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Culturally Responsive Teaching for the Digital Age

Children of all backgrounds should have role models to admire. Most young children have heroes and they’re often quite literal in the rationale behind their choices. Race and gender are often deciding factors and while pop culture is responding by diversifying content and characters, we’re seeing a similar shift in the education space.

Just like role models play a vital part in education, so too does culturally relevant content. Culturally responsive teaching has been a topic in education since the 1970’s, so it’s a wonder why many education systems continue to use the ‘melting pot’ approach. Learning is proven to be enhanced when children can relate to lessons on a cultural level. Before this can happen though, it’s important to understand what it means at a teaching level. 

Switching from Melting Pot to Mosaic

Culturally responsive teachers may have to abandon old ideas about cultural deficits. They must be careful not to convey judgment that might reflect upon students’ families, friends or histories. This often means looking inwards to address their own assumptions about behaviours, like the caregiver who forgot to sign the student’s agenda or missed a parent-teacher interview.

A culturally responsive teacher is grounded in pedagogical practices. They teach ideas and social relationships that enhance learning by relating the curriculum to students’ backgrounds, establishing connections with families and communities, understanding cultural experiences, creating shared learning experiences, and recognizing cultural differences as strengths.

By acknowledging a child’s specific needs, beliefs and backgrounds, curriculums could shift from the traditional ‘melting pot’ to a more inclusive ‘mosaic’ approach. But before making the switch, it’s important to understand culturally responsive teaching spans deeper than just culture.

According to Gloria Ladson-Billings, culturally responsive teaching is a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally and politically. Adopting culturally responsive teaching in your own practice means getting to know students in a way that is personal and individual. It’s important to embrace a student’s racial or ethnic background, but it’s only a fragment of their identity. Recognizing and respecting students means learning how they learn and about their areas of interest.

To be effective, teachers must show courage, confidence and capability in the classroom. 

Responding to The Need For Change

What makes culturally responsive teaching so important is how it filters content and teaching through cultural frames of reference. For example, if you ask a young Indigenous student in northern Saskatchewan what sound a subway train makes, they may have never even heard of one. Ask a Caucasian student from Toronto the same question and it’s a different story. The same could be said for an African-American student being taught to revere the discoveries of Christopher Columbus, an explorer known to have African slaves. Students whose lives and cultures are not treated as equal are less likely to buy into learning, whereas those who are empowered and feel valued will be ready to learn.

“While “caring about” conveys feelings of concern for one’s state of being, “caring for” is active engagement in doing something to positively affect it.”

– Geneva Gay, Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice 

With a culturally responsive curriculum, it makes room for learning opportunities that connect students to different cultures inside and outside the classroom. These connections can be made through something as simple as teaching a lesson through pop culture, movies or music the class will enjoy. The goal of culturally responsive teaching is to empower students and to expand their capabilities in other spheres of learning by making their own skills, languages and attitudes meaningful in the classroom.

The best way to establish meaningful, culturally responsive teaching is through collaboration. Connecting educators, caregivers and members of the community in student learning encourages sharing their wealth of cultural knowledge with students. Not only that, but when students see collaboration and mutual respect, they’re more likely to buy into their own education in meaningful ways.

Encouraging the use of native languages in class is another way to be culturally responsive. Encouraging students to use their native languages in class can result in students’ to be fluent in both the standard classroom language and native languages.

Connecting Cultural Responsiveness With Current Curriculums

What it boils down to is culture and heritage are two things that no one chooses. They are an unconditional part of being human and should be treated with the same respect and privilege that education commands.

Without engaging cultural responsiveness, it’s inaccurate for educators to claim that they can attend to the needs of different students. Keeping up with current ‘melting pot’ academic practices will continue to influence students in divorcing themselves from their cultural backgrounds.

The key to connecting cultural responsiveness with curriculums is technology. It’s no secret that technology is a fantastic tool at making connections in education, but the important part is finding technology that connects caregivers, students, educators and community to bring cultural context to the classroom and enhance learning for every student. 

