By Zak Cohen, Partner Consultant
High-impact instructional strategies are complex and multifaceted. This is because each student is a uniquely complex and multifaceted person. As such, implementing high-impact instructional strategies is not attainable through mere will or want; rather, it is the result of intentionally investing in the academic, social, and emotional supports that students need to make decisions about their learning and expand their nexus of ownership. This work is quite challenging, but, as the saying goes, “Nothing worth having comes easy.” The key is to understand that at the heart of high-impact instructional strategies isn’t just a great pedagogy, but a culturally responsive one.
Strategies for Culturally Responsive Teaching
Culturally responsive teaching is a big idea. Sometimes, it can even feel a bit too big. This is where the work of Dr. Ingrid Twyman and Isaiah McGee comes in. Culturally responsive teaching isn’t about doing more or replacing what you’re already doing. On the contrary, culturally responsive teaching is about elevating the great things you’re doing to further connect with students.
According to McGee and Twyman, cultivating a classroom environment steeped in culturally responsive-sustaining education practices can be boiled down to four core elements: cultural identity, asset-based disposition, learning partnerships, and criticality. These four core elements provide the blueprint to accelerate learning by making learning more relevant to students. In fact, culturally responsive teaching isn’t just about making learning more relevant to the lives that students lead at present, but about connecting to the lives they’ll lead in the future.
Think about a Chinese language class. As with any language class, part of the curriculum revolves around Chinese culture. In a traditional classroom setting, this would mean learning exclusively about Chinese culture. Now, there’s no denying that this is an important part of the learning experience, but in a culturally responsive classroom, this is just the starting point.
As a foreigner walking down the streets of Beijing, no Beijing native is going to stop to give you a pop quiz on their cultural customs. It’s far more likely that they are going to stop you to inquire a bit about your cultural customs. They are going to want to know about Día de los Muertos or Chanukah or Ramadan. In a culturally responsive language classroom, we engage students and prepare them for relevant, real-world experiences by explicitly honoring and foregrounding their unique identity.
Of course, part of preparing students for the real world is preparing them to navigate that world on their own. This is where another culturally responsive high-impact instructional strategy comes in. Mistake Literacy is about equipping students with the confidence to make mistakes and competence to learn from them.
Mistake Literacy: How Students Learn from Mistakes
We all know that mistakes are learning opportunities. So, why would we need a system to help students learn from their mistakes? Well, when it comes to students’ willingness to make, admit, and engage with their mistakes, our education system grants primacy to some over others.
The U.S. education system is steeped in white middle-class values. In this setting, mistakes are largely the domain of cisgender white males. Consider what one teacher had to say, “There is a willingness on the part of our white male students to be able to just blurt out answers, and be kind of wrong. No fear whatsoever. And so that comfort comes from them feeling that sense of safety. There are no negative consequences beyond the moment. There's nothing that sparks structural wounds in them and so when they make mistakes, it's easier for them to recover. It doesn’t leave them in a position of ill-repute, and this is a mindset that we don't teach to girls and to people of color.”
If mistakes are truly the best teachers, then our current education system is teaching our cisgender white male students a lot more and a lot better than those are don’t fit that profile. If we want to accelerate learning for all students, we have to equip them with the skills they need to reliably and confidently convert mistake-making into mistake-learning.
Where Can You Start?
Accelerating learning isn’t easy. But, this doesn’t mean we can’t make appreciable changes in our classroom. We have the power to use culturally responsive high-impact instructional strategies to improve learning outcomes for all of our students. The Core Collaborative has many resources that can help you get started. If you’d like to continue the conversation around culturally responsive-sustaining education, join the Core Collaborative Leadership Inquiry Cadre Series in March, April and May, where we will use the Appreciative Inquiry model to take a deep dive on the subject. If you’re interested in empowering students by helping them learn from their mistakes, you can partner with Zak Cohen.
Meet the Author
Zak Cohen is the Middle School Director at the St. Francis School in Louisville, Kentucky. He has taught Social Studies, Language Arts, and English as a Second Language in independent and international schools in the United States, China, and South Africa. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership and Management at Drexel University.