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Enacting Culturally Relevant Pedagogy for Underrepresented Minorities in STEM Classrooms: Challenges and Opportunities

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2021 CoNECD


Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day

Publication Date

January 24, 2021

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January 24, 2021

End Date

January 28, 2021

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Enacting Culturally Relevant Pedagogy for Underrepresented Minorities in STEM Classrooms: Challenges and Opportunities

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Moses Olayemi Purdue University Orcid 16x16

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Moses Olayemi is a doctoral student in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. He is primarily interested in the professional development of STEM educators and STEM educator leaders as change agents in the sub-Saharan African education landscape.

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Jennifer Deboer Purdue University at West Lafayette (COE)

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Jennifer DeBoer is currently Assistant Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Her research focuses on international education systems, individual and social development, technology use and STEM learning, and educational environments for diverse learners.

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Keywords: Culturally relevant pedagogy, culturally relevant teaching, racial/underrepresented minorities, STEM.

Introduction Historically, the process of learning and teaching has been theorized from the perspective of novice and experienced practitioners (Shulman, 1987). However, in the 1990s, a period that has come to be described by some as the golden age of resource pedagogy research (Paris, 2012), a change came to the deficit-based thinking that underscored the theory of learning, particularly for marginalized populations like children of color. In her seminal work, Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) published her theoretical framework for culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP). As proposed by the seminal theorist, for pedagogy to be described as culturally relevant, it needed to satisfy three criteria: foster academic achievement among students and develop students who demonstrate cultural competence and have critical consciousness. To practice CRP in the classroom, culturally relevant teachers were required to consider three core components: their conception of themselves and others; their conception of knowledge; and how they structured social relations and interactions in the classroom (Gloria Ladson-Billings, 1994). For close to three decades, however, many empirical studies have shed light on the difficulties associated with enacting culturally relevant pedagogy in high-school classrooms, whether from the perspective of teachers (Hyland, 2009), or specifically related to the teaching of science and math (Leonard et al., 2009). In this article, we synthesize some of these difficulties and highlight the solutions that have been proposed in response to those challenges. Our research questions are as follows: what are the challenges associated with enacting culturally relevant pedagogy in teaching underrepresented minorities in high school STEM-classrooms; and what are some potential solutions to these challenges?

Method We employed a systematized review of relevant literature (Borrego et al., 2014) on culturally relevant pedagogy in this article. To scope our work, our review centered on formal and informal high-school STEM classrooms in the USA. A total of 35 articles were included in this study. We thematically structured our findings from the review and presented the challenges identified under the three core components described by Ladson-Billings.

Results Our findings revealed that cultural discontinuity, epistemological dissonance, linguistic barriers posed by technical jargon, and restrictive school policies were among the most common difficulties associated with culturally relevant pedagogy in STEM classrooms.

