Principles for Developing a Culturally Responsive and Inclusive Classroom

By Yulia Nesterova

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. Definitions

  3. Principles of Teacher Education for a Cross-cultural Classroom

    1. Recognition of the Past

    2. Reflection

    3. Active Learning

    4. Respect and Reciprocity

    5. Building a Relationship

    6. Knowledge and Meaning Construction

    7. Action

  4. Challenges

  5. Concluding Remarks

  6. References

  7. About the Author

1. Introduction

According to a United Nations (UN) report (2004), educational institutions have curriculum and teaching methods that are culturally inappropriate for Indigenous children and aim to assimilate them instead of promoting their cultures and languages. Such a process leads to language and culture loss, and alienation from both the mainstream and home societies and discourses. The teachers who work with Indigenous children are often representatives of the dominant group whose knowledge, culture, and language dominate the classroom. Not to contribute further to the estrangement of Indigenous communities, teaching and learning must be re-thought and re-shaped to include Indigenous cultures and knowledges so that education becomes relevant to Indigenous lives and sustainable for their communities.

How can we prepare teachers for re-constructing such environments and developing and maintaining just classrooms in which no child is made to feel his/her knowledge, culture, language, and contribution are irrelevant and inferior? How can teachers of a dominant group learn to relate to Indigenous children whose cultural differences are immense, and whose relations with that group have historically been of an unequal and unfair nature? How can teachers contribute to revitalization of Indigenous cultures and their further development?

The entry aims to discuss a possible strategy that has a potential to help institutions educate future and current teachers. Drawing on Indigenous and Postcolonial theories and methodologies that are used for research with culturally different others, it is suggested how they can be used as a framework that help teachers who educate Indigenous children. Such a framework will address power relations that affect what and whose knowledge and values students learn and how the process is carried out; and negate harmful effects of interaction among groups of different socio-cultural backgrounds.

2.                  Definitions

Culture is seen in this paper as a ‘framework of belief’ or ‘world picture’, as articulated by Butler (1986, pp. 94, 95) that is always “local, contextual, and performative” (Denzin, 2003, pp. 231-232).  Culture represents certain power arrangements that communicate a certain version of reality and moral norms to the people that live within that culture. In the case of Indigenous people versus a dominant group, Indigenous ‘world picture’ with all its knowledge, discourses and paradigms has been deemed unsuitable and primitive, whereas the dominant culture has been seen as unquestionable and unchallengeable. Throughout the paper the word ‘Other’ is used to imply differing knowledge systems and cultures of Indigenous peoples whose lives have been built on asymmetrical power relations and inequality that continue to shape cultural dominance and social privilege of the dominant culture (Jones and Jenkins, 2008).

3.                  Principles of Teacher Education for a Cross-cultural Classroom

A culturally-appropriate model of a classroom that is inclusive of Indigenous children is a decolonizing classroom that is grounded in values and knowledges of all students participating in the learning process. Material and discusrive oppression, exclusion, and overlooking of Indigenous children and their traditional knowledge are disrupted in such a setting by the teacher (Swander and Mutua, 2008, p. 34). The teacher carries the brunt of responsibility in this situation as s/he is responsible for radically rethinking and planning cross-cultural encounters between the teacher and students and between students of different cultural backgrounds. The teacher needs to make sure that Indigenous students feel included and accepted as having equal worth. S/he thus needs to create an ethical space that rests on ethics of care and love, respect for individual uniqueness and emotionality along with personal responsibility of the teacher and students (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008, pp. 12, 14). Issues that the teacher is to encounter in thinking about, planning, and implementing activities and projects are of a moral and political nature and can be unsettling and challenging at first. Below seven principles are suggested. They can help educate teachers to establish a respectful, reflective and ethical cooperation; encourage inclusion and prioritization of personal and specialized knowledge of Indigenous children; and privilege sharing among groups.

3.1. Recognition of the Past

The teacher should be culturally and historically aware of the colonial period of his/her country that exploited Indigenous people and appropriated their resources, as well as the suffering of such groups of people that continues happening these days due to systemic inequalities and negative representations (Dillard, 2008, p. 288; Sunseri, 2007, p. 97). S/he then needs to be able to educate students on the harm that has been done by the dominant group to Indigenous communities while at the same time to keep clarity, calmness, and strength to help transform injustices without trying to develop guilt in young people (Dillard, 2008, p. 288; Liamputtong, 2010, p. 23).

3.2. Reflection

The next step after recognizing how the past influences the present society should be for the teacher to rethink the dominant epistemologies and reflect upon his/her own position as a teacher who comes from the dominant group but educates Indigenous children in a largely mainstream classroom (Wright, 2003, p. 202). This need is dictated by the struggle of interests and ways of knowing and being of the teacher and of the Other that occurs in the classroom (Jones and Jenkins, 2008, p. 473). The teacher can address the issues of conflicting knowledges and perspectives by following three steps. First, the teacher critically (re)assesses his/her own biases and rethinks his/her own experiences and perceptions (Bat, 2009, pp. 3, 7). Second, the teacher should work to locate him/herself in the “between” position that is oriented to building a relationship rather than understanding of the culturally different Other (ibid, p. 482). Third, the teacher compares the codes of ethical behavior of his/her culture and of the culture(s) Indigenous students come from, learns from the difference, and in spite of conflicting interests, treats students with respect and integrity.

