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Opportunities and Rewards of Culturally Engaged Teaching

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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When we teach across the full range of continua, balancing cultural frameworks, we encourage our own ongoing learning. Teaching using concrete application of knowledge, visual representation, and active approaches enhances not only student learning but also our own.


The posting below looks at the importance of teaching across the full range of cultural continua.  It is from Chapter 3, Rewards, Dilemmas, and Challenges of Teaching Across Cultural Frameworks,in the book, Teaching Across Cultural Strengths: A Guide to Balancing Integrated and Individuated Cultural Frameworks in College Teaching,byAlicia Fedelina Chavez and Susan Diana Longerbeam. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102.

Copyright © 2016 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Teaching as a Learning Experience


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Opportunities and Rewards of Culturally Engaged Teaching


The potential rewards of teaching effectively across cultures are immense. Great joy awaits when we see students respond, grow, share, show up, come around more often, connect to the discipline, find and see meaning in what we are doing together, or perhaps pursue a career or professional life in the discipline. Excitement ensues when students are suddenly kicking in and beginning to apply their gifts to learning, when they become active in questioning, examining, creating, and challenging the world. 

When learning is a shared responsibility between student and teacher and between students, active participation becomes the norm. When students are encouraged to apply their individual ways of being to deepen their learning, they begin questioning, thinking critically, applying knowledge, comparing, contrasting, challenging, and discerning – all elements of deep and active learning (Biggs, 1999). Active learning, using experiential scenarios, better prepares students for the future when they create and contribute to the world (Weimer, 2002). 

When we teach across the full range of continua, balancing cultural frameworks, we encourage our own ongoing learning. Teaching using concrete application of knowledge, visual representation, and active approaches enhances not only student learning but also our own. This learning with greater opportunity for recall conforms to the neuroscience of learning (Zull, 2002). Using the framework of culturally integrated and individuated approaches to teaching and learning subscribes to the neuroscience principles of engagement, scaffolding, and recall. When we invest in our own learning through partnering with students across cultures, we and they are more likely to stay engaged. 

Investing in our own learning is the focus of faculty development programs, now gaining in prominence throughout the United States. Though still largely focused on techniques devoid of cultural considerations, and on largely quantitative assessment of those techniques (often driven by accreditation associations requiring learning outcomes assessment), faculty development is shifting increasingly toward broader perspectives using the neuroscience of learning, best practices in college teaching, and some movement toward adding qualitative assessment techniques. Faculty development is likely to continue expanding, given funding models that reward institutions for student learning and graduation rather than just enrollment. 

Working and connecting well with all students – including students of color and first-generation students (those who are the first in their families to attend college) – has particular rewards. Intrinsic joy awaits those faculty who mentor students to go far and find potential to make a difference in their communities and beyond. Additionally, when we are working with students in collectivist cultures, our influence is more likely to extend in waves to communities beyond the individual student. Our influence often goes well beyond the individual to ripple out into their families, tribes, and communities in positive ways. This is the nature of collectivism that when we touch one, we are likely to touch many through that one. 

Part of the reward of attention to our culture in the classroom is the opportunity to continually be aware of (and in some cases be reminded of) our own early cultural influences. Continually unearthing the connections between our culture and our commitment to education, our profession, our discipline, and our students can serve to remind us of what drives us in our work and enrich the meaning we make of our work. 

Though some students indeed may be uncomfortable with varying teaching approaches, others will love when we surprise them, when we share of ourselves. Students form impressions of us as we do of them, and countering their initial impressions of us sometimes delights them. Often, they enjoy seeing our humanity and knowing our own journeys and discoveries through our disciplines and our professional lives. In addition, students often engage more deeply when we purposefully connect them and what they are learning to the world around them and to their own futures. 

