Teaching Diverse Students: How to Embrace Cultural Identity in the Classroom

Learning has never been more dynamic (and more important to understand) for minority students. We have learned over the last 30 years or so that cultural identity has a big impact on the academic success of these students. Teachers must move beyond classroom knowledge and take into account the rich repertoires of knowledge and skills that their students bring to school.

Culture is Taught and Caught

Anthropologists like me think about learning as involving both cultural transmission and cultural acquisition. Young people are exposed to transmissions of culture all the time—outside of school, in the neighborhood, at home and, of course, through various kinds of media and technology like TV and the web. But they also acquire culture, and no two people acquire it the same way.

It is with these definitions that culture is both taught and caught. The bigger question for schools and for teachers, then, is how does classroom learning relate to what young people are learning outside of school?

Famous anthropologist George Spindler once called school “a calculated intervention in the learning process.” Teachers that can learn more about their students outside of school, and use that cultural knowledge and knowhow to improve their academic outcomes, will be successful in building a bridge between what their students know (i.e. their cultural identity) and what they want them to learn in the classroom.

Dissertation in Papua New Guinea

One way I have examined the impact of culture in the classroom is through my dissertation research in Manus, Papua New Guinea. I studied the way local people think about the usefulness of education in Pere Village, the same place Margaret Mead did a lot of her work beginning in 1928. One of the things I found there is that young people had doubts about the value of education due to rising unemployment and other factors such as identity conflicts. Education has a lot to do with developing identities—and young people in Pere Village questioned the identity of the person that the school was trying to make them become.

Papua New Guinea has always had an egalitarian social climate. In other words, they place a premium on reciprocal exchange obligations. But for some of the young people there, they saw success in school as acting “extra.” Behaviors such as wearing a lot of makeup, wearing new clothes, using luxurious words in the English language, aspiring to a job in the cash sector, etc. cut against the local norms of egalitarianism. This was my first real experience in seeing the effects of culture in the classroom, and it only furthered my interest in viewing education with an anthropological lens.

Race Matters

Teachers must also be aware of their own positionality. We are all positioned in a way by our racial and cultural identity. Teachers must have an awareness of their own position to establish effective teaching and learning relationships with their students. Race matters in everyday life—and it has an effect on everyday interaction, and in turn, on learning.

This is something I have come to believe both as a researcher and an instructor. For me, as a white instructor, it’s important to show an understanding of the different ways in which I am advantaged, especially with underrepresented student groups that may have very good reasons for being skeptical of a white teacher or a teacher from another racial background.

I try to do this with my own students in a variety of ways. For example, at the beginning of classes on culture, I might talk about my own research and challenges establishing relationships across racial lines. I also might share some of the pre-conceptions and stereotypes from Papua New Guinea: that white people have delicate skin, can’t do hard work, sit behind desks and just easily make money, and most troubling of all, that white people don’t have a sense of humor!

Three Tips for Teachers to Embrace Cultural Identity in the Classroom

  1. Get to know your students. It’s important to create a collaborative classroom community. For example, there is a middle school in St. Paul, Minn. where the previous principal did not allow teachers to open a textbook for the entire first week of school so the focus could be getting to know the students. Furthermore, there was a teacher in that school that had students create their own PowerPoint autobiographies. This brought their knowledge, experiences, skills and values into the classroom, which is all a part of an asset-based or strength-based approach to learning.
  2. Believe in a growth mindset. Carol Dweck’s book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” outlines two common (but different) views on intelligence. The first is a fixed view, meaning we are all born with a fixed amount of intelligence, and that intelligence remains static. The second is a growth view, meaning the brain is a muscle that can be developed over time. The most important words for a teacher to say to his or her students are “not yet.” You haven’t mastered this particular concept yet, but you will.
  3. Establish meaningful relationships with your students. This is important for teachers to effectively guide and relate to their students—and it begins with a number of factors: self-awareness of your own positionality, a strong knowledge of your students and their backgrounds, empathy and hard work. But enjoyment in young people is also a must. Teachers need to believe in the potential of their students and draw on their natural curiosity to create authentic academic engagement.

To learn more about issues of culture and teaching, feel free to read the following piece I co-authored with CEHD doctoral graduate, Allison Mattheis.


Peter Demerath

About the Author

Peter Demerath, Ph.D.

  • Associate Professor
  • Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development
  • College of Education and Human Development

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