November 12th, 2012

Five Competencies for Culturally Competent Teaching and Learning


Today’s classrooms require that instructors possess competencies for teaching all students. Robust instructional strategies and culturally sensitive curricula are critical, but more important is an instructor who is sensitive and responsive to the unique differences of each student. Recognizing the need to strengthen specific competencies to reach and teach all students requires an understanding of new ideas and a willingness to view instruction through varied cultural lenses.

1. Culturally competent teaching and learning facilitates critical reflection. A critical analysis of one’s own cultural assumptions is foundational to culturally-responsive teaching and learning. Critical reflection on tightly held cultural assumptions is necessary to dislodge misconceptions and stereotypes. Culturally-responsive teaching engages students in self-awareness activities that lead to reflection on cultural assumptions. For example, in situations where beliefs about learning vary diametrically, there may be serious misunderstandings. When one student believes his learning is unrelated to timely arrival to class and another student views punctuality as a sign of respect, or when one student asks many questions and another quietly wrestles with issues in the content, each may struggle with respect or acceptance of the others. While all may be learning, each may view the others as lazy, disruptive, or disrespectful. Diverse instructional groupings allow students to learn about individual differences and to reflect on their own assumptions and beliefs.

2. Culturally competent teaching and learning demands respect for others. Every student possesses a unique cultural background. Experiences based on various traditions, norms, and values inform ways of knowing and learning. Learning communities with many ways of knowing and learning benefit everyone. When there is little diversity, the overwhelming presence of “whiteness” may be intimidating to students of color and English Language Learners (ELLS) and may serve to silence their voices. Culturally responsive methods such as inter-cultural communication stimulate respect for the needs of all learners and allow every voice to be heard.

3. Culturally competent teaching and learning involves accommodating individual learners. Respect for the learner is a critical component of effective teaching. In addition to pedagogical and subject matter knowledge, competent instructors relate well to their students and possess dispositions such as compassion, fairness, integrity and respect for diversity. Teaching that is respectful and learner focused will naturally involve individual accommodations.

Good teachers not only learn from, but learn about their students. Learning about the cultures and languages of individual students provides a foundation for implementing effective accommodations that facilitate learning. Learning about students involves listening to them, interacting with them, and modeling for them. Effective accommodations for diverse students may include extra time on exams to accommodate the additional load on mental processing, exams in another room where students are able to write, read aloud, then revise their answers to test questions, or time to verbally elaborate on their written responses with the instructor.

4. Culturally competent teaching and learning requires the use of intercultural communication skills. Culturally competent instructors are willing to learn from their students; they recognize the potential of intercultural communication as a means for enhancing the learning of the entire learning community. Effective communication with others who are linguistically and culturally different includes the use of techniques like active listening, elaboration, paraphrasing, and restatement.

Active listening is a process where both the sender and receiver are fully engaged, the listener is focused and attentive, and distractions are minimized. Active listening strategies are especially important when participants speak different languages. Intercultural communication strategies such as active listening inform learning and facilitate critical reflection.

5. Culturally competent teaching and learning requires focused activities and intentionally structured environments. Perspective-taking behavior requires an understanding of norms, values, and traditions that have informed the other’s worldview and learning behaviors. Ranking the value of ideas such as tradition, religion, independence, education, work, health, respect, honesty, food, etc. and a review of personal rankings with other class members may lead to meaningful conversations. Such activities may encourage students to engage in critical reflection on deeply held assumptions related to values and beliefs. Intentional groupings of students with others from different racial groups have been shown to have a positive impact on students—especially white students. A study by Chang (1996) demonstrated that college students are more likely to discuss racial issues when they are part of a diverse student body and when they participate in racially diverse groups in class.

Dr. Cheryl Irish is a professor and the NCATE coordinator at the School of Educational Leadership, College of Adult and Professional Studies at Indiana Wesleyan University. Dr. Monica Scrubb is an assistant professor at the School of Educational Leadership, College of Adult and Professional Studies at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Reference: Chang, M. (1996). Racial Diversity in Higher Education: Does a Racially Mixed Student Population Affect Educational Outcomes? (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles).

