Leveraging Cultural Strengths in Education
Updated: Apr 27
As a county, Arlington (VA) students come from 142 nations and speak 115 languages. Because we are located so close to Washington, D.C., our district budget is more than $700 million and the average per capita salary is greater than $99k annually (Arlington Public Schools, 2022). Many of our students are first-generation American and come from non-English speaking homes, which creates a beautiful mosaic in our student population rich in traditions, religious differences, and of course, inherent multi-cultural advantages!
As a district, we are focused on providing an equitable education to all students. This is wonderful in that we provide pupils with the best support possible, regardless of background or current achievement levels and our large budget helps us actualize this. School guidance counselors promote a series of lessons called No Place for Hate which focuses on espousing value on the multi-racial differences between us. These lessons provide opportunities for students to ask questions, explore, and better understand their own – and others' – cultures. This is similar to what Chenowith described as an ethnoautobiography (2014), and our staff take great pride in teaching and learning from our diverse population! Additionally, our school-based No Place for Hate and Equity Committees help raise teacher and student awareness of the differences and similarities that exist amongst our students and staff.
Gardner's Learning Styles
Berry (2020) brilliantly described Gardner’s theories of learning styles, and although this theory is often misunderstood and misapplied - resulting in overstressed teachers trying to plan for nine different styles*- I believe our students can demonstrate their knowledge through these mediums and methods that focus more on the quality and process of new skill development rather than quantity of work output. As a result, this allows some students to focus on new skills and to work toward learning a lesson objective. Learning styles are promoted across schools via multi-modal lessons that include the following instructional methods:
1:1 and small group lesson scaffolding
Choices for order of completion
Culturally responsive education
Multicultural learning and understanding helps our students construct learning activities, assessments, and routines that can create deep learning. Many students struggle with this because they find aspects of relationship building difficult, but we know it is a process to get to get to that point. I often refer to Watkins’ research because I think he has a great framework to help teachers identify the process of moving from 1) a teacher-led model, to 2) developing student independence, to 3) co-constructive learning (Watkins, 2005; Watkins et al., 2007; see link in references). Although the focus here is on culturally responsive pedagogy, I believe his framework for viewing classroom learning should allow teachers to move seamlessly between the three.
UDL and multicultural education
Brand, et al.(2012) described Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, as allowing students to make choices, presenting content via diverse mediums, and demonstrating knowledge in different, distinctive ways. Utilizing UDL allows students to bring their culture, ideas, and experiences into their method of representing their learning. Teachers seek ways to connect learning to student experiences, in what Brown (2014) called a “Make It Stick” approach. When teachers teach (e.g. represent) content in meaningful ways (e.g. those that refer to our students’ own diverse culture and experiences), we help students access existing knowledge by tying it to "the new". This ensures that our culturally diverse learners can engage and represent themselves through their new learning- two of the three core principles of UDL!
Arlington Public Schools (2022). APS Quick Facts, retrieved from https://www.apsva.us/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/APSQuickFacts-update0122.pdf on April 18 (Links to an external site.), 2022.
Berry, Theodora. (2020, October 20). Multicultural Education and Diverse Learners (M2) [video]. American College of Education. https://ace.instructure.com/courses/1872787/external_tools/118428
Brand, S. T., Favazza, A. E., & Dalton, E. M. (2012). Universal Design for Learning: A Blueprint for Success for All Learners. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 48(3), 134–139.
Brown, Peter C. (2014). Make it stick : the science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts :The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Chenowith, N. H. (2014). Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Cultural Scaffolding in Literacy Education. Ohio Reading Teacher, 44(1), 35-40. https://go.openathens.net/redirector/ace.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/culturally-responsive-pedagogy-cultural/docview/1676469560/se-2?accountid=31683 (Links to an external site.)
Watkins C (2011) Learning: a sense-maker’s guide, London: Association of Teachers and Lecturers http://chriswatkins.net/download/84/ (Links to an external site.)
Watkins, C., Carnell, E., & Lodge, C. (2007). Effective learning in classrooms. SAGE Publications Ltd, https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781446211472 (Links to an external site.)
A previous version of this article was previously published at American College of Education in early 2022.