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Cultural awareness is fundamental to providing an equitable learning environment for all students. A classroom that values equality is not the same as one that values equity. While these terms are often used interchangeably, they represent two approaches to teaching with very different goals and outcomes.

Equality is the idea that all students should be given equal treatment: If one student receives a book to take home, all students should receive a book to take home. Equity is the idea that resources should be provided to students based on their needs to ensure all have opportunities to succeed. In the prior example, this might mean that all students receive a book to take home (equality), but students for whom English is not a first language receive books tailored to their language skills (equity).

What Is Cultural Awareness?

Cultural awareness is the first step to building a culturally responsive approach to teaching. According to the National Education Association (NEA), cultural awareness or cultural competence is “understanding your own culture, other’s culture, and the role of culture in education.” Taking a student’s culture into account as “a basis for learning, communicating high expectations, and reshaping curriculum to reflect student’s diversity leads to better educational outcomes.”

It does not reduce racial, gender or socioeconomic groups to monoliths; rather, it helps educators to recognize the uniqueness of each student and the differences between groups that make communities — and their school systems — vibrant.

Culturally responsive teaching builds on cultural awareness, using that competence to better communicate with students and their families, according to Teachaway. The goal is to empower students by understanding their cultural backgrounds and tailoring learning to meet and celebrate their experiences.

Why Is It Important?

Student performance can be largely impacted by the educator/student “culture gap” — “any systematic difference between two cultures which hinders mutual understanding or relations,” according to Educalingo. America is becoming more racially, linguistically and ethnically diverse, with about half of all public-school students a part of minority groups today, according to PRWeb. Yet, because America’s teaching force consists mostly of white educators, there is more potential for the culture gap to widen, as Pew Research Center notes.

Cultural awareness fosters culturally responsive teaching, which is more of a priority in classrooms than ever. Not only are student bodies becoming less homogenous, but governing systems and school boards are beginning to address issues of race, gender and class. Teachers with strong cultural awareness are better prepared to navigate the challenges of the education landscape.

What Can Teachers Do to Develop Cultural Awareness?

1. Start with awareness. Before educators can implement cultural awareness into their teaching methods, they must first recognize their own cultural background. Shaping cultural backgrounds are factors like race, gender, ethnicity, religion, language, socioeconomic status and disability status. Reflecting on one’s own background will help indicate the ways in which it is similar to or different from that of one’s students. Then, one can begin to identify the students with whom one may experience a “culture gap.”

  1. Confront implicit bias. According to Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, “implicit bias” refers to “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” By identifying the ways in which their lived experience differs from that of their students, educators can begin to consciously examine whether those gaps have created unconscious attitudes or stereotypes. Questioning those attitudes and encouraging an open mind helps dismantle implicit biases.
  2. Communicate with cultural awareness. A person’s cultural background shapes the way they communicate. Some cultures may avoid direct eye contact, speak a different language than the teacher or have distinct attitudes about authority and family dynamics. Teachers who take these cultural norms into consideration will be better able to communicate with and gain input from students and families from all walks of life.
  3. View teachers as learners. Because teachers do not always share the same background as their students, it’s crucial that they allow themselves to constantly learn from those students and their cultures. Whether through professional development courses or discussions with students and their families, educators who seek opportunities to better understand different cultures can help bridge some gaps that impede learning.
  4. Create culturally adaptable lessons. A lesson or mode of teaching that’s easily understood by one group of students may not be well-suited to another group. Limited access to technology, linguistic differences, family dynamics and other factors could hinder some students’ abilities to fully participate in certain lessons. With effort, educators can ensure their lessons are culturally appropriate for all learners with varying access and skillsets.

Learn more about Mississippi College’s online education programs.


Educalingo: Culture Gap

National Education Association: Cultural Competence

Pew Research Center: America’s Public School Teachers are Far Less Racially and Ethnically Diverse Than Their Students

PRWeb: Teach Away: Bridging the Culture Gap Between Teachers and Their Students

Teachaway: Assessing Your Cultural Competence: A Checklist for Culturally Responsive Teachers

Teachaway: Why Culturally Responsive Teaching Matters Now More Than Ever

The Ohio State University Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity: Understanding Implicit Bias

Waterford: Why Understanding Equity and Equality in Schools Can Help You Create an Inclusive Classroom

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