Culturally Responsive Teaching and UDL

Group of culturally diverse cartoon characters gather near one another

Creating educational experiences for our students that integrate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT), a philosophy of education that centers students’ cultural backgrounds as essential to their learning (Ladson-Billings,1994), is a powerful tool for preparing them for today’s professional environment, which increasingly acknowledges diversity as integral to success. As Chita-Tegmark, et al. wrote, “…If both the increasingly global society made possible by modern technology and the culturally diverse societies in which we live are considered, success in the twenty-first century requires individuals to incorporate more than a single culture’s system of thought.” 

The students in our classrooms arrive with a diverse set of learning needs and a range of cultural experiences and identities. Learning, and the ways that a person’s brain changes in response to new experiences, must be looked at within the context and the culture in which they occur (Chita-Tegmark, 2012). People from different cultures arrive in our classrooms with culturally-based differences that influence how they interact with our courses. This does not mean that certain students (with certain identities) are capable of doing higher level work while other students (with other identities) are not. In other words, UDL and CRT are not about de facto tracking. Rather, by incorporating a range of learning strategies to address multiple perspectives, values, entry points, and opportunities for acquiring and demonstrating knowledge, educators can amplify the benefits of diversity.

While educators need not be experts on every culture, they should make efforts to ensure that their students’ experience their own learning styles and their own cultures in the teaching and learning process. One way that I have given students the opportunity to understand their own identities and to feel that they are honored in the class is through “identity mapping.” I have adapted this activity from a Facing History, Facing Ourselves lesson. Here, students create identity maps at the beginning of a course and when they are finished with them, we display them on the wall of the classroom—a visual reminder of the diversity of cultures, opinions, experiences, interests, passions, etc. that make up our classroom community. Something I view as core to my job as an educator is to encourage students to see the world, and every situation, from various perspectives. This must be represented in the curriculum and used to teach students to explore issues from multiple angles and value collaboration across lines of difference so they can ask important questions about power dynamics and voice. 

If we are being proactive and predictive about the diversity of learning styles and skills that UDL encourages us to consider, we should also strive to incorporate this same kind of prediction and proaction as it relates to cultural diversity in our classrooms. If we design our instruction in such a way that centers students’ diversity as a core strength to be amplified, we will have a greater chance of being successful. Thinking about multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement when designing this kind of course material is essential. In the same way that you might consider creating coursework that anticipates the needs of all of the diverse types of learners in your room, examine how your coursework relates to, represents, and honors the cultural diversity within the students you teach. By using this as an overarching framework, you can ask yourself, “In what ways am I providing entry and connections into my coursework that speak to the diverse experiences of my learners?”

We need to ensure that in cultivating real-world connections and experiences for our students, we are addressing all learners. Similarly, educators must also include viewpoints and narratives that have not been part of “traditional” course materials. The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota has defined culture as “shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group” (CARLA, 2009, p. 1). Applying UDL and CRT is a powerful shift in making our classrooms a space for all learners—individual students have more of an opportunity to see themselves reflected in the work they are being asked to do, which in turn creates a more inclusive community and helps model the professional world our students will soon enter.

Simply providing choice for students in terms of the input of information, or their own output, is a step toward a culturally responsive classroom, as is inherent in the guiding principles of UDL—providing multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. By honoring the fact that there are multiple ways to communicate ideas, you provide entry points for students from a multitude of backgrounds. As Chita-Tegmark, et al. argues, “People from different cultures may learn the same things, but they may learn them differently” (Chita-Tegmark, 2012). We need to be prepared for that reality, and we need to proactively create learning experiences that recognize and honor cultural differences. 

Gwen Bass, MEd, MA, PhD, currently serves as the director of the Teacher Leadership division of Professional and Graduate Education at Mount Holyoke and frequently presents on inclusive classroom practices, behavior management, child development, child welfare systems, parent education, measurement and evaluation of social emotional skills in schools, and trauma-sensitive teaching.

Michael Lawrence-Riddell has been an educator in one way, shape, or form for the better part of the last three decades. He has taught high school in Brooklyn, elementary school in Boston, and middle school in Amherst. While at Wesleyan University, Michael majored in African American Studies and was actively involved in anti-racist activism on campus. It is when Michael is able to marry his passions for learning, history, social justice, and a better future that he is his most fulfilled. Michael brings these passions to his current work creating a multimedia, digital curriculum that looks at the histories and legacies of institutional racism.


Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, University of Minnesota (CARLA). (2009). What is Culture? Retrieved from

Chita-Tegmark, M., Gravel, J. W., Maria De Lourdes, B. S., Domings, Y., & Rose, D. H. (2012). Using the universal design for learning framework to support culturally diverse learners. Journal of Education, 192(1), 17-22.

Degner, J. (2016). How Universal Design for Learning Creates Culturally Accessible Classrooms. Education Week. 

Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin Press.

James, K. (2018). Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a Structure for Culturally Responsive Practice. Northwest Journal of Teacher Education, 13(1), 4.

Kieran, L., & Anderson, C. (2018). Connecting Universal Design for Learning With Culturally Responsive Teaching. Education and Urban Society, 0013124518785012.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). What we can learn from multicultural education research. Educational leadership, 51(8), 22-26.

Rao, K. (2015). Universal design for learning and multimedia technology: Supporting culturally and linguistically diverse students. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 24(2), 121-137.