The Ideal Classroom of 2022
Von Aleksandra Smiljanic, Laura Strazzabosco, Gloria Zotchi
Our world is beautifully diverse but also extremely problematic. Although one could argue that more often than not our differences bitterly divide us, our common problems and the sheer necessity to solve them have always found strange ways to bring us closer. The never-ending series of disasters that continue to strike us in 2022 – climate change, racism, sexism, the abyssal gap between the rich and the poor, the COVID-19 pandemic and most recently the war against Ukraine, – is also a perfect example of how extremely difficult it is to unite different individuals. So how can we rise to these challenges without destroying ourselves because of our recognizable ‘uniqueness’? Education plays a crucial role in this, but it is not that simple. In order to form individuals who are able to overcome all sorts of problems simply being aware of our cultural diversity is not enough. We need to explore it, embrace it, and become active participants right off the bat.
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP) is a term introduced by Gloria Ladson-Billings, an American pedagogical theorist and teacher educator. Her idea inspired several frameworks for culturally responsive approaches (e.g., culturally responsive education, culturally relevant teaching, and culturally congruent teaching), as one can see in the seminal work of key scholars like Geneva Gay and Django Paris.
The concept of CRP stems from a series of observations Ladson-Billings made about the failure rate of African American and other ‘minority’ students in the US – a phenomenon which much previous research had tried to explain with reference to a ‘cultural mismatch’ between the students’ background and their school’s reality. However, Ladson-Billings strongly believed that one should not ignore the academic achievements that still occurred among African American students, even though it sometimes resulted in them being ostracized by their peers. Partly on her experience as a student and a teacher, she was eager to demonstrate that despite all the different claims about academic failure in these communities, there were still teachers who were magnificently able to educate African American students to help them reach considerable success. Her goal was to explore this reality by following these teachers side by side, which eventually led her to formulate her concept of CRP.
In 1988 she started her three-year research by following eight teachers and their classes in a small, predominantly African American, low-income elementary school district in Northern California. All of these teachers were considered to be ‘excellent’: parents and school principals were asked to identify who they thought were outstanding educators based on their professional and personal experience. Many criteria were taken into consideration, such as excellent classroom management skills, the students’ achievement based on SAT scores, but also their enthusiasm towards school in general and their attitude towards themselves and others. The identified teachers were all female and had between twelve and forty years of teaching experience, mostly with African American students.
Ladson-Billings’ study was structured in four phases: an ethnographic interview with each of the teachers, frequent class visits and general observations on her part, videotaping the teachers and a final, collective analysis and interpretation of each other’s methods, after viewing different segments of the videotapes together. Although apparently there were no patterns or similarities in their methods she noticed that all of them strongly identified with their profession and were keen on creating a strong community of learners, encouraging their students to collaborate and be responsible for each other. They were also concerned about the ethical implications their work had on their students’ lives and the welfare of their general community – in fact, they actively engaged to play a significant role in it. Many of them did not hesitate to defy administrative mandates to do what they believed was right for their students from a pedagogical point of view and most importantly, they never neglected the unjust social arrangements that unfortunately were a part of their everyday life.
Based on her research she proposed three goals on which these teachers’ practices were grounded: First, teaching must yield academic success; second, teaching must help students develop positive ethnic and cultural identities while simultaneously helping them achieve academically; third, teaching must support students’ ability “to recognize, understand, and critique current and social inequalities.” By centering these goals in their practice, culturally relevant practitioners can empower students not only intellectually but also socially, emotionally, and politically. Moreover, as defined by Geneva Gay, CRP is “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively” (p. 106). The cultural characteristics teachers should take into consideration when dealing with pupils include commonly thought of concepts such as values, traditions, and language, but also extends to include concepts such as communication, learning styles, and relationship norms. Culturally responsive pedagogy is one means to the ultimate objective of multicultural education for all.
Practically speaking, there are four conditions any teacher must fulfill to establish a culturally-responsive classroom (cf. Ginsberg & Wlodkowski): While preparing and delivering any lesson, teachers should strive to establish inclusion by highlighting how the topic of the class may relate or apply to students – if possible, without disturbing students’ feelings. Establishing inclusion also involves regularly grouping students with different classmates, which encourages discussion to solve problems. In doing so, they can share unique perspectives and diverse background knowledge. Moreover, it’s important to relate content to students by allowing them to choose between activities and assessments that let them showcase their values, strengths and experiences. For example, while providing clear learning goals and evaluation criteria, students are encouraged to submit their own project ideas. Furthermore, to enhance the meaning of a topic, there’s no better way than drawing connections with real-world issues, asking students to use opinions and existing knowledge to address them. For instance, contextualizing difficult issues like racist discriminations through recent examples could emphasise its momentousness and the importance of practicing antiracism on a daily basis. When appropriate, teachers could also use student jargon to clarify these issues or improve communication in general, narrowing the gap between them and pupils. Last but not least, fostering confidence is essential; for example, offering different ways to demonstrate skills and understanding on a specific topic highlights how the aim of the school is not to punish students but to help them develop as many soft skills as possible, while also learning the basis of human knowledge. One strategy to create trust between teachers and pupils is to avoid handing out quizzes that are purely multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank. Instead, it is beneficial to let them express themselves freely by writing short- and long-form answers. Moreover it is advisable to give students time to assess their own progress and performance, which helps them to focus on their personal and academic growth and improvement.