A further reward of teaching across the full range of cultural continua is embracing a spirit of discovery we often reserve for research or other inquiry. Some refer to teaching inquiry as the scholarship of teaching, when we apply a systematic study and analysis to our teaching, to understanding our students, and to assessing student learning. There is great joy in facilitating student engagement with our academic discipline. Applying cultural analysis systematically to our own teaching and learning allows us to do so. We have the opportunity to experience more fun in teaching, deeper connections with students, greater success for us, greater success for students, and an enlivened academic community, drawing from the full range of human tradition to enrich our organizations. The alternative is faculty malaise. We sense and know when students fail, and their failure disrupts our spirits too. Alternatively, we sustain our spirits through facilitating learning among all students, especially when we engage those we have not previously been able to engage effectively. 

But perhaps most of all, we in turn can access broader learning through embracing the varying learning modalities of human culture. We then engage in the core higher education mission of contributing to human knowledge. Newer ways of looking at old problems could influence our own thinking in our scholarship and allow us access to new results. 

When we continually look at how to apply cultural continua, we are more likely to apply this knowledge to our own work, our lives, and current events. Using these approaches will serve to keep our teaching new and innovating. Teaching across cultural continua helps us to stay excited by and engaged in our work. 

Vulnerability of Culturally Engaged Teaching 

Though rewards accrue when faculty teach to a range of learning processes, the effort is not without challenges. For instance, we are asking that faculty examine our own cultures of origin, to become vulnerable in the service of student learning. One faculty member of European American and Mexican ancestry spoke about the vulnerability in examining our own cultures: 

Initially, I was thinking, you know I was hearing all these weird stories from people in our group … and I was really equating it more with ethnicity than culture, and I think that is completely a little bit of a projection from me, because I grew up feeling like I didn’t know where I fit. … So I had this sense of, “Well, I have no culture,” which is ridiculous, because if you live around human beings in the world, you have a culture! And I know that intellectually, but I think this awareness went smashing into some aspect of my own upbringing that I had really not thought about in a long time. 

Being vulnerable is not necessarily comfortable. Perry, a leading theorist on college student development, shared a wistful story about his own vulnerability, when a graduating student spoke to him like this: 

“Then it came to me that these days with you are numbered, too. Like, there comes a time when you have to move over and make room for others who need the time more.” And then I thought of her as an older sister with her four younger sisters. And I said, “Well, gee, yeh, I know. And I’ve been thinking how I’ll miss you.” And she said, “Oh, really? Have you been thinking that way, too?” And so she just kept looking at me. It was one of those silences that went on for about fifteen minutes. About every five minutes or so she said softly, “Yes.” Now I realized that she was a bright person and was putting things together. One of the things she was looking at was a guy whose days were numbered, and by a lot smaller number than hers, and she looked me right in the eye for a long time. After a long time we got up. (Perry, 1978, p. 273) 

Perhaps it is time for us to be vulnerable enough to examine our own cultural background influences on our teaching. Inviting colleagues to conduct teaching observations with a cultural balancing focus perhaps using the Cultural Frameworks in Teaching and Learning model in Chapter 1 (Table 1.1) is one way to open ourselves up to improving culturally engaged practice. 

These are all questions about teaching that point to our respective cultural frameworks. By purposefully asking ourselves and perhaps each other these kinds of questions, we begin to develop a deeper understanding of our teaching and consider ways we might include a wider diversity of frameworks and pedagogies. Examining our teaching will, over time, assist us in facilitating learning for a wider diversity of learners in our courses. 

Alicia asked me, after observing one of my class sessions, “Why do you need to cover every single stage of stage theory?” Why indeed, I asked myself. This is the tyranny of content over process. And why do I allow some students to remain silent, rather than greatly inviting them into the conversation? Where does this come from? Why do I continue to rely on text alone? Why not mix up text with other avenues to learning, from the great panoply of choices? Why don’t I share personal stories with more students?

— Susan D. Longerbeam 



Biggs, J. (1999). What the student does: Teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research and Development,18(1): 57-75. 

Perry, W. G. (1978). Sharing in the costs of growth. In C. A. Parker (ed.), Encouraging development in college students(pp. 267-273). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Zull, J. (2002). The art of changing the brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.