  • Barbi Honeycutt

    Thank you for sharing this article. I co-facilitate a workshop on intercultural communication in the classroom for graduate teaching assistants. During the workshop last month, the TAs (who are a very diverse group) began sharing and discussing the differences in communication and teaching styles among their cultures. My co-facilitator and I just stepped back for a moment and listened to the conversations…it was fascinating to hear about their experiences and to watch them learn from each other. I hope we're able to create that type of open and trusting learning environment again. I'll include this article as a resource for the TAs who are often just learning how to balance all of the challenges of teaching in the college classroom for the first time.

    • marvin haum

      thanks.. now I know..

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  • Tim Becker

    Hi and thanks,

    good stuff. I presented at conf early October on this topic. One thing I concluded was that looking at the USA student today and a foreign student is not really that different, rather there are huge (mostly) similarities. Just look at your classes of USA students today…huge diversities, huge cultural differences, language differences, ages and expectations, learning differences, these all exist today in primarily USA student classes too. A kid or young adult from suburbs of Seattle is drastically different than someone from suburb or Lincoln, Nebraska, or Miami, Fl, or Boston, MA. Get the drift. If we are doing our job and adjusting and adapting for our USA students as we would be good to to, taking on foreign students is not that significant. It does help tho if you have traveled and are so sensitized…I have been to 29 different countries, and speak/spoke 4 languages.

    It was a different world for me and I adjusted when I went to undergraduate in NE Iowa, after being born and raised on north shore of Long Island 37 miles east of Manhattan, and 5 miles south of Los Angeles International Airport. I was definitely the "foreigner."

  • Augustine Amenyah

    Culturally competent teaching also requires critical self-reflection of your own strategies and assumptions about teaching and learning. This is where the psychology of teaching and learning helps guide the development of instruction and learning.
    Augustine Amenyah, EdD.MPH

  • L. Cambridge

    I have always recommended the presence of the world map with in the hallways of our school. The presence of the map responds the the first question that is culturally being asked; where are you from? And, since geography is so diminished in many of the students being encountered. You take them to the map. in some cases their countries are sharing borders. This
    little piece of geographical awareness initiates the understanding to go forward.

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  • Mark Miller

    A very good resource for techniques and strategies for culturally competent education is the US Peace Corps. As a returned volunteer, I regularly fall back on practices that I learned in my initial training, in addition to my actual teaching experiences as a volunteer. Some of the resources are restricted to volunteers and returned volunteers, but most are not. Check out their main web site for more information:
    Mark A. Miller, Ph.D.

  • Dorian Barnovsky

    "When one student believes his learning is unrelated to timely arrival to class and another student views punctuality as a sign of respect." This phenomenon seems to be not only cultural, but possibly also related to maturity. I try to instill the sense that the value of being in class is beyond the student simply hearing what I am saying. Participation of each student is key in educating the class as a whole.

  • Cassandra Bozeman

    There is significant specific value to everyone. Sharing with all our students the minimum expectations during the time we spend together in class communicates to each of them that attendance and participation are not the same. We must allow and encourage all voices to be spoken, acknowledged and heard. All students gain confidence in their ability to learn and grow the greater their engagement and participation are during class. We must take the time to learn something about each student. Three questions all stuedents in our class answered the first evening of class were; 1. Who are you? (not what is your name) 2. Why are you here? 3. What do you want to gain from THIS class. What they wanted to gain became my road for success in leading the class.

  • Rick Miller

    I teach ethics at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where the composition of one of my classes is akin to a "little world," with several cultures and nationalities represented in the 29 students. There are students from the Middle East, Far East, and Africa, as well as a diverse mixture of ages and demographics in the composition of local students. This variance of backgrounds and perspectives has undoubtedly enriched our discussions as we survey and analyze the ethical dilemmas and case studies found in the course textbook. While, of course, I expect all of my students, regardless of background, to attain a baseline proficiency in the ethical theories and articles we study, I encourage — and enjoy — the myriad perspectives offered on any given topic. As noted by Professors Irish and Scrubb in their "Five Competencies for Culturally Competent Teaching and Learning" article, "Good teachers not only learn from, but learn about their students." Consonant with that charge, I have found particular value in engaging (or attempting to engage) my "foreign" students in their native language, whether in Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, or Vietnamese. Indeed they are the ones getting the grade, but I hope we all get an education!

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