Notes on: Ladson Billings, G. 1995. Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal 32 (3): 465 – 491.

And her 'remix'

Dave Harris

 [V thoughtful piece on empowering pedagogy encouraging a critical stance towards official curricula -- very like my own very wonderful approach in Arksey and Harris (2007) re UK HE. Good on proper action research too]

She proposes a role for collaborative and reflexive research based on the pedagogic practices of eight exemplary teachers of African-American students.

There's been much debate about reforming schools by re-educating teachers but what the work lacks is a theory of 'culturally focused pedagogy' (466) building on 'educational anthropological literature'.

There's been a tradition of trying to match home and community cultures of POC, for example by allowing them to use 'talk – story' in Hawaii, a 'language interaction style common' among children there, or similar work with Native American students where language interaction patterns were based on those found in the home and again improvement was reported.  Mixed forms, '"culturally congruent"' also had some success. Other experiments referred to culturally responsive or culturally compatible forms [references 466 – 7].

Each proposes to fit students to schools, however, and this implies hierarchy based on meritocracy and this is likely to do no more 'than reproduce the current inequities', train minority students to succeed in mainstream society (467) [what's wrong with that?]. Only culturally responsive approaches imply a more dynamic relationship, a way to bridge the gap between home and school.

Most of these have been on small-scale communities, although one or two have focused on larger urban settings and African-Americans. Some scholars have pointed to the wider structural implications. There is a lot of work on the struggles of African-Americans to achieve well in schools, and some analyses of successful schooling (468). This work is helpful at micro-and macro levels, but the issue is intersections as well. There is the concept of 'cultural synchronisation [citing Irvine 1990] where learning is maximised in a suitable interpersonal context that doesn't just focus on speech and language, but takes into account a whole range of cultural practices concerning 'mutuality, reciprocity, spirituality, difference, and responsibility' (469). It also allows students to affirm their own cultural identity and develop critical perspectives that challenge inequities in schools — this is what she means by 'culturally relevant pedagogy'. Questions arise about what constitutes student success, especially whether academic and cultural success can be complementary in schools, and how pedagogy can promote critical forms of student success — and what follows for teacher education.

Educational research is usually greeted with suspicion among practitioners as too theoretical, and among academics as not theoretical enough. She thinks this is because theoretical underpinnings are insufficiently made explicit, and practitioners and researchers often fail to articulate them. This affects even theories of social reproduction or neoconservative traditional theories as well — these are not made explicit and their objectivity unquestioned. Knowledge gained on the basis of this experience is seen as inferior. Grounded theory has helped as has action research involving reflective examination of practice, and others contributing to the debate have included Rist pointing out the particular appeals of paradigms beyond the methodological.

Researchers are increasingly asked to situate themselves, and face the problem of a native perspective [often claiming to be insiders because they share the same background as, say, African-American students, like she does?]: Narayan points to the differences between educated students of anthropology doing fieldwork and those from impoverished minority backgrounds located in the Third World. She also realises the possibility of bias, vested interests in African-American communities. She has found Collins's work useful: concrete experiences, dialogue in assessing knowledge claims, the ethic of caring, the ethic of personal accountability.

By way of context, she investigated eight teachers in a small predominantly African-American school, low income, elementary, in Northern California. These were nominated as outstanding teachers by the parents who rated them according to whether they were accorded respect by the teacher, whether students are enthusiastic and whether they displayed other positive attitudes. They were checked against the list provided by principals and teaching colleagues which included matters such as management skills, objective test scores and personal observations. There are all females, five black three white. She did ethnographic interviews to get their ideas about classroom management curriculum and involvement, and then she observed them on unscheduled visits, a regular pattern of visits, three days a week for almost 2 years. She took notes and audiotapes, and talked with teachers. And finally videotaped them based on what she had observed. Then she got them all together as a research collective to view segments of each other's videotapes, analyse and interpret their own and others' practice. This led to formulations about culturally relevant pedagogy. All along she had wanted to challenge deficit paradigms.

