By Carla Marschall

Our classrooms are diverse places. Not only do our students come from varying cultural and ethnic backgrounds, but have diverse home lives, experience sets and linguistic profiles. As inquiry teachers who look to help students make meaning in a study, we must recognize the importance of integrating and reshaping our instructional practices using our students’ cultural backgrounds.

By being culturally responsive, we can construct learner-centered practices that:

  • Pique student interests
  • Enhance motivation
  • Increase students’ ability to make connections
  • Promote belonging and wellbeing

Because Concept-Based Inquiry aims to develop transferable ideas in students that transcend time, place and situation, we have increased flexibility in how we can incorporate our students’ cultural backgrounds in an inquiry. Below are a few strategies we use from our Concept-Based Inquiry toolbox. Available for reference is also a checklist in the resource section of our membership site to help you assess the cultural-responsiveness of any inquiry.

Teach to the Conceptual Understanding

Sometimes teachers can get caught up in the content of a unit. They may say, “This is the Ancient Rome unit,” or “This is our literature unit about Catcher in the Rye.” While knowledge or skills provide the foundation for forming generalizations, students can use different case studies to reach the same understanding. When we teach conceptually, our content becomes illustrative of the concepts and conceptual relationships we wish students to uncover. That is, we teach to the conceptual understanding by strategically introducing content that allows students to make connections at the conceptual level.

Concept-Based Inquiry opens the door to culturally responsive practice. As inquiry practitioners, we can choose content that best reflects our students’ backgrounds, while keeping the understandings we wish to develop at the front of our minds. This enhances our ability to differentiate, creating a classroom environment where student backgrounds are honored and viewed as a learning resource.

Adapt any Inquiry using Case Studies

One of our strategies to construct culturally responsive units is to consider our approach to case studies. A more traditional approach may be to have only one or two case studies, which are determined by the school’s curriculum or decided upon by the teacher. For example, a unit on exploration takes Marco Polo and Magellan as case studies. In this case, content often reflects a dominant cultural background or that of the teacher.

However, we can think of our case studies as ways to connect each of our students to the concepts of a unit. Adapting which case studies we invite students to explore enhances our ability to make units meaningful for all students. In our exploration example, we may open up our case study options to include options such as Zheng He (an Asian explorer), Amelia Earhart (a female explorer), and Ibn Battuta (an Islamic explorer). We may also ask students about explorers they may know and wish to learn about in detail. Each of these case studies reflects one of the unit’s conceptual understanding, Explorers may experience hardship, yet persevere through challenge in the process of discovery.

When designing our case studies, we take into account a number of considerations:

  • The unit understandings we aim to develop
  • The cultural background and interests of our students
  • Any misconceptions our students may hold (found during pre-assessments)
  • The inquiry skills of our students, e.g. how much scaffolding they require to be successful in the unit

Invite Students to Make Choices

Student agency goes hand-in-hand with our approach to case studies. Culturally responsive practice includes the belief that students bring a wealth of knowledge with them to the classroom. This knowledge often reflects multiple perspectives and ways of seeing the world. As Concept-Based Inquiry practitioners, we want students to share and learn from each other, so that they may see how knowledge changes over time and is not static.

By giving students choice in an inquiry, we invite them to draw on their experiences and strengths. Likewise, we help make the learning “sticky” by connecting students to their interests. Student choice may look a variety of ways in a unit, some of which include:

  • Students choose case studies that they (or the whole class) will investigate.
  • Students determine the ways in which they will investigate, e.g. some students do interviews while others use books.
  • Students present their findings in a variety of ways, e.g. presentation, dance, model, essay, etc.
  • Students compare and contrast case studies of their choice, e.g. one student compares Mahatma Gandhi and Malala Yousafzai as leaders, while another compares Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama.

So how culturally responsive are your units and to what extent do students’ cultural backgrounds change the way a unit may look? Use the checklist below to self-assess one of your units.

Checklist: Creating Culturally-Responsive Units in Concept-Based Inquiry

Ask yourself:
Is the unit organized around conceptual understandings that make the learning transferable?
Does the unit pre-assess student thinking in order to determine student interests or experiences?
Do case studies chosen by the students or teacher reflect students’ varying cultural backgrounds?
Do students have the ability to choose some (or all) of the case studies they will learn about in an inquiry?
Is learning from diverse case studies celebrated and shared by students as a classroom of inquirers?
Does the teacher view him/herself as a facilitator of learning as opposed to the provider of knowledge?
Is the teacher reflective about how his/her cultural biases may influence choices made in an inquiry?


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