The Higher-Powered Learning team strives to empower teachers with digital tools to personalize their instruction. While our personalized learning approach hinges on the use of technology, we understand that student data comes from other places, too.
Culture is an overwhelming piece of data in a student’s learning experience. It is the instructor’s job to leverage the diverse cultures within their classroom to create safe and personalized learning environments. First, we need to establish why engaging student culture is so valuable to personalized learning, then we will explore ways teachers can engage the cultures within their classroom.
Zaretta Hammond is a teacher and author who wrote the groundbreaking book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Hammond posits that engaging student culture can help students build better schema.
Schema are the thinking patterns that help people make connections to their world. For example, as a vegetarian, my schema for food include rice, vegetables, and fruit. However, my husband has a broader schema for food: chicken and beef. Our schema for acceptable food converges on particular food groups, like ice cream. However, we diverge at tofu, as my husband does not see it as adequate food. I don’t agree with his schema of food, but I must accept that it will include chicken sandwiches. Therefore, at dinner time, to engage his schema, I regularly include meat options.
While this is a trivial example of divergence and convergence in a schema, students bring significantly bigger schematic understanding to the classroom. Students may have a schema for appropriate group interactions or a schema for how to ask for help. These schemata govern how students interact with their peers and how well they can engage with the broader classroom environment. If a student’s schematic understanding of the world is ignored or not engaged, a student may have a difficult time interacting authentically with the learning environment.
Therefore, educators need to engage a students’ schemata by understanding their culture. Culture, for the classroom purpose, is the set of norms that influence a group’s understanding of and engagement with the world. Educators must authentically engage with all students’ cultures to fully realize personalized student learning.
Before seeking to understand a students’ culture, educators must address their own cultural understanding. According to Hammond, educators can bring three types of culture into the classroom: surface, shallow, and deep.
Surface culture is the immediately visible level of culture. It includes dress, music, language, food, and entertainment activities. Notre Dame’s surface culture is evident on football weekends. People come to the campus dressed in blue and gold, the band plays celebratory music, alum and fans cook out in the parking lots, and everyone is ready to be entertained by a Fighting Irish football game.
Shallow culture is the level of culture that governs the “unspoken rules” of the culture. For example, Notre Dame’s unspoken rules include respect for professors and other leaders and being outwardly friendly towards others.
Finally, deep culture is the level of culture that dictates the implied knowledge of our world view. Often “triggers” are located within the deep culture. As someone raised in the African American Baptist Church, I have deep-seated ideas of what is right and wrong. I find myself “triggered” when I experience or see something that I connect with being wrong.
As an educator, the first step to understanding how to personalize your classroom to meet your students’ diverse cultural needs is to address your own culture.
- What are examples of surface, shallow, and deep culture in my own cultural experience?
- In what areas do I engage the surface, shallow, and deep levels of my culture in my classroom?
- Are there areas where my culture may infringe on the culture of my students?
As educators seeking to create a personalized learning environment for students, we must address whether parts of our culture disrespect our students’ culture.
One such example for me occurred during my first year of teaching. For me, a strong example of surface culture is respect for authority figures. I had an established schema of deference to elders and authority figures. I was deferential to my principal and the veteran teachers. I expected my students to give me a level of deference, too.
For some of my students, deference was not an option. They believed respect of any kind must be earned and not freely given. I needed to learn about each student’s background and culture to identify their schemata for respect. I found that for some students, I needed to engage their schemata that respect was a two-way street. If I wanted their respect, I needed to give respect to them, too. I quickly learned that for some of my students, I needed to trust them enough to give them responsibility in the classroom. Once I engaged their culture in the classroom, my students became engaged with their learning. They felt respected, so they afforded me the same respect.
By using the “data” my students gave me, I created a personalized classroom culture that addressed all my students' needs. I tapped into their schematic understanding of adult-student interactions and allowed them to engage in the classroom environment appropriately. I acknowledged my culture and put it in conversation with the cultures of my students.
An additional area of opportunity for educators is acknowledging areas where students may face systemic inequities based on their cultural identity. As educators, if we want to eradicate and not simply address socioeconomic and racial inequities, we MUST acknowledge that socioeconomic and racial barriers exist for our students. And once we recognize the systemic barriers that exist for our students, we must confront them by being culturally responsive.
Like we engaged with elements of our surface, shallow and deep cultures, we, as educators, must engage with our students’ levels of culture so they, regardless of the systemic racialization they face outside of the classroom, feel recognized and respected within the classroom community.
I challenge all educators to take time over the summer to identify their own cultures and put them in conversation with their students’ cultures. With the upheaval we expect in classroom communities this fall, educators must reassure students that the culture and schema they bring into the learning environment is valuable and recognized at school.