For more information about a holistic approach to assessment or holistic education, send us an email at letstalk@spriglearning.com.

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Digital Literacy is Important, Early Literacy is Important-er

Coding, digital literacy, tech etiquette – these competencies are being squeezed into curriculums faster than you can say ‘growth mindset’. There is a justified reasoning behind this digital push, but let’s not forget the importance of early literacy.

Without developing digital skills, students will have trouble entering the workforce. Without developing early literacy, students will have trouble mastering digital skills. Herein lies the problem: failure to promote early literacy ripples through student learning as reading, writing and speaking are the foundation for success.

Why are oral language and early literacy skills so important?

Oral language and literacy are key components of early student learning and the greatest initial predictors of a child’s success in school. It is the bedrock on which literacy can build. Babies begin to acquire language within months of being born and by age five, they can master basic sound system structures and grammar. Children who do not develop the necessary language, reading and writing skills in their early years of schooling are at risk of developing further challenges in other areas of learning.

“Human beings are born to speak; they have an innate gift for figuring out the rules of the language used in their environment.

In addition, early language skills are predictive of later reading comprehension development. A 2011 report found that poor ‘comprehenders’ in the fifth grade – those with poor reading comprehension despite adequate word-reading skills – showed weak language skills as early as 15 months of age (Justice, Mashburn, &Petscher, in press). Oral Language is a skill practiced all the time with teachers, educators, parents, peers and members of the community and if supported properly, encourages reading and writing.

Regardless of a student’s language, nationality, culture or socioeconomic status, oral language development is of fundamental importance during a child’s formative years. That being said, cultural relevance can make a huge difference in strengthening student learning. Culturally enabling content means the student can see themselves in what they are learning. With relatable content, connections are made easier and learning happens fluidly.

What should your early literacy program look like?

As mentioned earlier, digital literacy is nothing to be discounted – it is a necessary competency that should be included in the early literacy discussion. The ideal early literacy program leverages digital tools to engage students with interactive, fun and personalized activities. If the content is culturally enabling that’s even more effective, but make sure there is a heavy focus on oral language. Children’s oral language skills are the foundation of reading and language comprehension.

Since few children entering kindergarten can read words, early literacy programs should look at oral language skills that develop word recognition and/or decoding ability. Knowledge of the alphabet and phonological awareness are strong predictors of decoding and comprehension and teaching both in combination shows a positive impact on improving the latter skills.

“As students explore language in classroom experiences, they begin to understand how to use their knowledge about language to communicate effectively in different ways, for a variety of purposes, including how to read and write.

Early learners should be exposed to oral language activities holistically, in all aspects of life. This is why it is important your early literacy program engages caregivers too. Students that have caregivers actively engaged in their learning have shown an average of .5 – .6 of a standard deviation for overall educational outcomes, grades and academic achievement.

Additionally, assessments of these early literacy skills are important to identify children who are likely to need more intensive instruction to achieve success with literacy. By identifying and working with students across all literacy levels early, educators can be proactive in ensuring that students meet or exceed academic expectations.

If children’s oral language skills are assessed early and often, educators and caregivers alike are painted a clearer picture of student learning. The key is getting all of a child’s stakeholders involved in early learning. When a child is educated holistically, magic happens.

____________________________________________________________________________
For more information about Sprig’s Learning’s Oral Language Program, send us an email at
letstalk@spriglearning.com.

Justice, L.M., Mashburn, A., & Petscher, Y. (in press). “Very early language skills
of fifth-grade poor comprehenders.” Journal of Research in Reading.
Trehearne, Miriam P., “Kindergarten Teacher’s Resource Book.” Nelson Thompson Learning,
Chapters 3 pgs 183-232, 2000

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Why Traditional Early Years Assessment is Failing

Among personalized learning and caregiver engagement, student assessment is one of the most important aspects of early learning. Educators who consistently use formative assessment strategies are shown to double the speed of learning for students in their classroom. While the link between assessment and early years learning is clear, a gap remains with the data that is being collected.

