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Culturally Relevant or Culturally Responsive? It can be both!

I recently attended another equity-focused PD with some teachers, and their takeaway was essentially this: that was great information with an abundance of terms, but how do I teach with it in mind? In other words, they are building more self-awareness and want to take action but do not know where to start.

In some ways, it is a great problem to have and shows progress. It confirms that enough discussions are taking place in schools, where people want more. Just a few years ago, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion PD were primarily for new hires, if any existed at all. I have heard more conversations centered on Culturally Relevant Teaching and Culturally Responsive Teaching this past year than in my last fifteen years in education combined. As these conversations are occurring more, pushback also inevitably happens as well because change is hard.

All of this got me thinking, why isn't there more of a blueprint of what to do? I've been to over 300 hours of PD on equitable practices, did my masters thesis on the transference of the racialized "other", and have read close to fifty different books on the subject. Yet, I still was yearning to tie it all together. So I went to my historian roots and did what I do best, research. Twelve books later- from 1976 to 2020, countless Jstor articles and Google searches lead me to this conclusion: culture constantly changes, and with that, so should our teaching practice.

The History

The idea of being culturally relevant and responsive is not a new concept that suddenly became popular. Instead, it has taken many names and forms over the last 50 years because, as stated above, culture changes over time, and so does the response. New conversations begin, adding to the current body of knowledge. Names such as culturally responsive education (Cazden & Leggett, 1976), culturally appropriate pedagogy (Au & Jordan, 1981), culturally congruent pedagogy (Mohatt & Erickson, 1981), culturally relevant teaching (Ladson-Billings, 1992), and culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2000), culturally relational education (Donald, Glanfield, & Sterenberg, 2011), culturally sustaining pedagogy (Paris, 2012) present some distinctions and different terminology, but complement one another too. A continuous connecting thread in each one is that various cultures should be recognized and acknowledged, and included in teaching and learning.

The Emergence of Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy

With all these various forms and terms, it can be hard to know what to hold and value. It is essential to understand the distinction between CRP & CRT. Take a look below.

  • Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP) by Gloria Ladson-Billings (1994): is "a pedagogy of opposition specifically committed to collective, not merely individual, empowerment."

  • Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) by Geneva Gay (2000) is used to describe "using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively."

Both CRP and CRT are powerful in their own right, and as a result, Dr. Nicole West-Burns merged these two in 2008 and began to use the term Culturally Relevant Responsive Pedagogy (CRRP). This way, "educators explore how they look at, understand, interact with and engage in meaningful curriculum tied to who is in the classrooms and schools" (2018). In some ways, it helped me stop the chicken or the egg at play in my own brain when it came to CRP and CRT by stating it can be both.

Evolving Research

While schools worldwide are still experimenting with CRRP educational practices, culture keeps shifting, and so does the research. For example, cultural relational education is helping to change the conversation from educators being in response to someone else's culture and instead lift the "relational" element to seek out more meaningful engagements between cultures. This helps acknowledge that cultures are not static, and we need to constantly revisit our assumptions and seek to listen to learn, and understand as cultures evolve.

Another addition to the ever-growing knowledge in CRRP is the idea of culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP) that Django Paris proposes in 2012 that focuses on fostering linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism. Paris expanded CSP in his 2017 book with H. Samy Alim that helps center looking at language through an asset lens, such as Spanglish, rather than something that needs to be "corrected," which schools have often done in the past. Even though this is different from CRRP, the authors stated in an interview with Educational Week that it is more about adding to rather than replacing.

"For us, then, it is not so much about distinctions between CSP and CRP, but rather about the ways CSP can contribute to the ongoing work of educational justice that CRP and other asset pedagogies have forwarded. CRP continues to guide our work, even as we continue to develop needed pedagogical theory and practice." (2017)

So Now What?

Can you now picture me on the floor in my office, surrounded by books and articles, piecing together all the puzzles? The more I researched, the more I realized that CRRP is about holding a belief and mindset that informs your practices. In Yes, But How Do We Do It?: Practicing Culturally Relevant Pedagogy by Gloria Ladson-Billings argues that it is about a way of being rather than the act of doing. So how do you start to have more of a culturally relevant and responsive mindset? Begin with reflection.

Our Reflection Tool

Using all these and models from my research, the ACP team created a series of reflective questions to help build a CRR mindset utilizing and adapting the Ontario Ministry of Education framework. We offer six areas to consider as stated below:

  1. Know Your Learners

  2. Hold High Expectations

  3. Build Cultural Competence

  4. Have a Constructivist Approach

  5. Develop Critical Consciousness

  6. Desire to Make a Difference

As you look at these questions, consider what you are currently doing and what you could do. Review our reflective questions below.

Want a printable 8.5x11 version? Click HERE

Concluding Thoughts

The goal in our work should always be how we can bring more humanity and kindness into what we do. We ask that you commit to taking a step forward. Identify an area you can be more intentional about and prioritize your planning and teaching around it. If you need some help, one planning tool we personally love at ACP is the HILL Model from Gholdy Muhammad's book Cultivating Genius (2020).

And finally, I want to leave you with this quote by Dr. Lisa Delpit "If the curriculum we use to teach our children does not connect in positive ways to the culture young people bring to school, it is doomed to failure." So let's commit to creating a learning environment that all can thrive in.


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