Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Originator of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Addresses ACE Teachers and Leaders
Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings spoke to a standing-room only crowd of Catholic-school teachers and leaders July 25, encouraging them to use culturally relevant pedagogy to help their students understand how education is relevant to their future.
Ladson-Billings, the Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is widely recognized as the founding expert in the field of culturally relevant pedagogy. Her work serves as a touchstone in numerous ACE courses, as well as research featured in the ACE Teaching Fellows Conference.
A native of Philadelphia, she first learned the importance of pedagogy when teaching at the tail end of the renaissance in scientific education that came after the Russians launched Sputnik. Several years later, some of those resources for science education were not being used by teachers, Ladson-Billings said. “No matter how good a certain innovation may be, without a skilled teacher, it has little or no chance for success.”
Ladson-Billings said she was inspired to work in the field of culturally relevant pedagogy in the late 1980s when people began paying more attention to racial achievement gaps, even as they featured a shortage of qualified teachers, particularly black teachers. Instead of asking what was wrong with black students, she decided to ask what was right with them.
In her lecture, Ladson-Billings concentrated on three aspects of culturally relevant pedagogy: student learning, cultural competence, and socio-political consciousness.
Ladson-Billings described student learning as demonstrable growth in required subjects, and she emphasized that teachers should focus on academic mastery. She told a story of being asked why her classes had higher grades than those in other subjects, such as math. She countered that some teachers associate the number of failing students with increased rigor, when they should focus on mastery. “(Good teachers) create a net designed to catch all students, not a sieve.”
Cultural competence, Ladson-Billings said, is a firm grounding in one’s culture of learning while acquiring fluency in at least one more culture. She said a guidance counselor once came to her worried about Ladson-Billings’ son, saying he was too social. Ladson-Billings pointed out that her son didn’t fit into any specific clique because he was friends with all of them, and as an adult he has a successful career managing relationships and knowing how to talk to different groups in ways they can understand. “He learned to be culturally competent even though the school didn’t encourage it,” she said.
Ladson-Billings explained that socio-political consciousness is the ability to use school knowledge to solve relevant social, cultural, civic, environmental and political problems—or as she said, the “so what factor.” By showing students more than just the what, or curriculum, they can understand the who, when, how, and why. “(Students) should believe education can and should alleviate those problems.”
She closed by reminding ACE’s future teachers and leaders that no matter how much they had accomplished so far, “When you begin, you will be a beginner. That’s not a step you can skip. … Allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them.”