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Effective teaching is culturally responsive

Effective science teaching is responsive to students’ culture and prior knowledge and experiences. Teachers create a supportive shared learning environment through developing and maintaining good relationships with students. They ensure that every student feels valued, and build reciprocal learning partnerships, based on the concept of ako, within and beyond the classroom.

What is a culturally responsive pedagogy?

The Te Kotahitanga research and professional development programme was set up in 2001 under Russell Bishop, Professor of Māori Education at the University of Waikato, to respond to the failure of the education system to effectively address the needs of Māori students in English-medium schools.

The research describes a culturally responsive pedagogy as one in which educators create learning contexts that raise the level of student engagement. Creating these learning contexts depends on building good relationships and enabling shared learning.

Teachers creating a context in the classroom that is responsive to the culture of the child … based upon the notion of relationships being paramount to educational performance … It’s a serious business, education. It’s about caring for people, caring that they learn, and it’s about creating learning relationships so that you ensure they are able to learn, and we term it a culturally responsive pedagogy of relations.

(Russell Bishop, 2011, EDTalks)

Why is culturally responsive pedagogy important?

Aotearoa New Zealand is a bicultural society in which educational disparities between Māori and non-Māori students have existed for many decades. This continues to have an enormous impact on the lives of individuals and their whānau and communities as well as the economic and social development of Aotearoa New Zealand as a whole.

The Te Kotahitanga programme shows that this achievement disparity can be remedied. It provides pedagogical strategies that help teachers to raise the achievement of both Māori and non-Māori students.

Learn more:

Relationships are key

As the ethnic composition of Aotearoa New Zealand becomes more diverse, students bring a wider range of cultural perspectives and experiences to enrich the science classroom. This diversity is an asset that enhances collective and individual knowledge.

The teacher who acknowledges, respects, and values students’ identities and cultures is best prepared to build on these diverse perspectives.

Research indicates that Māori students generally thrive when they have good relationships with their teachers (whanaungatanga).

  • As a teacher, explore your expectations of students. Set high expectations for all your students and make these expectations clear to them. See Te Mana Kōrero 1 – Teachers Making a Difference, an online professional development package.
  • You could begin the year with a “know the learner” activity to find out about your students’ social and cultural backgrounds, science interests and experiences, future ambitions, and languages spoken.
  • For inspiration, view the Te Kotahitanga interviews. The Kāumatua and Student Voices videos may be of special interest. 

Facilitating shared learning

Teachers facilitate shared learning by helping every student to feel accepted and by building reciprocal learning partnerships, based on the concept of ako.

The concept of ako describes a teaching and learning relationship, where the educator is also learning from the student and where educators’ practices are informed by the latest research and are both deliberate and reflective. Ako is grounded in the principle of reciprocity and also recognises that the learner and whānau cannot be separated.

(Ministry of Education, 2009, page 20)

(Ministry of Education (2009). Ka Hikitia – Managing for Success: The Māori Education Strategy 2008–2012. Part One. Wellington: Ministry of Education.)

Shared learning promotes student achievement because it permits students to bring their own ideas and experiences to the learning environment. It is encouraged when learning contexts are familiar and relevant to students.

It is especially important that teachers and students select contexts together for learning that value and affirm the identity, language, and culture of learners, especially Māori. For example:

  • Discuss with students the types of classroom interaction that work best for them. The Te Kotahitanga videos offer some ideas.
  • Provide opportunities for students to share the scientific basis for certain cultural practices.  They may engage with their whānau or family members to explore the science behind hygiene observances, the planting of seeds according to phases of the moon, fishing and hunting protocols, or methods of food preparation and storage.
  • Encourage students to explore both the cultural and scientific terms for the same or similar processes, discussing the ideas with parents or whānau. (For example, ESOL students could construct a chart that matches the scientific and ethnic terms for processes such as heating, cooling, and burning.)
  • Local waterways and ecosystems, mountains, volcanoes, and so on will often be viewed and valued rather differently by Māori – as is evidenced in pepeha and mihimihi, which highlight the importance of the whenua. Deliberately choose contexts that give students opportunities to engage in science learning and to examine the particular meaning that natural features hold for them.

Consult the Ministry of Education’s 2011 handbook Tātaiako: Cultural Competencies for Teachers of Māori Learners. This handbook describes several cultural competencies that are based on knowledge, respect, and collaborative approaches to Māori students, their whānau, and iwi, and are integral to creating culturally responsive learning environments and contexts.

Building a learning community

Students are more likely to be involved in the classroom and achieve in science when they see themselves and their culture positively reflected in the subject matter and learning contexts. Many of them will need to be encouraged to become active, visible members of the learning community.

In such a community, all students have opportunities to support and challenge one another, give and receive feedback. Establishing protocols for discussions and group work will help the class to develop trust among its members.

For example:

  • With your students, identify the conditions that allow all class members to contribute and to co-operate with one another in a range of roles. Ensure all student responses are listened to and valued, even though not all responses are equally true or valid. This understanding can be used to build protocols that enable the class to operate as a learning community.
  • Group activities are useful in encouraging students to contribute, discuss, and compare ideas. Such collaborative learning is essential if students are to engage with the Nature of Science. For inspiration, see Collaborative Learning: Group Work and Study Teams, a chapter from Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis (1993, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass).  
  • To help your students gain a sense of common purpose, establish collective goals for learning in groups or as a class. Using clear learning intentions and success criteria assist all learners.
  • Provide opportunities for students to gain ownership of their learning by giving them a reasonable level of control through co-construction and the negotiation of learning contexts and content (within selected learning intentions).
  • Use e-learning to promote collaboration and ongoing discussion through wānanga, online forums, wikis, and blogs.

Connecting to the wider community

For secondary teachers with multiple classes to manage, finding the time to make deeper, learning-focused connections with local communities is not easy. The benefits, however, can be considerable.

Such connections help students to address authentic issues and access the expertise within student whānau, local iwi, and the wider community (including scientific enterprises and industries).

  • Investigate opportunities for field trips to scientific ventures or enterprises that your students and their whānau may have links with.
  • Establish links with local scientific support industries (for example, a dental or research laboratory or welding shop) and discuss possible mutual benefits.
  • Encourage students to involve whānau, scientists, and other teachers in exploring the scientific aspects of an important community issue (such as waste disposal options) with a view to making a recommendation.
  • Investigate opportunities for students to support the community – for example, by producing brochures on energy conservation approaches for the local community, supporting e-waste recycling projects, removing unwanted pines or thistles from local marae, identifying energy-saving possibilities for local marae, or assisting with local conservation efforts such as cleaning up streams or beaches.

Last updated January 13, 2022