELEBRATION: Find opportunities to celebrate your students’ strengths as well as their families’ history and culture.


Asante, Molefi K. 1988. Afrocentricity. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press.

Boykin, A. Wade. 1986. “The Triple Quandary and the Schooling of Afro American Children”. In The School Achievement of Minority Children, edited by Uric Neisser. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ellison, Ralph. 1986. Going to the Territory. New York: Random House.

Gay, Geneva, and Willie Baber. 1987. Expressively Black. New York: Praeger.

Hale, Janice E. 2001. Learning while Black: Creating Educational Excellence for African American Children. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hilliard, Asa G., III. 1995. The Maroon within Us. Baltimore: Black Classics Press.

________. 1997. SBA: The Reawakening of the African Mind. Gainesville, Fla.: Makare Publishing.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 1994. The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American children. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lee, C.D. 2005. The State of Knowledge about the Education of African Americans, in J. King (Ed.), Black Education: A Transformative Research and Action Agenda for the New Century. New York: Routledge, 45-72.

Perry, Theresa, and Lisa Delpit, eds. 1998. The Real Ebonics Debate. Boston: Beacon.

Shujaa, M.J. 2004. Education and schooling: You Can Have One Without the Other.” In A. Mazama (Ed.) The Afrocentric Paradigm. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 245-263.