How can I create an inclusive and equitable classroom with culturally responsive education?

posted June 30, 2021
by Christine O'Donnell

One topic within ongoing discussions about justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) in physics is how we can transform our classroom environments to generate welcoming, inclusive, and equitable spaces for all students. These environments are a major focus of physics students' experiences, involving a complex interplay of instruction, curricular activities, and social interactions. Here, I discuss evidence-based approaches to transforming our physics courses and provide examples of what these approaches look like in practice. Specifically, I will describe common themes in models such as culturally relevant, culturally responsive, and culturally sustaining education. Based on these themes, I contributed to a model for implementing these approaches in science education. Finally, I will share examples from a sample astronomy curriculum I created to highlight these approaches (the full curriculum is available here on PhysPort).

Before delving into these approaches, I like to explicitly state what I mean when using terms like “equity” and “inclusion”, following Rodriguez & Morrison (2019)’s recommendations to define these terms to specify what we are trying to do and how we are trying to do it:

  • Justice is a framework for dismantling barriers and sharing power so that everyone lives a full and meaningful life.
  • Equity is allocating resources so that everyone has access to the same outcomes. Thus, “equity” means that individuals are treated according to their needs, which requires that we cannot treat everyone as exactly the same. As a result, “equity” and “equality” are not the same thing - the latter would require that everyone receives the same resources, but since everyone has different experiences and needs, their outcomes will not be the same under “equality”.
  • Diversity is the recognition of intersectional visible and invisible characteristics (including racial and ethnic identities, mental and physical abilities, genders, sexual orientations) that make someone (or a group of people) unique.
  • Inclusion creates an environment that is welcoming of peoples of all backgrounds, and inclusion celebrates diversity as a source of strength for the entire community.

What is culturally responsive education?

Culturally responsive education is one approach for building courses on a foundation that incorporates and validates students’ cultures, values, beliefs, and experiences. Since the 1990s, various authors have proposed different frameworks for achieving these types of results. To briefly summarize some of the major models:

  • Culturally relevant pedagogy is defined by Gloria Ladson-Billings as an approach that empowers students academically, socially, and emotionally, by building bridges between content and the students’ own cultures. For example, when her students in a largely African American community learned they were using older copies of textbooks, but the students in a nearby predominantly White community received newer versions, they engaged in “community problem solving” by writing critiques that were published in local newspapers.
  • Culturally responsive teaching is an approach described by Geneva Gay where teachers reflect on their own positionalities. This process guides them to develop an awareness for validating their students’ cultures. For example, she used icebreaker activities that had participants declare their ethinic identities and provide “personal evidence” (such as values, behaviors, or beliefs) that were “proof” of their stated identities.
  • Culturally sustaining pedagogy is a model by Django Paris which emphasizes that students must be able to sustain their own cultural knowledge while also learning academic (dominant) knowledge. For example, he argued that English language classes in the US should support students in also continuing to use their native languages.

Other authors have also developed models that aim to synthesize these different approaches. The models my own research draws on most closely are termed “culturally responsive”, and so I will use that language in the rest of this recommendation. That said, culturally relevant and culturally sustaining approaches are also very successful, and I do not intend to suggest a ranking or other hierarchy to these approaches.

While I refer interested readers to the previously linked articles to learn about these approaches in-depth, in this recommendation, I wish to focus on some of the common threads through these models. First, implementing these approaches requires transforming the mindset and foundation on which a course is built. There’s lots of great classroom modules, like The Underrepresentation Curriculum, that can (and should!) be used to introduce students to topics like systemic bias. However, implementing these modules does not ensure that a course - encompassing (physics) content, pedagogy, and assessments - is equitable and/or culturally responsive. The rest of the course can still unintentionally contribute to barriers and biases against students. As Ibram Kendi explains, if we aren’t explicitly confronting biases and barriers, then we are maintaining the status quo, which is inherently biased. 

