Developing Educational Content Using a Culturally Responsive Lens

February 25, 2021

Diversity equity inclusion

At Clarity, we examine our own ideas and perspectives to ensure we’re designing and creating content that weaves together criticality and rigor with relevance. We use this combination as our overarching framework for culturally responsive content development and bring this to our work with clients. Decades of scholarship support the importance of cultural responsiveness in education, and folks seeking to further their understanding can explore the work of educators and researchers such as Gloria Ladson-Billings, Geneva Gay, and Django Paris, who coined the terms “culturally relevant pedagogy,” “culturally responsive teaching,” and “culturally sustaining pedagogy,” respectively. Knowing the nuances of these three terms helps us to frame our own work using a culturally responsive lens: 

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

As defined by Gloria Ladson-Billings, this pedagogy rests on three criteria:

  1. Students must experience academic success;
  2. Students must develop and/or maintain cultural competence; and, 
  3. Students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo.

Educators must be able to deconstruct, construct, and reconstruct the curriculum.

Culturally Responsive Teaching

Based on the framework developed by Geneva Gay, educators’ strategies and practices focus on teaching that emphasizes using cultural knowledge, experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of diverse students to design learning that is more relevant and effective. There is an emphasis on building and leveraging strong relationships to improve learning for students and providing opportunities for thinking critically about inequities.

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

Expanding the work of Ladson-Billings and Gay, Django Paris posits that this pedagogy seeks to center and sustain linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling. It moves beyond rationalizing the need to include the linguistic, literate, and cultural practices of diverse communities meaningfully in educational spaces and asks, “For what purposes and with what outcomes?”

Looking at these adjacent concepts of culturally responsive education, we find criticality, rigor, and relevance as the throughline. 

We’ve seen districts, publishers, and educators focus on cultural responsiveness more and more in the last several years. We are privileged to play a role in shaping educator and learner materials and experiences, and we take the responsibility seriously. When developing content that is culturally responsive, we start by working to understand and correct misconceptions about culturally responsive teaching as related to content development and instructional design.

For example, cultural responsiveness can be conflated with multiculturalism or social justice education. While each of these coexist as separate concepts, cultural responsiveness builds the learning capacity of an individual learner by leveraging the cognitive scaffolding that students bring with them. In addition, we’ve seen cultural responsiveness sometimes over-simplified into a few strategies that an educator can “plug and play.” However, as Zaretta Hammond notes, cultural responsiveness can’t simply be accomplished through an off-the-shelf program with a handful of methods to reach diverse students.

In our case, we’ve found it helpful to use scorecards, frameworks, and reflection guides in our process of developing culturally responsive content. Alongside a solid foundation and understanding of the body of research, these tools offer useful reminders and structures for our work. As creators of resources and content that are used by thousands of educators and students, we also ask ourselves questions about representation, relevance, and criticality such as:

  • Does this work portray diversity in terms of ethnicity/race, culture, gender, ability, nationality, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation?
  • Does this work connect learning to real-world issues that students care about within their schools, communities, and the larger society?
  • Does this work call on students to take action to affect change?”

We make connections between cultural responsiveness and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) by creating content that builds student agency through offering multiple modalities of learning, as well as student choice and tiered activities. To help provide opportunities to view diversity as an asset, we design content that prioritizes collaboration through peer to peer communication, collective ownership, and teamwork. We also prioritize relevance as a key part of content development by infusing real-world connections between learning and students’ lives, providing opportunities for personal reflection and action, and developing service learning experiences.

Although cultural responsiveness in education may be described by many adjacent terms, the ways attitudes, practices, and instructional materials support and center a learner's culture, identity, and context can consistently strengthen our educational systems.