3.3. Active Learning

Another component of a culturally-appropriate framework is teachers’ openness to engage in the process of “always becoming” (Giroux, 2009, p. 82). The teacher needs to want to be an active learner and not to see him/herself as an expert. This implies that s/he understands that knowledge is not something fixed, universal, and available only to experts. As Giroux (2009, p. 83) maintains, the teacher should overcome the dangerous idea that s/he knows the answer. Instead, s/he needs to engage in an open and respectful conversation and meaning-construction with students, by seeing his/her knowledge as partial and their knowledges as valuable and important to form shared perspectives (Sunseri, 2007, p, 101). Thus the teacher should be open to learn, unlearn and learn again and see this process as an enriching experience for him/herself and the students. The potential benefit of the experience is that learning from difference in the long run can provoke meanings beyond own culture and thus lead to new thoughts, ideas, and discoveries (Jones and Jenkins, 2008, p. 480).

3.4. Respect and Reciprocity

Readinness to learn about the past, to be reflective, and to become open to learning require the teacher to have respect for the culturally different other and seek reciprocity while engaging with the other. Respect in this context should be for culturally specific ways of being and doing. The teacher does not need to know about peculiarities of the culture, yet s/he hasto respect differing views, experiences and interpretations and give an equal voice to them in the classroom (Sunseri, 2007, pp. 99, 100). As a first step, the teacher should shed discrimination and prejudice s/he has towards the other. Then remove the boundaries between themselves and the other so that there is a possibility of creating a space in which they see the other as an equal human being (Dillard, 2008, p. 288). The next step would be to seek for a transformative dialogue in which the teacher looks and listens deeply to what the other has to say as well as has a strong belief in the humanity and equality of those who go through the learning process (Dillard, 2008, p. 287).

3.5. Building a Relationship

The teacher has a responsibility to develop and help students create a special kind of relationship in the classroom. Such relationship should be based on trust, respect, reciprocation, collaboration, and cooperation (Liamputtong, 2010, p. 23; Wright, 2003, p. 202). Another trait of the cross-cultural classroom relationship is development of a compassionate mind in students so that they listen to others carefully, acquire knowledge with an open mind, and reconsider their positions (Sunseri, 2007, p. 100). Openness and compassion will help them participate in building a platform to discuss what is, and is not happening in and within the negotiated relations, and whose story is being told and whose story is being shadowed (Fine as cited in Jones and Jenkins, 2008, p. 475). Establishing friendly and close relationships with Indigenous children on their culturally-appropriate terms will diminish power imbalances and unequal hierarchies (Mauthner and Doucet, 1998, p. 120; Wolf, 1996, p. 35).

3.6. Knowledge and Meaning Construction

The teacher should be able to involve Indigenous children in meaning-making and knowledge sharing and place their perspectives as a central part of their learning process (Bat, 2009, pp. 3, 7).  The practice of legitimizing non-dominant knowledge will, first, support the teacher in educating students to rethink and (de)construct the dominant discourses and legends (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008, p. 10, 14). Second, for Indgenous students to progress in their studies and being able to relate to learning, knowledge should be constructed from everyday lives of people and their communities rather than abstract and detached perspectives (Saavedra and Nymark, 2008, pp. 255-257).

3.7. Action

The purposes of teaching should not be seen as transmitting knowledge and values. The teacher should see him/herself as a social justice activist. Teaching should therefore be approached as a responsibility to the individual (student) and communities (Dillard, 2008, p. 280). Responsibility to the individual implies enhancing in students moral agency, producing moral discernment and commitment to justice and ethic of resistance against (epistemic) violence and oppression (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008, p. 14). Responsibility to the community embodies developing moral ties to the group of people the teacher works with. To be able to achieve the goal, the teacher should embrace compassion and focus on political and social action and reflection. Embracing compassion requires an explicit intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and struggle against dehumanizing contexts and conditions of those who the teacher educates (Dillard, 2008, p. 288). Focus on socio-political action and reflection guides teacher’s attempts to promote political and social change in the community rather than creating universal theories (ibid., p. 280).

4.                  Challenges

This approach to educate teachers for the cross-cultural classroom that responds to the needs of Indigenous children poses big challenges to the education system. It is teachers who will need to critically re-think and re-learn the role they traditionally occupy as transmitters of a predetermined set of “knowledge and curriculum” (Lewison et al., 2002, p. 383). They will need to be motivated to be open to complexities for this rather radical stand will require them to break away from a safety and comfort of textbooks, “testing and right answer” heritage, and usual practices; and to apply more conflicting, interactive and Indigenous-child-centered methods (Lewison et al., 2002, p. 383; Wolk, 2003, p. 103). It will also be challenging for them to encourage students’ interests in sociopolitical issues, to educate them to be open to multiple perspectives, to “go beyond personal or psychological responses”, and to take action (Lewison et al., 2002, 386). For some teachers it may be hard to see students as someone who can contribute to the meaning- and knowledge-construction equally to adults for the dominant view of what a child represents, is a blank paper that needs to be filled with text.

5.                  Concluding Remarks

These principles can help prepare teachers to re-learn their ways of relating to and educating children of various socio-cultural backgrounds so that the encounters are ethical and culturally-appropriate. First, they introduce teachers to the approaches that recognize complexity, competing views, and existence of other forms of knowledge and creative spaces. Second, they encourage the idea of creating different meanings together with other people as we learn, unlearn, and re-learn. This component can help teachers understand that knowledge is not something fixed, and engaging in an open and respectful conversation and meaning-construction with the other can help reflect on the position of the teacher within the classroom and in relation to students in a more critical way. Third, internalizing and employing the principles can help teachers address unequal power relations in the classroom as the focus is shifted from learning about the other to learning to build relationships in which students and teachers learn from each other. This way power of the teacher over his/her students is transformed to power of the teacher and students to create something meaningful and ethical together. Finally, the spaces established on these principles can help negate harmful effects of interactions between groups of different socio-cultural backgrounds.


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About the Author

Yulia Nesterova

PhD Student in Education (Policy, Administration and Social Sciences Education), The University of Hong Kong


Website:  Yulia Nesterova