Let’s engage students as individuals, not as identity groups
“The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I was an English teacher, one of my 9th grade students—a boy of Korean descent, living a high-tech life in suburban New Jersey, playing video games and striving to get into a good college—told me how deeply he connected with the protagonist of the book we were reading. The book was Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie, a coming-of-age novel set in Nigeria in the 1980s. The protagonist, Kambili, is a Nigerian teenage girl.
Notably, my student did not look like the author or the character; he did not have any African ancestry, nor did his cultural knowledge include Nigeria in any obvious way. What he did share with the character was a complicated relationship with his father, and while reading the book my student discovered what it meant to be emotionally ambivalent. He loved this book because it helped him better understand himself and his own father.
But according to Culturally Responsive Education or “CRE”—which is also sometimes called Culturally Relevant Education—this book is not responsive or relevant to my student because his culture does not match that of the novel’s character, country, or author.
CRE is an educational theory that calls for recreating K-12 curriculum so that it “centers” student cultures—by which it generally means skin color, ancestry, ethnicity, or gender. Founded upon the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings, CRE argues for linking student culture to the classroom for African-American and other underserved students.
Ladson-Billings describes three components of CRE: academic success, cultural competence, and critical consciousness. This last element urges educators to teach students “to critique the cultural norms, values, mores, and institutions that produce and maintain social iniquities.” Although culturally relevant education may look different in different settings, the general idea, which has been widely researched and described, is that students from different cultural groups learn differently, and schools should leverage those cultural differences to best serve their students. But despite CRE’s lofty and mostly unobjectionable language, it is based on race-essentialist ideas that teach students to view the world through an identitarian and reductive lens.
On the surface, CRE seems consistent with the commonly used model of “student-centered education” in which teachers do not deliver information, but rather allow students to discover and construct knowledge for themselves; in student-centered education, teachers serve students as “a guide on the side,” leading them toward their own discovery of what the teacher already knows, rather than lecturing at them as “a sage on the stage.” This nearly ubiquitous model of education stands in contrast to more classical and content-rich models, such as E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge schools which, despite their ostensible lack of emphasis on student development, have shown success in “rais[ing] the academic achievement of poor children on standardized tests” while also ensuring that they remain “curious, intellectually stimulated, and engaged.”
As a high school English teacher in a progressive K-12 independent school, I experienced student-centered learning at its best. I saw how allowing students the guided freedom to grapple with a text, rather than telling them what it meant, could foster healthy habits of mind, such as curiosity, independent thinking, and authentic questioning, a tolerance for ambiguity, and a capacity for constructive dialogue.
Of course, teaching diverse students challenges us, as teachers, to include instructional materials that reflect a wide range of cultures in order to expand students’ understanding of themselves and others within a diverse world. But CRE goes beyond student-centered education by fixating on students’ cultural backgrounds as an attempt to engage them with materials that are relevant to their lives. This inevitably requires schools to make assumptions about what will and will not engage students based on their group identity.
CRE is not “student-centered.” It is “group-centered.” It argues for using students’ cultural group identity to create curriculum, enhance relationships, and increase student engagement. CRE crudely assumes not only that “culture” is the definitive feature of students’ lives, but that “culture” is monolithic, and that every person within each cultural group has the same interests or experience of the world. The idea that all people who share the same group identity would also share the same interests, experiences, or beliefs is demeaning and dehumanizing to the unique human beings in that group.
Educators and parents know that increased student engagement leads to increased success. When students feel like “classroom insiders,” they feel comfortable bringing their fullest selves and drawing on their “prior knowledge,” which is then “valued and useful to academic learning.” But CRE erroneously posits that students’ group identity is what will make them classroom insiders, an assumption that is racialist and ethno-essentialist.
We can see how demeaning and reductive CRE’s approach is by looking at how it is measured. Educators at New York University have developed scorecards that direct educators literally to check boxes to ensure proper cultural representation across subject areas. These scorecards atomize and sterilize the human experience into narrow categories of representation.
Is group identity the best way to foster student engagement? How is it possible to center all different cultures and identities? Are we to assume that students with the same skin color or with the same ethnicity or ancestry all experience their culture in the same way? Don’t people from the same culture have different experiences of their culture, not to mention different personalities, interests, and experiences within their families and communities? Considering the full range of identities and groups, and how much individuals within these groups vary, wouldn’t the theory of CRE, taken to its logical conclusion, lead to centering the diverse experiences of all of humanity? And if so, why do we need CRE at all? What’s really going on here?