Difficulties associated with enacting CRP Regarding the conception of “self and others”, teachers struggle to recognize and address their own biases and how it relates to others. They either wrongly infer their students’ academic capabilities (Hudley & Mallinson, 2017), fail to recognize the existence of systemic forms of oppression and inequality around them (Milner, 2017), or struggle to assimilate into the local communities of their students due to historically established racial discords (Hyland, 2009). Thematically categorized as cultural discontinuity, we found many cases where teachers felt out of touch with the experiences of their students, by virtue of their lived experiences, which were culturally different from their students’ home, community, and school experiences. As an example, a systematized literature review article suggested the need to recognize that cultural discontinuity exists between gifted girls of color and their teachers (Young et al., 2019). This was a key factor that many studies had found to be an impediment for teachers and students to be able to fully interact, particularly outside the classroom as they attempted to enact CRP (Howard, 2003; Hyland, 2009; Ramirez et al., 2016). With regard to the conception of knowledge, teachers have reported dissonance between the constructivist perspectives of CRP and the objectivity demanded in the “hard science” and math subjects that they taught (Leonard et al., 2009). Thematically categorized under epistemological dissonance, we identified the challenge that teachers faced as they attempted to reconcile the epistemological foundations of their discipline with the constructive, critical elements that CRP required (Timmons-Brown & Warner, 2016). This case was particularly highlighted by high school math teachers as they attempted to employ CRP in their mathematics classes (Leonard et al., 2009, p. 12). In analyzing the challenges posed by the structure of classroom interactions, we employed a systemic view of formal and informal school environments, the mode of knowledge propagation within these environments, and the intermediating factors which affect them. Our review revealed that teachers believed that technical language serves as a significant barrier for linguistically and culturally diverse students to learn STEM. Also, formal learning environments were restrictive in terms of classroom and school policies, while teachers demanded more time to structure and deliver lessons that were culturally relevant. Finally, due to misconceptions about cultural norms, teachers wrongly diagnosed the behaviors of racially dissimilar students as rude, leading to a higher rate of disciplinary action against racially minoritized students especially blacks, than their white peers. Participants of one study expressed concerns about adding an extra layer of difficulty for students in reconciling the objective/universal jargon of STEM. Teachers have reportedly complained that language unavoidably serves as an unnecessary barrier to learning, leading them to ask whether the goal is to test for vocabulary or STEM reasoning (Hudley & Mallinson, 2017). Using words or expressions that students are not familiar with in exams could throw students off, leading them to make mistakes that are not intended and are not accurate representations of students’ aptitudes. Teachers enacting CRP in STEM classrooms expressed concern over the need to submit to and uphold school policies in the classroom while trying to provide students with the best environment to help them succeed. This showed up in two ways. First, teachers were concerned about their school requirements for students to perform exceptionally in standardized tests (Hudley & Mallinson, 2017). Second, some teachers were unsure how to provide students with the freedom to work in ways they felt most comfortable without squinting over certain school policies. For example, in a study, teachers mentioned that some of their students liked to listen to music in the classroom, as it helped them concentrate and it boosted their performance, but this was not allowed in the school policy (Leonard et al., 2009). Finally, to effectively teach culturally relevant STEM classes, teachers reportedly demanded time to plan lessons and make learning meaningful. However, the findings from the review of the literature suggest that traditional classroom settings are limited in the provision of the time and space teachers need. As an example, a mixed-methods study conducted with attendees of a conference workshop designed to help high school and middle school mathematics teachers become culturally responsive educators found that some of the major challenges that teachers face in CRP implementation were logistic – specifically, the time taken to design and execute class sessions (Timmons-Brown & Warner, 2016).

Opportunities for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy in STEM Classrooms Our review also identified various opportunities for CRP in STEM classrooms, which include informal and out-of-school time (OST) STEM learning spaces, systematic teaching of STEM language, and parental involvement as valid funds of knowledge. A literature review with gifted girls of color recommended using informal and OST STEM learning spaces as great avenues to solve the issue of restrictive school policies, time demand, and cultural discontinuity (Young et al., 2019). OST, they suggested, provides a wide range of content-rich opportunities in the hours outside of school, including summer camps (Garvin-Hudson & Jackson, 2018), which would be impractical in many traditional school settings. Furthermore, OST and informal learning spaces such as worksites, STEM businesses, science labs, museums, and imagination stations could reinforce students’ connections outside the class. This recommendation seems fitting as some teachers had complained about not having enough time to culturally engage with students in school-prescribed times (Timmons-Brown & Warner, 2016). Further, it allows teachers to build cultural ties with students and their communities outside the school. A paper suggested ways by which linguistic challenges with STEM can be solved for STEM teachers and their students. Technical jargon can be taught systematically, for example being intentional about helping students realize that terms such as ‘‘solve for,’’ ‘‘find,’’ and ‘‘evaluate’’ are synonyms. Teachers can be explicit about linguistic changes made to questions making sure tests are accurate assessments of students’ intended learning outcomes and not vocabulary (Hudley & Mallinson, 2017). Another recommendation from the article was that STEM educators should be exposed to non-STEM vocabulary as well to make connections more meaningful for students. Parental involvement has been found to be one of the strongest predictors of school success for children, especially for English language learners (Olivos & Mendoza, 2009). The case to expand the vision of parental involvement is therefore valid (Ferrara, 2009). Thus, if teachers view them as valuable allies and not adversaries (Miretzky, 2004), research suggests that they can help to address the issue of cultural discontinuity further serving as conduits to broaden the scope of students’ funds of knowledge (Ramirez et al., 2016) and a means for teachers to be better acculturated into the society.

