Using Inquiry-Based Learning to Create a Culturally Responsive Classroom
Teachers can use inquiry to guide students to engage in learning activities that are personally and culturally relevant to them.
Two important educational frameworks that complement each other perfectly are an inquiry approach to teaching and the creation of a culturally responsive classroom. Creating a culturally responsive middle school or high school classroom enables students to tell their own stories and to explore histories that matter to them. Inquiry approaches to teaching and learning provide the structure needed for this exploration.
What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
According to University of Washington professor Geneva Gay (a foundational leader in creating culturally responsive learning environments), culturally responsive teaching views cultural differences as assets, thus using diversity to guide curriculum development, classroom climate, and instructional strategies. Culturally responsive classrooms help students feel a greater sense of belonging, intrinsic motivation, and efficacy.
To help teachers create a culturally responsive learning environment, researchers at UCLA’s Center X created a Culturally Responsive Teaching Checklist. The checklist progresses from simple interventions that don’t necessarily change pedagogy, such as code switching during a lesson and recognizing multicultural holidays (level 1), to more cognitively and pedagogically demanding elements such as analyzing events and themes from multicultural perspectives (level 3) and taking social action on meaningful social problems (level 4).
Levels 3 and 4 of this checklist lend themselves to an inquiry approach because of their focus on deeper learning and personal exploration.
Blending Culturally Responsive Teaching and Inquiry
Inquiry can help teachers create culturally responsive classrooms. Within our thematic unit of “Equality,” I created an inquiry that required students to identify and articulate a problem and solution inspired by the essential questions of the unit.
We asked the following questions:
- How do concepts of equality change over time?
- To what extent do the media play a role in changing concepts of equality?
- To what extent do cultural institutions resist equality?
- To what extent Is equality a function of economics, culture, or politics?
- To what extent can individuals create change in levels of equality within a society?
My students came up with a variety of issues (such as hate speech, judicial “activism,” reparations, affirmative action, and wealth redistribution) and were able to use historical evidence to understand the nature of their problem and to create a solution. The Zinn Education Project is a wonderful resource for multicultural perspectives in U.S. history and is a resource that I often turn to when developing guided inquiries for my students. The nature of our essential questions allowed the students to choose the specific history they wanted to study, to decide on current problems they wanted to solve, and to pursue content and context that was culturally relevant to them.
Types of Inquiry
Structured and controlled inquiry: Structured and controlled inquiry models are learning frameworks in which the teacher chooses the question to be answered and provides resources for students to answer that question. These structures allow teachers to ensure that students have certain shared content knowledge and understandings, and ensure that multicultural perspectives are heard by all learners.
Level 3 of the Center X checklist is the “Transformation Approach.” This approach focuses on providing resources and instruction that integrate multicultural perspectives. Teachers who want to make their classroom more culturally responsive but are not comfortable with designing full open inquiry experiences should begin with inquiries structured around compelling questions that are purposely constructed to allow for, or even require, diverse cultural perspectives. Teachers can provide students with preselected sources, data, and information that is multicultural in nature and ideally reflects identities that are present in your learning community. Students will then use these preselected resources to construct meaning and understanding in regard to your question or problem.
For example, my ninth-grade U.S. History students were investigating the question, “To what extent can individuals change society?” By phrasing their compelling question in this way, I could easily provide resources that required them to learn about the contributions of individuals from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. One set of resources outlined the contributions of women to the labor movement, another focused on Mamie Tape and her family’s fight to allow Chinese American children to attend all-white schools, while another resource focused on the impact of Cesar Chavez on the labor movement. The students thus acquired evidence from a variety of perspectives and cultural backgrounds that they could use in the service of answering the essential question.
Open inquiry: An open, or free, inquiry structure requires students to generate both their own questions and their own resources/content to answer their question. It goes a step beyond controlled inquiry, inspiring social action.
One of the greatest benefits of creating a culturally responsive classroom is the cultivation of empathy among students. This empathy can then be leveraged to engage students in inquiries that allow them to investigate issues and questions that are personally important to them, such as the equality inquiry above. This practice invites students to engage in the “social action approach,” or level 4 of the checklist, because this kind of inquiry requires students to “make decisions on important social issues and take action to solve them.”
Encourage Student Reflection
Reflection should be a part of every student’s inquiry experience and is especially important in the service of creating a culturally responsive classroom. I like to ask my students to reflect on tough questions relevant to the question they were investigating in addition to having them reflect on their own learning. For example, in regard to the guided inquiry cited above, two reflection questions I asked students were, “What additional obstacles do you think existed for the individuals you studied that were unique to their identity?” and “How do you think the individuals’ identities informed their actions?”
These questions led to phenomenal conversations and took the learning to the next level in regard to perspective taking and developing empathy. In many ways, these reflection questions were as important as the content gained through the inquiry process.
By utilizing an inquiry approach in my classroom, I provide my students with higher-level cognitive experiences of synthesis, application, and creation. At the same time, inquiry allows me to create an environment where every student can customize their learning according to their own cultural identity, investigate the stories that they find meaningful, and solve problems that matter to them.