To provide two brief examples:

  • Often, physics courses describe the theories and work of individuals like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. While they are important people in the history of physics, the focus on White, European, and/or male physicists ignores the contributions of individuals from diverse backgrounds. The lack of role models with similar backgrounds and identities has a strong negative impact on students’ sense of belonging. Additionally, the modern glorification of both of these individuals suppresses much of their personal history. For example, Einstein was Jewish. While Jews in the US are often grouped as “Whites” (see also this book preview), during Einstein’s lifetime, his work was attacked as being inferior "Jewish science", and he was persecuted by the Nazi party. However, much of Einstein’s (and other Jewish scientists’) history has been whitewashed. Similarly, Newton’s personal life may also have been suppressed through history, with biographers, historians, and others debating whether he may have been homosexual.
  • Physics courses also generally focus on individual physicists’ contributions to the field, rather than acknowledging their participation within a community of colleagues and others. The focus on individuals is also at odds with the growth of collaborations in science research. For example, the first observations of gravitational waves was accomplished by a team of over 1,000 researchers and scientists.

When an instructor teaches Newton’s laws of motion or Einstein’s general relativity, that content can unintentionally communicate messages of exclusion to students who don’t identify with those individuals or who value collaborative teamwork over individual achievement. A culturally responsive foundation can help with addressing these biases head-on: another common thread in culturally responsive and other approaches is developing students’ critical consciousnesses. 

“Critical consciousness” is a concept from Paolo Freire’s work, where students develop an in-depth understanding of the world around them, which includes aspects such as positionality (i.e., their social, cultural, political, historical, and emotional experiences and contexts) and course academic content. Students are empowered to use this understanding to problematize and take action against inequities in society. In the examples above, students could apply their critical consciousness to identify biases inherent in the emphasis on individuals like Newton and Einstein, or even explore aspects of their lives and histories that are often ignored. Then, students could develop solutions like strategies to promote the work by scientists who represent different identities and/or work in large collaborations. 

Note that this approach directly opposes encouraging students to assimilate into academic culture, as that approach does not create an inclusive environment that welcomes and celebrates diversity. Furthermore, these culturally responsive approaches would recognize students for their actions and responses to implicit biases. Grades and assessments are another course element that can unintentionally reinforce biases and barriers by communicating that only certain expressions of knowledge (e.g., their ability to recall specific content on a high-stakes test) are valued, rather than giving students the opportunity to be creative and take ownership of their own learning.

Finally, culturally responsive and similar approaches center the course on students’ existing knowledge, beliefs, needs, and strengths. Freire also compared Eurocentric/Western educational approaches to a “banking model”, which treats students as empty vessels to fill with knowledge. In contrast, culturally responsive education recognizes students as experts of their own communities and experiences. By incorporating that knowledge into the classroom, rather than introducing physics as a siloed and purely-academic construct, we can guide students to connect with the content and feel a sense of belonging. For example, Basu et al. (2008) developed a physics course where students had opportunities to create their own lessons, which integrated course content with their own interests, thereby developing expertise on the academic content.

Would my students benefit from culturally responsive education?

Yes! If we (as a field) want to improve equity and inclusion, we need to examine what barriers are excluding people - especially those who identify with historically marginalized backgrounds - from fields like physics. Many, many studies have found that these individuals leave science (including physics) because these fields do not create a sense of belonging and inclusion - in fact, even when students from historically marginalized groups have the same (or better) academic performance as their peers from dominant groups, they still struggle to navigate the culture of science, which may be in conflict with their own beliefs and values. 

Many studies have found that culturally responsive approaches improve student confidence and learning outcomes, including studies of college-level introductory astronomy courses, which find that students in culturally responsive courses outperform their peers on concept inventories, grades, and all other metrics; these results are even more significant for students from marginalized groups. In addition, giving students the opportunity to practice leading discussions and actions in response to systemic biases is crucial. These topics are becoming increasingly ubiquitous in the US, but they can be difficult and uncomfortable to address. If we as educators want to best prepare our students for their future lives and careers, we cannot omit social justice and related topics from our classrooms.

How can I implement culturally responsive education in my classroom?

I proposed a model for culturally responsive science education built on a framework of asset building, reflection, and connectedness (what I collectively refer to as the “ARC model” - see table below; this work draws on a similar approach in culturally responsive computing). Using this model, I developed a sample astronomy curriculum that is intended to introduce students to both astronomy content and skills - like seasons, constellations, and Python programming - as well as conversations about equity and inclusion in astronomy. This curriculum embeds a mindset that teaching and learning should be in the service of students and their communities. 

