#81 – The Importance of Teaching to and with Each Student’s Identity: The What and Why of Culturally Responsive Teaching with Dr. Geneva Gay

Unpacking Education March 2, 2022 32 min

Culturally responsive teaching continues to be a frequent and important topic of conversation throughout educational circles. As we strive to build relationships and connect genuinely with our students, a key question that we must ask is how can we be more culturally responsive and inclusive in our practices. To help us better understand this topic, we welcome Dr. Geneva Gay, Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Washington-Seattle and an academic leader in the study of culturally responsive teaching.

In this first of two episodes with Dr. Gay, we focus on defining culturally responsive teaching, and we explore why it is important to implement these practices into our classrooms. We discuss how we are all cultural beings at our core and that culturally responsive teaching is a way in which we can humanize education for all learners.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

Culture, it turns out, is the way that every brain makes sense of the world. That is why everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, has a culture. Think of culture as software for the brain’s hardware. The brain uses cultural information to turn everyday happenings into meaningful events. If we want to help dependent learners do more higher order thinking and problem solving, then we have to access their brain’s cognitive structures to deliver culturally responsive instruction.

Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain


The following resources are available on AVID Open Access to explore this topic in more depth

Understanding Culturally Relevant and Responsive Teaching

The first step to a culturally responsive classroom is understanding what it means to be culturally relevant and responsive. Through a series of questions and reflections, we explore these related concepts with Dr. Geneva Gay, discuss why it’s important, and brainstorm how we can begin to implement culturally responsive practices in our classrooms. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

  • Why is it important? Dr. Gay explains that we are all cultural beings, and we all process the world around us through the lens of culture. It is through the process of self-knowing that students and teachers can create a bond. She talks about the importance of examining our own cultural identity and reminds us, “It’s important to first know who you are before you try to help others know themselves.” She adds, “If we understand ourselves as cultural beings, it helps to remove some of the mystique and distortions about what is culture.”
  • What is the difference between being culturally relevant and culturally responsive? These two words are often used interchangeably, sometimes with confusion about how they are different. Dr. Gay explains how she interprets the two terms. For her, cultural relevance is the foundational understanding of culture and why culture is important to us as human beings. It’s the necessary knowledge base needed to move on to the more active stage of cultural responsiveness. In short, relevance is knowing, and responsiveness is doing.
  • Why should we consider cultural relevance in our teaching? Dr. Gay reminds us that one of the core mandates of teaching is to help humans become better humans, and since humans are cultural beings, teachers cannot enhance humanity by bypassing culture. She says, “Ethically, we don’t have any choice. …We cannot not do culture. Culture and humanity are inseparable.” She goes on to point out that a better term than cultural responsiveness might be “multiculturally” responsive teaching, which acknowledges the complexity and diversity of cultures in many classrooms.
  • How can people learn to be more multiculturally responsive in education? We must continue to learn about ourselves and each other. We must first be a student of ourselves before we can be a student of other people. Then, we must invite diverse people into our space of being and listen to them. We should talk less; we should listen and observe more. We should not be afraid to ask about cultural differences that we don’t fully understand. If we are genuinely interested in learning about each other, it’s okay to ask a question like, “Would you explain to me what that means? I want to understand.” Most people will be willing to share if we are honestly interested and willing to listen to their response.
  • In what ways is culturally responsive teaching a pedagogical framework? We must first acknowledge that culturally responsive teaching is a “constellation of a number of things.” We must break it down into its component parts and activate each part, one at a time. As an example, Dr. Gay explains how a physical classroom environment is important to a culturally responsive learning approach. We need to ask ourselves if the physical space reflects all of the people who live in that classroom.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your teaching team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • How do you define culturally responsive teaching, and what is the difference between being culturally relevant and culturally responsive?
  • Why is culturally responsive teaching important, and how might it impact your classroom?
  • What opportunities might you have to invite culturally diverse people into your space, and how might you best learn from them?

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