Keeping Up With... Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally Responsive Teaching

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Gina Calia-Lotz and Cindy Conley.

Gina Calia-Lotz is Instructional Services Librarian, email: and Cindy Conley is Instruction Librarian, email: at Harford Community College.


The United States will become more diverse in the next 50 years, with the percentage of minorities growing from 37% in 2012 to 57 percent by 2060 [1]. This change in population is reflected in higher education, and has implications for academic libraries and the services we provide. Librarians, as instructors and promoters of information literacy, must not only seek to understand the varied cultural backgrounds of their students, but must be responsive to these differences.
The term “culturally relevant teaching” was defined by Gloria Ladson-Billings in 1994 as “a pedagogy that empowers students […] by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes” [2]. Geneva Gay built upon this concept with the term “culturally responsive teaching,” which she defines as “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively” [3]. Underlying the concept of culturally responsive teaching is the assumption of “otherness;” that is, in every society there are dominant ideas defined by the majority population, and those who do not fit into the dominant group are viewed as the “Other” while “the dominant ideologies embody power and influence educational policies and practices” [4]. Efforts should therefore be made to be more inclusive of “Other” students to compensate for this inherent inequality in our education system.  

Understand Multiculturalism

Get to know your students, and build an understanding of multiculturalism. “[B]y being aware of the representative languages, cultures, and learning styles, librarians can make instruction more meaningful and relevant to their students’ lives” [5]. In order for our instruction to be as authentic and relevant as possible, “information literacy instructors must become sociocultural literate to demonstrate the uses for research in a variety of contexts” [6]. It is important for librarians to understand that “[c]ulture encompasses many things, some of which... have direct implications for teaching and learning. Among these are ethnic groups’ cultural values, traditions, communication, learning styles, contributions, and relational patterns” [7]. In the same way that teacher preparation programs are looking at better incorporating multicultural understanding in their curriculum [8], library science programs should also consider ways to educate librarians about cultural diversity. 

Incorporate Students’ Backgrounds

Use examples in your lessons that reflect the cultural backgrounds of your students [9]. For example, faculty members might design case studies that incorporate multi-ethnic names and scenarios [10]. Similarly, librarians can teach about developing search strategies, identifying information needs, or evaluating authority using sample topics and keywords that are inclusive and sensitive to various cultural perspectives [11]. Furthermore, incorporating students’ backgrounds in instruction is a learner-centered approach to teaching which “places the student at the centre of the learning process” [12].

Diversify Your Teaching Methods

Design instruction that incorporates a variety of teaching methods, including active learning, group work, and open-ended questioning. Students from “Other” backgrounds have different ideas about learning “and respond to challenges in different ways” [13]. Many ethnic groups have different “protocols of participation in discourse” [14]. Some students may find answering questions intimidating because of language barriers, disability, fear of being “wrong,” or other reasons. Encourage students to share their experiences and opinions, but have alternate ways for students to submit responses or questions in order to accommodate different learning styles, abilities, and understandings [15]. Allowing students to work in groups can help support those students who learn better collaboratively [16] as well as allow English-language learners to practice language skills with their peers [17]. Bottom line: good instructional design leads to better student performance for all students. 

Scaffold and Set High Expectations

Scaffold learning, and set high expectations for all students. The instructor should act as a bridge between students’ pre-existing knowledge and the next level of understanding [18]. “Starting with small goals and scaffolding upon student knowledge, teachers can create opportunities for students to experience academic success” [19]. Contrary to what some believe, being culturally responsive does not equate with “dumbing down” the curriculum. This misconception is largely due to the disparity between the backgrounds of most faculty and staff and those of the students they teach. “This disparity affects teachers’ expectations for their students’ optimal learning [...] the perceived differences in their students’ attitudes, lifestyles, and social networks define both their work and their responses to students” [20]. Librarians should keep these high expectations in mind in the classroom and in one-on-one interactions with students.

Collections and Programming

Libraries can influence culturally-responsive teaching through collections and programming.  Academic librarians can foster “diverse learning opportunities through culturally relevant library collections” [21] by purchasing works written by authors with diverse backgrounds and containing subject matter that reflects differing realities and perspectives, increasing opportunities for students to encounter views that might be different from their own. Libraries can also sponsor multicultural-themed exhibits and programs that promote diversity. These programs serve to educate students about different cultures while showing the library as a supportive, welcoming place for all students to study and learn.


Among the challenges many institutions of higher education face is their lack of diversity, especially among faculty and staff, as well as significant attainment gaps among minority groups.  Librarians as academics have the power to be “agents of change” and, indeed, have a moral responsibility to support and facilitate student learning [22]. As the “centers of campus” which serve all students, staff, and faculty, and by incorporating culturally-responsive teaching through our instruction, our collections, and our programming, academic libraries can have a significant impact on supporting diversity and student success at our institutions. 


[1]  “U.S. Census Bureau Projections Show a Slower Growing, Older, More Diverse Nation a Half Century from Now.” United States Census Bureau. Last modified Dec. 12, 2012.
[2] Coffey, Heather. “Culturally Relevant Teaching.”  Learn NC. Accessed December 15, 2015.
[3] Gay, Geneva. “Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching.” Journal of Teacher Education 53, no. 2 (2002): 106-116.
[4] Atwater, Mary M., Tonjua B. Freeman, Malcolm B. Butler, and Jessie Draper-Morris. “A Case Study of Science Teacher Candidates’ Understandings and Actions Related to the Culturally Responsive Teaching of ‘Other’ Students.” International Journal of Environmental & Science Education 5, no. 3 (2010): 287-317. 
[5] Mestre, Lori. “Culturally Responsive Instruction for Teacher-Librarians.” Teacher Librarian 36, no. 3 (2009): 8-12. 
[6] Blas, Elise. “Information Literacy in the 21st Century Multicultural Classroom: Using Sociocultural Literacy.” Education Libraries 37, no. 1-2 (2014): 33-41.
[7] Gay.
[8] Atwater, et al.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Jabbar, Abdul and Glenn Hardaker. "The Role of Culturally Responsive Teaching for Supporting Ethnic Diversity in British University Business Schools." Teaching in Higher Education 18, no. 3 (2013): 272-284.
[11] Blas.
[12] Jabbar, et al 
[13] Ibid.
[14] Gay.
[15] Blas.
[16] Mestre.
[17] Blas.
[18] Jabbar.
[19] Coffey.
[20] Atwater, et al.
[21] Doll, Carol and Kasey Garrison. "Creating Culturally Relevant Collections to Support the Common Core: A Framework for Teacher Librarians." Teacher Librarian 40, no. 5 (2013): 14-18. 
[22] Jabbar, et al.