Traditional assessments only capture two perspectives: the teacher and the student. This leaves learning that happens outside of the classroom unidentified. There are more stakeholders in student learning outside of school, so how do we bridge the gap from inside the classroom to the outside world?

The answer is holistic education. Holistic education integrates multiple learning components in its thinking, focusing on the whole learner instead of the sum of its parts. It pays significant attention to experiential learning and aims to help students reach their maximum potential. Assessment needs to encourage communities and caregivers to take part in a child’s learning so students can demonstrate their full potential. This not only helps students but supports educators by increasing caregiver and community engagement.

What does holistic education mean for future learning?

A child’s early life experiences are proven to have a lasting impact on their development and future learning success. For this reason, early years assessment data needs to be collected accurately and holistically.

More than 85% of a child’s brain growth development
occurs before the age of 5.

With holistic assessment, every stakeholder in a child’s learning benefits. Caregivers are empowered to help their child learn effectively and teachers receive support from caregivers and the community while gaining access to better data to inform instruction.

With better data, true personalized learning can finally be achieved – an ambitious objective looking to be met by educations systems globally. With personalized learning still a frontier, a holistic approach in assessment can accelerate its development. In Canada, some provinces still use standardized assessments that date back twenty years, but the good news is they recognize the need for change.

In order for personalized learning to be effective, accurate and comprehensive information is required to define the needs of the learner. A holistic approach to assessment enables this in two ways.

First, by broadening its scope to identify learning in the home, community, land (and school), holistic assessment provides new information for teachers. New information about each learner that may have never been asked or identified. Second, a holistic assessment provides more accurate information through its more natural and formative approaches. Through the provision of culturally enabling tools and implementation, holistic assessments are able to break down direct and indirect biases during the assessment, which creates a more comfortable and supportive environment for students to demonstrate their skills and abilities.

Applying a holistic approach to assessment also fosters a mindset of collaboration. Students are taught to stop, collaborate and listen to each other’s thoughts for constructive discussion. They’re taught this behaviour because it will be expected of them in the workplace. Teaching in collaboration with caregivers and the community sets a precedent for students and produces better education at the same time.

What research supports holistic education?

The holistic approach is rooted in Canadian First Nations teachings and the lifelong learning model – both products of research from the Canadian Council on Learning. Indigenous people in Canada have long understood the role that learning plays in building healthy, thriving communities and despite significant cultural and historical differences, Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis people share a vision of learning as a holistic, lifelong process.

“We have constantly measured the wrong things against a different paradigm — leading inevitably to an assessment of failure.”

– Canadian Council on Learning

Though developed for Indigenous peoples in Canada, the holistic approach can be applied to students of all cultural backgrounds. In fact, two of the top performing education systems in the world thrive using aspects of the holistic approach and lifelong learning model. Education systems everywhere are teaching a lifelong learning mindset so students can keep up in a fast-paced, digital world. It’s perhaps time these systems adopt the same mentality for early years assessment.

A key piece in making sure the holistic approach is implemented efficiently is technology. In today’s day and age, the approach doesn’t work without it. Technology makes it easy for teachers, caregivers and community members to be in sync with where and how the student is learning. Technology can aggregate and curate assessment results making it easily accessible to all stakeholders. In addition, from a student’s perspective interacting with technology in early assessment is crucial to developing the digital literacy required in today’s workforce.

Why should teachers advocate a holistic approach to early years assessment?

With more information at hand, a holistic approach helps identify every student’s learning strengths and encourages teachers to help students use their strengths to address their challenges in every educational setting. This allows educators to better inform instruction for each individual child.

A holistic approach to assessment yields better results and distributes the responsibility of educators by engaging caregivers. Not only that, but the positive impact of caregiver involvement has long shown to produce higher student achievement. By connecting caregivers and the community to learning in the classroom, caregivers can complement their child’s learning path with community and home-based activities.

Less work for teachers, more involvement of caregivers and improved learning results. 

For more information about a holistic approach to assessment or holistic education, send us an email at letstalk@spriglearning.com.

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