Asset building

Explicitly incorporates and values learners’ prior knowledge and beliefs into the astronomy content

Reflection

Guides learners to identity, question, and assess assumptions and social inequities in their own lives and society at large

Connectedness

Fosters relationships between learners and their communities (including peer connections), which (1) creates a sense of accountability to a larger community and (2) guides students to be seen as leaders and thus receive recognition from meaningful others 

Thus, the goal is to empower students to become techno-social change agents, i.e., people who are empowered to problematize social inequities and develop solutions using their new technical knowledge and skills (see figure); the concept of techno-social change agents parallels concepts like critical science agency and transformative intellectuals.

Below, I offer insight on how I developed the sample curriculum, focusing on how the introduction “sets the stage” for the various activities which incorporate the elements of the ARC model.

How can I prepare myself and my students for culturally responsive education?

Like with any other curricula, developing culturally responsive curricular materials is an iterative process of drafting, testing, and rewriting. However, culturally responsive curricular materials also require you to critically reflect on your positionality - that is, to identify, question, and assess deeply-held beliefs and assumptions that impact your actions, beliefs, values, and so on. Doing that kind of critical reflection is a skill that takes practice, especially since we all (including myself) have blindspots based on our lived experiences.

One strategy to try to overcome blindspots is to partner with individuals with different lived experiences. When people work together in diverse teams where each member contributes different experiences, it can create an environment where assumptions are identified and questioned. 

For example, you could consider reaching out to elders or representatives from a local community - perhaps a community that many of your students are from but is typically not represented in science (e.g., an Indigenous community) - and invite them to be involved in your class. Even if you are teaching in a setting without a clear connection to a single community (e.g., a large introductory college class with students from many different regions and backgrounds), forming these connections can serve as a model to students for how to respond to a local community’s knowledge and needs. However, it is important to approach this as relationship-building, with all partners contributing to joint efforts.

Additionally, you should consider how you set the stage for your students to engage with your course, especially since this may be the first time students have talked about these topics in any academic setting. Making it clear why you care about these discussions can encourage students to be more open-minded about these topics.

Finally, having students co-create the classroom norms can help minimize the risk of harm during discussions, which can be caused by (unintentional) comments or actions by other students. These norms can also serve as a sort of “informal contract” which students can hold each other accountable to. Some examples of norms include

  • Norms for conversations, such as active listening and that there may not be a single “correct” answer;
  • Norms for expression, such as valuing verbal and nonverbal communication and expression through writing, drawing, or other art;
  • Norms for group activities, such as sharing roles and responsibilities; and 
  • Norms for community building, such as normalizing asking for help and developing ways of offering help.

Asset Building: How do I create spaces that prioritize students’ cultural knowledge and assets?

It can sometimes be challenging to identify areas where you can build bridges between the course content and students’ own cultural knowledge, beliefs, values, and assets in a way that incorporates and values the students’ contributions. However, everyone has had experiences with science, whether that’s through their formal education or through another approach to understanding the world around them. Some guiding questions you may consider include

  • How did the “knowledge” you are teaching come to be “known”? For example, when describing topics like gravity or mathematics, many of the concepts were known by civilizations and communities for centuries before they were written down by the scientists to whom we give credit. 
  • What are the implications of such “knowledge”? For example, consider the political or social motivations for gaining that knowledge, such as in the case of the nuclear bomb.
  • Are there other ways of knowing or understanding? For example, many Indigenous cultures have their own complete set of astronomical knowledge (e.g., how constellations or other objects in the sky came to be, and what it means when certain objects appear in the sky).
  • What are the science practices underlying the “science knowledge”? For example, in some of my previous work, I described in-class and homework prompts that drew on the parallel between (1) having multiple scientific models to try to explain some phenomena and (2) having a disagreement with another person due to different perspectives and viewpoints. 

In all of these cases, students’ own stories form a foundation on which we introduced course concepts. In the sample astronomy curriculum, one of the lessons starts with students creating their own constellations (from memory and/or imagination) and sharing their constellations’ stories. Then, they work in groups with their constellations to build a physical model that explains why the constellations visible in the Earth’s night sky changes depending on location and time of year.

Reflection: How do I empower students to reflect on inequities in physics and society?

The “reflection” in the ARC model means that students have opportunities to practice the skills of problematizing inequities in physics and more broadly in science and society. While the co-created norms matter throughout a culturally responsive curriculum, they’re particularly important here, especially for students to feel comfortable identifying inequities that they may be personally affected by (or may even personally benefit from). 