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy is based on the idea that teachers need to be non-judgmental and inclusive of the cultural backgrounds of their students in order to be effective facilitators of learning in the classroom. This teaching approach focuses on multiple aspects of student achievement and supports students to uphold their cultural identities. It also grounds and informs every aspect of a teacher’s practice, giving them what is necessary to catch their students’ attention and make their classes relevant in the present by narrowing the gap between abstract knowledge and useful abilities or soft skills. It is important that students learn to form their own opinions based on facts and are able to elaborate and express them clearly and respectfully. Indeed, CRP calls for students to develop critical perspectives that challenge societal inequalitieslike the ones mentioned above. All in all, teachers are to use their students’ culture as the basis for learning, helping them recognize and honour their own cultural beliefs and practices while learning about the wider world.
CRP and Antiracism
CRP and antiracism in educational institutions can go hand in hand, especially because cultural competence is a pivotal aspect of it. Alemanji Aminjeng Atabong, who conducted research on antiracism in Finland, defines today’s racism as a continuation of coloniality. With movements like Black Lives Matter the following question came up: Who can participate in antiracist protests? The answer is simple: everyone. However, each participant should know their role and that is where educational institutions can play an important part.
Notwithstanding the importance of protest and action being taken to the streets, antiracism should alsobe implemented into our educational institutions and curricula. Teachers who are supporting an antiracist policy show this through their actions and their ways of expression and teaching. Yet schools need to purchase antiracist teaching material in order to to make their staff familiar with the topic and look at the issue from different angles. Thus creating a reading list for your staff and for your students is a step into the right direction. Another important aspect is to make yourself accountable. Peter Drucker introduced the notion of SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time bound. Setting your goals in this way makes it easier to make progress. However, it is important to keep in mind that becoming an antiracist institution requires persistent effort and unweaving desire to learn.
In his thesis Is there such a thing…? A study of antiracism education in Finland (2016) Aminjeng Atabong gives practical recommendations. Most importantly, since racism exists in all areas of life, antiracist education can only succeed if it is not restricted to formal educational institutions. And because different types of racism require different kinds of actions, practitioners have to decide which kind of racism they want to address in their programme. Atabong also emphasizes that it is crucial “to move the understanding of race and racism from an individual to a structural level” (Aminjeng Atabong, p. 58).
Aminjeng Atabong suggests a variety of strategies that can be implemented. Raising the issue of racism in a predominantly white society is not easy, especially if racism is addressed by a non-white person. However, creating antiracist institutions is possible. Persistent effort, an unweaving desire to learn and patience are virtues that are going to lead to success.
So what should the ideal classroom of 2022 look like?
Students aren’t consumers of facts. They are active creators of knowledge. Schools aren’t just brick-and-mortar structures; they’re centres of lifelong learning. Therefore, teaching is recognized as one of the most challenging careers, but also an absolutely vital one to the social, cultural, and economic health of a nation. Nowadays, teaching differs from the old “show-and-tell” practices of the past. What is important is how the educational environment isn’t confined to the classroom but, instead, extends into the home, the community and around the world. Thus, teachers should support equitable and educational experiences for all students and create an environment where everyone feels accepted and welcomed and where meaningful interactions are held. As we all live in a very problematic world, full of deep-rooted issues, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and antiracism are probably the best answer to establish the ideal classroom of 2022.
Aleksandra Smiljanic & Laura Strazzabosco (University of Milan)
Gloria Zotchi (Referendarin, Seminar f. Ausbildung & Fortbildung der Lehrkräfte Tübingen)
Aminjeng Atabong, A., Is there such a thing…? A study of antiracism education in Finland. University of Helsinki, 2016.
Brown-Jeffy, S. / Cooper, J. E., “Toward a Conceptual Framework of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: An overview of the conceptual and theoretical literature”. Teacher Education Quarterly, 38:1 (2012), pp. 65-84.
Escudero, B., “How to Practice Culturally Relevant Pedagogy”, Teach for America, 2019,
Gay, G., “Peparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching”. Journal of Teacher Education, 53:2 (2002), pp. 106-116.
Ginsberg, M. B. / Wlodkowski, R. J., Diversity and Motivation: Culturally responsive teaching in college. Jossey-Bass, 2019 (2. ed.).
Guido, M., Culturally Responsive Teaching: Examples, strategies and activities for success. Prodigy, 2017.
Ladson-Billings, G., “But That’s Just Good Teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy.” Theory Into Practice, 34:3 (1995), p. 159-165.
Taack Lanier, J., Redefining the Role of the Teacher: It’s a multifaceted profession.1997.