The holidays provided me with some catch-up reading time and one of the themes that had me reflecting was that of culturally responsive teaching. I wanted to extend my thinking, and to consider more about what this looked like in practice, particularly for children and their families. Many teachers take care to learn simple phrases of children’s home languages, obtain stories about legends and traditions of the culture, learn what protocols are important – the list could go on – but is this enough?
I wondered about other ways in which culturally responsiveness can be seen. In particular, learning stories and assessment came to mind. How is a child’s identity and culture reflected in these important documents? Do the learning stories go beyond the language element of the child’s identity to other aspects of identity? When acknowledging a child’s competence in a social group, what elements from the home culture are acknowledged?
Hall (1976) talks about a continuum of high-context and low-context cultures and the differences that this has upon how social competence is viewed Cultures that favour the low-context end of the continuum tend to be western countries such as USA, Canada and Australia where identity is more about the individual, leadership and personal interest is valued and verbal exchanges are encouraged. Whereas high-context cultures such as Japan, China, and Russia favour social identity and group interest, respect and compliance is valued and non-verbal cues are more prevalent. The context that forms our identity will influence the way we interact socially.
I was reminded of my Intermediate and early College years when my family and I lived in Samoa (a truly wonderful experience). During this time, my awareness of culture started – I had come from a mainly mono-cultural small South Island town to a very different, high-context culture. In Samoa, one of the first questions I was asked was when meeting someone new was “who is your family and where do they come from?” I realised that aiga (family) is an important part of identity.
Hans and Thomas (2010) advocate for early childhood teachers to enhance their cultural responsiveness. In their article, Hans and Thomas review a number of works in relation to the topic, and ask teachers to consider through whose lens they assess the child’s social competence – through the values and identity of the teacher, or that of the child?
I thought back to the learning stories I have written. These assessments about children tended to acknowledge the values that I held important rather than those of the child and their family. For example, when preparing a learning story on a child’s social competence, I would often comment on the child’s verbal exchanges in groups while not noting the non-verbal exchanges that were occurring. Thinking about it now, did these learning stories have as much meaning for the child and their family as they did for me.
There are many essential components to being a good teacher. In my mind understanding a child’s identity, language and culture is certainly one of the most important. It involves knowing the child and their family. From this understanding true teaching can begin including caring, responding, scaffolding, assessing and connecting.
As we start this new year, I ask you to think about how you recognise and acknowledge your own culture, and that of each child you teach.
Written by Tara
Han, S. H. & Thomas, M. S. (2010). No child misunderstood: Enhancing early childhood teachers’ multicultural responsiveness to the social competence of diverse children. Early Childhood Education Journal 37, 469-476.
Hall, E.T. (1976). Beyond Teaching. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books