Conclusion Today, there is a high demand for teaching that is culturally relevant to the diverse body of students that receive formal and informal STEM education. However, enacting culturally relevant pedagogy for underrepresented minorities in STEM comes with many challenges. While the conception of knowledge, of the self and others, and the structure of classroom interactions serve as essential components of CRP, each poses peculiar challenges to teachers and students including cultural discontinuity, epistemological dissonance, linguistic barriers posed by technical jargons, and restrictive school policies. To address each of these challenges, this review reveals that teachers need to learn to reconcile the epistemological dissonance they experience between the foundational beliefs of their STEM disciplines and the constructivist nature of a culturally responsive classroom. They also need to recognize that the technical jargons that pose an extra layer of difficulty for linguistically and culturally- diverse student populations can be systematically taught. Also, and certainly not least of all, teachers need to recognize that informal and out-of-school STEM learning spaces can circumvent the challenges of restrictive school policies and the demand for more time with students and opportunities to pool from existing funds of knowledge while involving parents and assimilating into the society.

Citations Borrego, M., Foster, M. J., & Froyd, J. E. (2014). Systematic Literature Reviews in Engineering Education and Other Developing Interdisciplinary Fields. Journal of Engineering Education, 103(1), 45–76. Ferrara, M. M. (2009). Broadening the myopic vision of parent involvement. School Community Journal, 19(2), 123–142. Garvin-Hudson, B., & Jackson, T. O. (2018). A case for culturally relevant science education in the summer for African American youth. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education (QSE), 31(8), 708–725. Howard, T. C. (2003). Culturally relevant pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher reflection. Theory into Practice, 42(3), 195–202. Hudley, A. C., & Mallinson, C. (2017). “It’s worth our time”: A model of culturally and linguistically supportive professional development for -12 STEM educators. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 12(3), 637–660. Hyland, N. E. (2009). One white teacher’s struggle for culturally relevant pedagogy: The problem of the community. New Educator, 5(2), 95–112. Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 465–491. Ladson-Billings, Gloria. (1994). The dreamkeepers. Successful teachers of African American children. Jossey-Bass. Leonard, J., Napp, C., & Adeleke, S. (2009). The complexities of culturally relevant pedagogy: A case study of two secondary mathematics teachers and their ESOL students. High School Journal, 93(1), 3–22. Milner, H. R. (2017). Where’s the race in culturally relevant pedagogy? Teachers College Record, 119(1), 1–32. Miretzky, D. (2004). The Communication Requirements of Democratic Schools: Parent-Teacher Perspectives on Their Relationships. Teachers College Record, 106(4), 814–851. Olivos, E. M., & Mendoza, M. (2009). Educational Equity and Rights: The Responsibilities of California’s Public Schools towards Immigrant Students and Communities. Journal of the Association of Mexican American Educators, 37–42. Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93–97. Ramirez, O., McCollough, C. A., & Diaz, Z. (2016). Creating a model of acceptance: Preservice teachers interact with non-english-speaking Latino parents using culturally relevant mathematics and science activities at family learning events. School Science and Mathematics, 116(1), 43–54. Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1–23. Timmons-Brown, S., & Warner, C. (2016). Using a conference workshop setting to engage mathematics teachers in culturally relevant pedagogy. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education, 9(1), 19–47. Young, J. L., Young, J. R., & Ford, D. Y. (2019). Culturally relevant STEM out-of-school time: A rationale to support gifted girls of color. Roeper Review, 41(1), 8–19.

Olayemi, M., & Deboer, J. (2021, January), Enacting Culturally Relevant Pedagogy for Underrepresented Minorities in STEM Classrooms: Challenges and Opportunities Paper presented at 2021 CoNECD, Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day .

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