Culturally Responsive Teaching: 4 Misconceptions

The term “culturally responsive teaching” has been around for decades, but it seems to have gotten more attention in recent years. That’s good news: With our classrooms growing more diverse every year, teachers should be more interested in how they can best teach students from different backgrounds.

The not-so-good news is that in some cases, teachers think they’re practicing culturally responsive teaching, when in fact, they’re kind of not. Or at least they’re not quite there. And that means students who might really thrive under different conditions are surviving at best. We all want to do better for these students, but how to do it still hasn’t become common knowledge.

To move the needle forward a bit more, I invited Zaretta Hammond to share some common misconceptions teachers have about culturally responsive teaching. She is the author of the 2015 book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, which offers a neuroscience-based teaching framework that goes beyond surface changes to really build cognitive capacity in our students from diverse backgrounds. When I read it, I realized that true culturally responsive teaching isn’t as simple as I thought it was; it’s much more holistic. In fact, in most cases, it wouldn’t even look “culturally responsive” to an outside observer.

Regardless of where you are in your own understanding of this subject, taking a closer look at these four misconceptions should help you refine it a bit more.


Educators’ efforts to create classrooms where all students succeed can be sorted into three categories. Although the groups can overlap, they are not interchangeable; each one approaches diversity from a completely different angle. Understanding their differences will help you label the work you’ve already done and figure out your next steps.

Multicultural Education is, according to Hammond, “the celebration of diversity, what we usually see in schools. While those are really noble things and critical to a high-functioning classroom and school climate, it doesn’t have anything to do with learning capacity.” Although there is value in students’ seeing their own cultures reflected in places like the classroom decor, it won’t impact their cognitive abilities.

“I call it the ‘It’s a Small World’ approach,” Hammond says. “That does not have anything to do with instruction.” Rather than focus on what she calls students’ “surface culture,” teachers would get more from learning about collectivism, an ideology common in many of the cultures our students come from. “Most schools are centered around an individualistic orientation,” Hammond explains. “Keep your eyes in your own work. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Whereas collectivism is, I am because we are. It’s interdependency.” If teachers understand what motivates students who come from collectivist cultures, they will be able to reach these students more effectively. (Both resources at the bottom of this post have information about collectivism.)

Social Justice Education “is about building a lens for the student, really being able to look at the world and seeing where things aren’t fair or where injustice exists,” Hammond explains. Again, while this kind of teaching is necessary and important, it’s not the same as culturally responsive teaching, which focuses on learning capacity. “You can have a student have a critical lens,” Hammond says, “but if he’s reading three grade levels behind, (social justice teaching) is not going to do much to accelerate that.” (Learn more about social justice resources here.)

Culturally Responsive Teaching “is about building the learning capacity of the individual student,” Hammond says. “There is a focus on leveraging the affective and the cognitive scaffolding that students bring with them.” The simplest way to judge whether your teaching is culturally responsive is whether your diverse students—students of color, English language learners, immigrant students—are learning. If they are not succeeding academically within your classroom norms, your approach might need to be more culturally responsive.

To learn more about the differences between these three approaches, download Hammond’s Distinctions of Equity chart.


Many diversity trainings and other efforts to build teachers’ cultural competence start by having teachers examine their own implicit biases. Although this is essential, Hammond says, it may not need to be the very first step, because that can delay (or sometimes replace) a shift in instructional practices.

“You do need to get to implicit bias at some point,” she says. “It’s just not the starting point. If you start there, you can’t pivot to instruction. Whereas when you understand inequity by design, you can actually talk about instruction but also come back to talk about microaggressions. The sequencing of that is really important.”

When the time comes to address implicit bias, Hammond’s tools for interrupting implicit bias will help.


While healthy relationships and student self-esteem are necessary factors in setting the stage for learning, they do not directly increase students’ ability to do more challenging academic work. “There’s a big effort afoot in terms of social emotional learning programs, trying to help students gain self regulation and build positive relationships with students,” Hammond observes. “Here’s what the schools are finding that do surveys: After a few years of this kind of work, their positive climate has gone up, satisfaction surveys among adults as well as kids are really high, but the achievement doesn’t move.”

This is not to suggest that relationship building should be tossed out. “For students who have been marginalized and don’t feel welcome,” Hammond explains, “that relationship becomes important, because you want them to actually do the heavy lifting of the cognitive work, (and) that’s not going to happen if you can’t get the student to be in a trusting relationship. So the trusting relationship is just one part, and not the part. It is the on-ramp to the kind of cognitive high-level problem-solving and higher-order thinking we want students to do. I see a lot of people just doing the relationship piece.“


When working with teachers, Hammond is often asked to provide an actionable set of strategies that teachers can simply integrate into their practice. But true culturally responsive teaching is more complex than that. “It’s really a challenge to try to say, ‘This is it in a nutshell,’” she says. “Teachers need to interrogate their practice a little more robustly, because it’s not an off-the-shelf program, it’s not two or three strategies. It’s not plug and play.”

This “plug and play” misconception can lead teachers to do things like adding call-and-response to their classroom routine, then assuming they have done enough to reach diverse students. While this strategy is often included in culturally responsive toolboxes, if a teacher doesn’t take the time to learn how to use call-and-response to deepen student thinking, it might never serve a purpose beyond fun.

And oftentimes, the instructional shifts that will make the biggest differences don’t always look “cultural” at all, because they aren’t the kind of things that work only for diverse students. “This kind of teaching is good for all brains,” Hammond says. “So what you’re doing to actually reach your lowest performing students is going to be good for your highest performing students.” To get a closer look at the kinds of shifts that make a big difference, these three tips for making lessons more culturally responsive can start you in the right direction. ♦


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