In the sample curriculum, one lesson that particularly focuses on reflection is the one about the language of astronomy, which was inspired by a lesson from the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hawaii. In this activity, students work in groups through a scaffolded research assignment where they investigate the origins of common names in different categories of astronomy, such as constellation names, the names of manned space missions, or the names of (exo)planets. They then share their findings with the whole class and have a discussion about whether and how astronomy is biased. Later on, they work in groups to rename an object, and during that process, they reflect on the International Astronomical Union’s protocols to choose whether they will follow those procedures in their work and to articulate their choice.

Other examples in the literature also use similar approaches with scaffolded activities, with students reading specific articles and then responding to prompts about their opinions and reactions. A crucial element of these exercises is that they often explicitly value students’ subjective emotions and feelings - science and Western education often exclusively value objective facts, figures, equations, etc. However, all science, including physics, is a social process because it is done by people, and so our work is filtered through the biases that affect all people. Without acknowledging and respecting subjective feelings and emotions as data that informs us about equity and inclusion in science, efforts to address diversity in science will always be flawed and limited. Finding ways to specifically prompt students for emotional reactions is one step towards valuing subjectivity in science.

Connectedness: How do I guide students to form connections, including peer coalitions and relationships with their communities?

Throughout the sample curriculum, students often work in groups to complete the various activities, which they then present to their classmates. While presentations are often used as assessment tools, in these settings, they also function as a way for students to communicate with and be recognized by their peers. Additionally, since the sample curriculum was created for the context of an out-of-school camp, it includes a Closing Ceremony. Early on, the students themselves decide what they would feel proud presenting and to whom (e.g., a presentation to elders, a demonstration for younger students, or a TikTok series for their peers). They work in groups to complete their projects, and the students (as well as the program instructors) invite the target audience to the Ceremony. In particular, by inviting community members (especially those within the target audience) to participate in the Ceremony, it provides a chance for the students to be recognized by meaningful others, which can encourage their development of a science identity. It can also serve as a chance for students to see themselves as techno-social change agents within their communities.

While this exact setup may not be feasible in a classroom environment, aspects of the Ceremony, such as having students design their own project, are easily transferable. Another possibility is to have students design their own lessons for your course, which gives them another chance to connect with their own interests, to be recognized by their peers for their expertise, and to be active and critical techno-social change agents.

Next Steps

Implementing culturally relevant, responsive, and sustaining education can be a powerful tool for addressing equity and inclusion in your classroom. I’ve also shared a sample astronomy curriculum here on PhysPort that you can look at for inspiration, and I also recommend reading books and articles by authors like Gloria Ladson-Billings, Geneva Gay, and Django Paris as well as by others like Aronson & Laughter who synthesize these approaches. If you’re a fan of rubrics, there are some frameworks proposed by New York State's Education Department, NYU (targeted towards English/Language Arts but certainly transferable to physics), and Alaskan Native educators. While these are all good starting points, I would caution against using any of these sources as “checklists”: they may not cover all aspects relevant to your course, and there is a difference between checking something off as being “done” in your course versus having students engage with that particular activity.

When creating my sample curriculum and thinking about how to approach the astronomy content, some of the questions I considered included

  • How did we come to “know” these things about the Universe?
  • Whose voices are represented in those stories? And, which voices are being left out?
  • What does it mean to “do science” in these (sub)fields?
  • How do we typically share that knowledge? Both in general (e.g., through publications and science media), but also within the classroom. Who does these forms of communication privilege, and who does it leave behind? How else can we share knowledge?
  • What are my “blindspots”, and so where should I be more mindful to leave things up to the students to decide (e.g., in creating the final projects)?
  • Who can I build a relationship with to learn more about the kinds of experiences my students may have had? And what can I offer them in return? 
  • Where can I find reliable sources of information like cultural traditions and Indigenous knowledge?

Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope this can help as a starting point. 

Finally, I encourage you to reflect on your own experiences in science. In my case, this reflection had a major influence: I’m an astronomer, and as I got more involved in astronomy research, I realized that the way astronomy and physics are taught is (in my experience) drastically different from how research in those fields is actually done. More personally, in recent years, I’ve been trying to “undo” the cultural assimilation that I abided by so that I can now figure out who I actually am and be my authentic self. Even if your experiences aren’t as extensive, everyone still has experiences with science, whether that’s in a classroom, in everyday life (e.g., cooking/baking), or other settings. Reflecting on how those experiences went - what you liked, what you disliked, how those experiences affected you and those around you - can be key pieces of information when designing these types of curricula.

References