Whether I’m facilitating preservice teacher education or working with a group of experienced educators, when the professional development topic is culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy, I find that teachers understand the why. They understand that creating inclusive, respectful classrooms that are responsive to students’ intersectional identities fosters a learning environment that supports all learners’ academic success. However, the part that teachers grapple with is the how.
To make the professional learning relevant and meaningful, I try to include many tangible, practical examples to give teachers a place to start. I understand that teachers are at various points in their learning journey, and any resources or tools I can share will support and encourage them to continue on their path.
There are many ways to ensure that our science classrooms are culturally responsive and relevant, and this starts with a deep knowledge of our students—their cultural backgrounds, lived experiences, and interests. Consider implementing the following five ideas.
1. Encourage students to explore their own cultural identities
When investigating topics in evolution, I’ve asked students to think about their own cultural heritage and how their ancestors might have adapted to changing environmental conditions. This promotes conversations about structural and behavioral adaptations.
In my classroom, students have investigated human adaptations to hot or cold climates, such as metabolic rate or sweat production, and made connections to cultural adaptations such as clothing design and technology development. My students from tropical climates were very interested to learn about the ways in which their ancestors had adapted to the warm, humid climates, which made the learning relevant and meaningful to them.
Another way I’ve had students explore their own cultural identities is through food. Cultures around the world have their own unique culinary traditions that are based on scientific principles. In my classroom, food chemistry is an interesting entry point to chemical reactions. My students interviewed family members, relatives, or friends to learn about procedures used for food preservation, fermentation, and other cooking methods. Students did additional research to explain the chemical processes that took place and the efficacy of the specific food preparation techniques.
2. Incorporate diverse perspectives and experiences into learning
During lessons about sustainable ecosystems, the perspectives of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities are incorporated in an authentic way. We’ve invited community leaders or elders to share the ways in which their traditional knowledge and practices have helped them to understand and adapt to changing environmental conditions.
I share the Two-Eyed Seeing approach with my students: to see from one eye the Indigenous ways of knowing and to see Western knowledge from the other eye, and then using both of the eyes together in harmony, a concept introduced by Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall. We look at case studies, such as the monitoring projects in the Avon River watershed, to understand how this approach allows us to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the environment.
When we are learning about human body systems, I invite my students to investigate traditional healing practices and remedies from various cultures (such as Chinese traditional medicine or Ayurvedic medicine). This leads to a rich discussion about how various cultural beliefs and practices have influenced our understanding of anatomy and physiology. Moving away from Eurocentric science education means that we acknowledge and appreciate the global historic contributions to our present understanding of science.
3. Facilitate student-led inquiry and experiential learning
When students have opportunities to design and conduct their own experiments and investigations, they have the freedom to explore their own interests and passions, which makes the learning relevant and meaningful.
For example, in physics, my students explored concepts in sound and energy through learning about musical instruments in various cultures, and how they employ the principles of sound to create music. Students engaged in the engineering design process to craft and test their own musical instruments.
In their experiments, they investigated how manipulating certain aspects of the instrument’s design (the length of a woodwind instrument, the tension on strings, the material of a drum) impacted the sound it created and why. This is a low-floor, high-ceiling task that can be used in elementary-level science and can be adapted to align with high school physics standards.
4. Select culturally responsive and relevant materials
I’ve found that read-alouds are an effective way for students to learn about diverse perspectives. For example, when learning about the water cycle, I shared Carole Lindstrom’s work We Are Water Protectors, which highlights the experiences and perspectives of a young Ojibwe girl. We’ve also explored cultural beliefs and practices related to water conservation and management in various communities around the world.
When learning about sustainable ecosystems, we read The Boy Who Grew a Forest, by Sophia Gholz. This is a true story about Jadav Payeng, a boy who built a forest from the ground up when he saw the destructive effects of erosion and deforestation on his island home in India’s Brahmaputra River. The story inspired meaningful conversations about the impact of deforestation and the ways in which communities from around the world are responding to this reality, and how we can learn from their understanding and knowledge of the land to adopt sustainable practices.
5. Providing positive role models for students
When we share the lesser-known stories of science—whether those of Indigenous inventor Olivia Poole or of Chinese American physicist Chien-Shiung Wu—we actively counter stereotypes in science and give students the opportunity to see that the quest to understand the world around us is a human endeavor. While these historical figures are undoubtedly important role models for our students, allowing them to see present-day scientists and hear their lived experiences is especially powerful.
In my science classes, I’ve invited members of the community from diverse cultural backgrounds to discuss their careers and experiences. In the past, we’ve done a “STEM Talks” monthly series, in which people in STEM-related fields came in to speak with my students about their day-to-day work, their academic experiences, their challenges and victories. When students see themselves, their identities, and their lived experiences represented in the role models whom they can talk to in real life, it fosters a sense of belonging. If they can see it, they can be it.
Making our classrooms culturally responsive and relevant doesn’t end with posters of diverse scientists on our classroom walls. It’s a commitment to ensure that every child feels seen and represented in the curriculum that they are learning. These are just a few examples of how teachers can make science learning culturally responsive and relevant, but it’s just a drop in the bucket of possibilities that can be adapted to the specific needs and interests of the students in front of you.