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Culturally responsive practices affirm students’ diverse backgrounds and perspectives. These practices center traditionally marginalized communities in classroom instruction and result in all students developing impactful critical thinking skills that support not only their academic success but also their lifelong learning. 

In this overview, we use culturally responsive practices as an umbrella term covering culturally responsive pedagogy and culturally sustaining pedagogy, as well as culturally responsive or relevant teaching. Although there are nuances in this terminology, the practices have similar goals based on research that builds on each other. 

The Framework of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP) was introduced by Gloria Ladson-Billings in the 1990s, when she theorized that the reason Black children were not achieving to the same degree as white children was not due to “deficiencies,” a widely held belief at the time, but rather due to the ways education systems traditionally teach. Ladson-Billings researched teachers who exhibited excellence in teaching Black students and from these observations distilled three pillars of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: student learning, cultural competence, and critical consciousness. Respectively, these emphasize prioritizing students’ intellectual growth; affirming and appreciating students’ cultures of origin while also developing fluency in at least one other culture; and teaching students how to identify, analyze, and solve real-world problems. (Ladson-Billings, 1995)

Building upon Ladson-Billings’ work, Geneva Gay coined the term “Culturally Responsive Teaching.” In 2000, she wrote:

“When academic knowledge and skills are situated within the lived experiences and frames of reference for students, they are more personally meaningful, have higher interest appeal, and are learned more easily and thoroughly.”

Gay’s research surfaced five critical components to effectively engage in culturally responsive teaching: educators must exhibit a strong knowledge base about cultural diversity, prioritize culturally relevant curricula which should connect to students’ prior knowledge, hold high expectations for all students, make a concerted effort to understand and appreciate different communication styles, and use multicultural examples in the classroom. (Gay, 2000)

Culturally relevant practices can help students make connections and build on prior knowledge, both of which are critical to encoding. They also help foster a sense of belonging and reduce the risk of identity threats that are shown to impede focus and flood working memory (Charlot et al., 2021). When culturally relevant practices are utilized effectively and consistently in the classroom, educators see not only better academic outcomes but also stronger social and emotional outcomes. More specifically, studies suggest incorporating culturally responsive pedagogical practices in the classroom leads to an increase in attendance, credits earned, and GPA, as well as a reduction in high school dropouts (Dee & Penner, 2017). 

Culturally responsive practices might look like: 

  • Leveraging students’ prior knowledge: Provide students opportunities to incorporate aspects of their lived experience to the lesson.
  • Contextualizing learning: Ask students questions that will prompt them to make connections to their own lives.
  • Making the physical environment reflective of diverse perspectives: Design the physical environment to highlight diverse perspectives. This can include books, posters, and other materials by diverse authors, in different languages, and featuring traditionally underrepresented groups. 
  • Discussing current events/politics: Give students opportunities to engage in discussions relevant to their daily lives. The goal is not to tell students what to think, but to teach them how to become informed and engage in respectful dialogue. Leverage pop culture like music, movies, social media, and other topics in classroom content
  • Leveraging students’ cultural capital: Seek ways for students to use and share the skills, knowledge, and strengths they bring to the classroom. For example, if students speak more than one language, allow them to use languages other than English.
  • Investing in culturally responsive professional development opportunities: Schools and districts should actively seek out opportunities to learn more about CRP and incorporate these learnings into their systems and structures.
  • Partnering with families and community members: Building bridges between school and community is pivotal in authentically centering students’ lived experience within the classroom.

Outside any single classroom, culturally responsive practices are most effectively implemented when fundamental beliefs in the pillars of CRP are demonstrated at a school- and system-wide level with investment in full-scale structural change.


Dee, T., & Penner, E. (2017). The causal effects of cultural relevance: Evidence from an ethnic studies curriculum. American Educational Research Journal, 54, pp. 127-166. 
Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press. 
Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2). 
Charlot, J., Leck, C., & Saxberg, B. (2020). Designing for learning: A primer on key insights from the science of learning and development. (v1.3)
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Education Research Journal, 32(3) pp. 465-491.

What Makes This Innovative?

High Expectations with Unlimited Opportunities

A critical component of CRP is holding high expectations for all students. CRP utilizes culturally affirming curricula and instruction to support all students in meeting these high expectations in meaningful ways.


CRP leverages curricula and instruction that are relevant to students’ lives and encourages deep and meaningful engagement with content and a continued development of critical-thinking skills.

Social Consciousness & Action

CRP encourages students to examine, identify, and analyze real-world problems and consider potential solutions to contribute to a more equitable society.

Related Models

A variety of models on the Innovative Models Exchange support the implementation of Culturally Responsive Practices in schools to create affirming learning experiences for students.

Grades K-12
Roots ConnectED

Anti-Bias Education

The Anti-Bias Education model targets biased attitudes through curriculum, classroom practices, and deep community building to transform communities to be more just, equitable, and connected.

Grades 6-12

Bridges to Academic Success

Bridges to Academic Success supports newcomer students with building language, literacy, and mathematical skills to access rigorous content and thrive in school.

Grades 6-12

Internationals Network

Internationals Network’s comprehensive approach supports the linguistic, academic, and socio-emotional development of recent immigrant and refugee youth through a blend of language-rich, interdisciplinary, collaborative, and experiential learning.

Grades K-12
High Tech High

Liberatory Project-Based Learning

The liberatory project-based learning model at High Tech High consists of authentic, collaborative, hands-on experiences that help students develop the deeper learning competencies needed in life.

Grades 7-12

The Calculus Project

The Calculus Project works to accelerate mathematics learning for students furthest from opportunity, beginning in middle school, in order to give them access to higher-level mathematics courses in high school and college.

Grades 6-12
The Brotherhood Sister Sol (BroSis)

The Rites of Passage Program

The Rites of Passage Program supports adolescents’ successful journey into adulthood by helping them define their values and by providing them with an intentional community, wraparound support, liberation education, and leadership development.

Resources from Transcend and Beyond

The following resources can help deepen your understanding of Culturally Responsive Practices and support the design and implementation of a high-quality model, whether it’s one from the Innovative Models Exchange or one of your community designs.

The Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Professional Development
The Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning

This organization offers professional development opportunities for educators to deepen their learning and understanding of Culturally Responsive Teaching.

Center for Racial Justice in Education Professional Development
Center for Racial Justice in Education

This organization offers trainings to empower educators to dismantle racism and injustice in school communities.

The BELE Framework
Building Equitable Learning Environments (BELE)

The BELE Framework equips educators with an evidence-based guide to redesigning school systems and creating long-lasting equitable learning environments.

Districts Advancing Racial Equity (DARE) Tool
Learning Policy Institute + Racial Equity Leadership Network

The DARE tool presents a framework for district leaders to further advance and eventually achieve racial equity. The tool is primarily developed to assess current conditions, analyze data, drive policy and practice, and monitor progress.

Learning for Justice Lesson Library
Southern Poverty Law Center: Learning For Justice

The SPLC Learning for Justice Lesson Library is a resource bank of ready-to-use social justice and social emotional learning lessons searchable by grade level band, subject, or topic.

Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard Toolkit
NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools

This resource provides a scorecard to support auditing your existing curriculum’s alignment with CRP and provides a resource bank of curriculum content and professional development opportunities for educators.

Featured Culturally Responsive Curricular Materials
Teachers College Columbia University

This resource provides a book list of culturally responsive read alouds with scripted lesson plans for grades K–8.