She draws on Collins on the value of concrete experiences, arguing that experiences give expertise more credibility. Parents' experience was used to rate teachers, for example, teachers are themselves quite experienced. She pursued dialogue in ethnographic interviews and during the research collaboration afterwards. Teachers 'were able to make sense of their own and their colleagues practices' (473) and, after dialogue, 'to re-examine and rethink their practices'. She practised an ethic of caring. That did not mean that teachers were always affectionate or demonstrative towards their students, but they are all concerned about the implications their work had and for the welfare of the community and for 'unjust social arrangements' (474). In terms of personal accountability, Collins prefers this instead of discussions of objectivity, since researchers have to admit their commitments to ideological value positions. The teachers talked about the need to defy the administrative mandates sometimes, or of actions they took which were 'more consistent with their beliefs and values', say in altering a mandated reading program and suggesting an alternative. Ladson Billings saw a personal responsibility to spell out what she meant by culturally relevant pedagogy.

There have been lots of explanations for the failure of African-American students, some looking to their 'caste -like minority' or 'involuntary immigrant status [this is Ogbu!], Cultural differences and cultural mismatch. Little has been done to examine success, although there has been some work on effective schools, based on how some schools managed to achieve above predicted levels on standard tests. The students she observed did achieve at higher levels, although still lagged behind middle-class communities. They all demonstrated additional student achievements, such as 'an ability to read, write, speak, compute, pose and solve problems at sophisticated levels… [discuss] their own questions about the nature of teacher – or text pose problems… [undertake] peer-review of problem solutions' (475).

The literature has also identified that academic success sometimes brings a problem with well-being, including cultural well-being, the need to act White, the risk of being ostracised by peers. The effects have been seen in failure to thrive after elementary grades, and the social isolation of successful students, partly to avoid negative stereotypes from teachers (476). So there is a matter of negotiating here, and culturally relevant pedagogy must provide a way to do this. One example is to use lyrics of rap songs to teach poetry, before moving on to more conventional poetry, encouraging rappers, or channelling peergroup leadership, even among dropouts and truants into other forms of leadership [it all looks like Kes], permitting distinctive dress and language style, so that students 'were able to see academic engagement as "cool"'.

Students should also understand and critique social inequities, presupposing that teachers do. Teacher education is not very good at this [little else these days!] , and a model might be seen instead in the work of civil rights workers in the USA. She also likes Freire and other critical scholars like Giroux or Ellsworth. Some teachers were able to localise this, working in the community and its early history, or looking at regulations that divided up their local town to permit alcohol sales in poor communities.

She gradually developed 'a grounded theory of culturally relevant pedagogy', since the practice she observed was successful. Actual pedagogy, though, varied — some was 'more structured and rigid', others 'more progressive'. They did have commonalities, though, 'broad propositions (or characteristics) that service theoretical underpinnings of culturally relevant pedagogy' (478). We should not dichotomise these or see them as fixed, but we can systematise them a bit to make them more accessible. We can divide them into three broad propositions:

Conceptions of self and others. The decline of the status of teaching as a profession increases when you work with low status students, but these teachers challenge that notion, believing all students were capable of academic success, seeing their pedagogy as an art, seeing themselves as members of the community, and believing in giving back to the community. Some had a 'Freirian notion of "teaching as mining"… or pulling knowledge out' (479). These were constantly demonstrated. Students were not allowed to choose failure, they were cajoled, pestered and bribed, they were not subjected to a language of lack, they were not referred to as coming from deprived backgrounds. Teachers referred to their own shortcomings and limitations instead. Teachers displayed spontaneity and energy and were willing to take risks, and to respond to particular views that emerged in the classroom. Three of them lived in the school community, and the others visited the community. One used the community as a resource and even invited guest speakers, presenting proposals to the city council, to revive the status of the community.

