Individualism and Culturally Responsive Teaching

The education reform movement, characterized by standardized tests, charter schools, and voucher programs, is a product of both capitalism and individualism. The buzz word for the movement, which itself implies a commitment to individualism, is “choice.” The language is always about one student and never about all students. Reformers want schools to be marketplaces for individual consumption of information instead of communities of learners.

Public schools all across the nation have Individualized Education Programs or IEPs. These programs are specifically created to assist students who have been determined to have disabilities reach their educational goals. The goals and objectives of the IEP are “individualized” to meet the needs of each student eligible for the program. Furthermore, the presence of IEPs has moved classroom teachers toward a more individualized approach for all students.

The movement toward focusing on the individual student in traditional public schools is certainly to be praised. So many students are receiving vital accommodations that were unavailable before IEPs. The hyper individualism of the reform movement, however, is a danger to our public schools and even our democracy.

But how has the move toward individualism shown up in the classroom in unexpected ways?

In early February of this year, I hosted the Sunday night #oklaed chat on Twitter. The topic was “Race in Education.” You can find the archive here. One of the early questions that I asked was, “How do you respond to people who say that educators should be color blind?”

The response was encouraging. No one in the chat seemed to be interested in defending the idea of teachers “not seeing race.” It seems that many educators understand that race is a social construct, but one with very real meaning and implications. But often these same educators revert to individualistic thinking when addressing issues like classroom discipline and academic expectations.

White teachers have a tendency, when attempting to confront the stereotype of low academic expectations for students of color, to explicitly ignore race in favor of “seeing the individual.” Race in no way determines a student’s level of academic success. But race most certainly does effect a teacher’s expectations of student success. The key here is understanding that teachers unknowingly behave in ways that are based on biased norms of race relations developed over their lifetime. This is what is called implicit bias. When white teachers explicitly attempt to treat all students the same, they are sure to act implicitly on their own biases and ironically create a culture of inequity in the classroom.

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Culturally responsive teaching is the antidote to our schools becoming over individualized. This Huffington Post article is a good introduction to culturally responsive teaching. To respond to a culture is ultimately to see something bigger than the individual. No one person constitutes a culture. To treat students as nothing more than individuals is to ignore culture. Teaching cannot respond to culture without first addressing the variety of expression/identity within race, gender, sexual orientation, and a host of other categories. There are many pedagogical examples of culturally responsive teaching including a book that I highly recommend by Christopher Emdin called, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood …and the Rest of Y’all Too.”

To put it more succinctly, white teachers who don’t regularly address race will teach in a way that only responds to white culture. Male teachers who don’t regularly address gender will teach in a way that only responds to male culture. And heterosexual teachers who don’t regularly address orientation will teach in a way that only responds to heterosexual culture.

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