The answer lies in the third component of CRE—“critical consciousness,” described by Ladson-Billings as teaching students “to critique the cultural norms, values, mores, and institutions that produce and maintain social iniquities.” In its inception and its current iterations, CRE explicitly and unapologetically prepares teachers and students to become activists.
According to educational policy developed by New York University, CRE’s goals include “disrupting power dynamics that privilege dominant groups” and “transform[ing] the world toward liberation.” The educational model emphasizes the “use [of] an explicit racial justice lens” in supporting “educational equity.” CRE is "an intensive, ongoing and long-term effort that requires transformative changes at all levels.”
CRE is now influencing policymakers around the country. The State of New York, for example, cites NYU’s “robust guidance document…as a springboard” for its own culturally responsive-sustaining framework, which aims to “empower students as agents of social change" toward “equity.” New York defines “equity” to mean “a robust system and dynamic process that reinforces and replicates equitable ideas, power, resources, strategies, conditions, habits, and outcomes” (emphasis added). Likewise, Massachusetts promotes culturally sustaining education that will “foster and support students’ diverse backgrounds, identities, strengths, and challenges, and leverage them to address systemic inequities” (emphasis added). Wisconsin emphasizes CRE’s directive that teachers “be courageous leaders in this work, assuming personal responsibility for catalyzing equitable conditions and outcomes for students” (emphasis added). These are just a few examples.
Despite what some of its proponents would have us believe, CRE is much more than simply a framework for student-centered learning and a celebration of different cultures and cultural ways of knowing. CRE’s focus on “power dynamics,” “social change,” “liberation,” and “equitable outcomes” plainly reveal that critical pedagogy is baked into CRE. Critical pedagogy, popularized by Paolo Freire, is the Marxism-derived school of critical theory applied to education. Thus, it designates K-12 classrooms as the place to start a revolution to dismantle the dominant power structures—meaning our current systems of liberal democracy. Critical pedagogy is explicitly a political ideology—similar to other illiberal ideologies that focus on “liberation” and seek equality of outcomes—aiming to turn students into revolutionary activists.
With CRE becoming widespread, we must consider: Is there a better way to leverage student engagement for success across cultures? And, most importantly, how do we ensure that all students, regardless of their group identities, become “classroom insiders” without dehumanizing them or flattening them into stereotypes—and without replacing learning with activism?
I learned in one of my first teacher training sessions that building “rapport” is key to student success. As soon as I came face-to-face with students in my first classroom, I understood what that meant. Students were simply young human beings, with their own unique needs, interests, and personalities. I knew instinctively that I needed to develop relationships with each of my students in order to create good will, trust, and understanding.
Small things go a long way toward building rapport with students; asking about the latest game they’re playing, what music is trending, what sports team they like, or otherwise expressing an interest in their lives outside of school can help. I also found that by being fully human myself—having a sense of humor and a willingness to show my own fallibility and vulnerability—contributed to rapport.
Building rapport means, first and foremost, being human together. It requires patience and a willingness to see and connect with each student as a unique individual, not simply another name on a roster or an identity group avatar whose skin color or ancestry or gender you think you need to leverage.
My student’s connection to Purple Hibiscus gave him insight into his own life, while also exposing him to universal experiences that he could relate to in different cultures.
A pro-human classroom would allow students not only to see themselves in the curriculum, but also to gain an understanding of themselves and others as unique individuals, with their own experiences, personalities, and cultural and other identities. A pro-human approach to teaching encourages a recognition of our commonalities—joys and disappointments, dreams and fears, challenges and triumphs—in other words, the human condition across cultures.
Students lose out when educators fail to see them as individuals and gear their classrooms toward identitarian activism. Instead, let’s help all students become “classroom insiders” by focusing on student-responsive education, with curriculum and classrooms that recognize all students first as human beings, with their own unique academic, emotional, and social needs.
We don’t need activism, or race-essentialism, or other regressive ideas about what will engage our students. We need pro-human and student-responsive teaching.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
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I love this essay. It's the definition of deeply engaged: informed by extensive personal experience, intent on steelmanning but also thoroughly critiquing the policy and ideology it disagrees with. It taught me a lot about issues I hadn't fully thought through. Should be shared widely!
Exceptional insights. Students may want to identify with a group but their concern focuses more on fitting in with peers. Race issues dissolve when deep learning activities engage genuine interest. This process derails from outside influences such as gang pressure, limited consequences for disruptions, and artificial educational templates. Students immediately recognize the sham. The only truly effective social justice effort would promote removing shackles that prevent authentic education. Unrealistic to expect a student-generated revolution in that direction, which explains why government foisting of such shallow, one-size-fits all programs prevail. Freedom Writers and scores of similar efforts around the country prove what works for each individual—and why.