Social relations. Good classroom social interactions have long been advocated, including cooperative learning, heterogeneous ability groupings and the like. These teachers maintained fluid relationships, tried to demonstrate a connectedness with all the students, develop the community of learners and encourage students 'to learn collaboratively and be responsible for one another' (480). They were equitable and reciprocal, for example students were allowed to act as teachers sometimes to explain concepts or aspects of student culture, asked whether they had helped other learners, made sure that they thought they were 'working with smart classes', teachers even sharing their experiences as graduate students. Ladson-Billings observed occasions where students themselves were able to use teacher discourses about educational objectives or metacognition to describe their own activities. Both formal and informal peer collaborations we used, in one case a buddy system where buddies checked each other's home working class assignments, tested each other, checked up on each other at home. They saw themselves as the family.

Conceptions of knowledge. Knowledge is not static but shared and constructed, to be viewed critically. Teachers were passionate about knowledge and learning, saw themselves scaffolding, facilitating learning. Assessment 'must be multifaceted, incorporating multiple forms of excellence' [it would be interesting to see how that one works!] (481). Knowledge was active, and involved things like identifying areas in which they had expertise, nominating students as classroom experts, asking them to make presentations on their expertise. Classmates were expected to be attentive take notes, ask questions. Topics could include rap music singing, cooking, hair braiding, or reading, writing and mathematics. Teachers helped students do critical analysis, for example of some of the textbooks they met, and sometimes students were 'enlisted… as allies against the school district's policies' [!] (482). With assessment, some teachers 'actively fought the students' right answer approach… without putting the students down'. They did 'talk aloud', asking why questions are important, or what students were thinking, whether they were satisfied with the answer. They distinguished between 'an intellectual challenge and the challenge the authority of their parents' they were 'affirmed in their ability to code switch' between African-American and standard English and also 'in the attempts at role switching between school and home' (482). [Not negative at all, then,but a good coping strategy!] Sometimes they chose between the standards of evaluation and their own evidence they could use as proof of mastery. Apparently none of them 'seemed to have test anxiety' but saw the tests as 'necessary irritations, took them, scored better than their age grade mates at their school, and quickly returned to the rhythm of learning in the classroom [brilliant! Couldn't do better myself!].

Overall, researchers still need to help prepare teachers deal with students in urban poverty, by understanding their own and others' cultures and how it functions. They should not exoticize diverse students as other, which is the tendency in multicultural education or human relations courses, but develop a culturally relevant pedagogy that problematises teaching [hear hear!.] They might systematically include student culture as 'authorised official knowledge' and encourage praxis as in Lather. We need to do more research and find additional exemplars to ground our research in. This means we need to take excellent practitioners seriously and develop methodologies accordingly, with 'meaningful combinations of quantitative and qualitative enquiries' (484).

Can only certain teachers do this? The teachers themselves are quite diverse, but what they shared was beliefs grounded in the educability of students. Of course there are implications for those who do not share this belief, but she sees the need to proceed, especially working with 'young middle-class white women' who are the bulk of her teacher trainees.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014)
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. the Remix. Harvard Educational Review. 84 (1):  74--86.

She summarises the 1995 work, now re-described as three major domains 'academic success, cultural competence and sociopolitical consciousness' (75). This work has been widely cited and extended. It has been argued that it should be more political, or possibly more feminist. But there have been other changes in scholarship especially 'a more dynamic view of culture'. Conceptions like youth culture are still not easily defined, although they still have notions of membership language beliefs and so on. There are other changes, including those produced by three generations of Hmong in the upper Midwest, with mixed identities. The title of this piece indicates that there may be future versions and remixes.

[Apparently there has been a symposium to develop culturally sustaining pedagogy] to chart the changes and adaptations of culturally relevant pedagogy and how marginalised students might contribute to it. There is interest in other than African-Americans: she focused on them because nothing was written and they were seen as the most underachieving ones. The new conceptions of critically sustaining pedagogy still has the same idea of students as subjects. Growth and adaptation is crucial to avoid 'academic death' (76).

Cultural relevance itself has become rather static, losing 'fluidity and variety within cultural groups', or ignoring the sociopolitical dimensions and critical edge. She saw new possibilities after working with 'First Wave, the innovative spoken word and hip-hop arts programme at the University of Wisconsin – Madison' (78). There was a 'learning community of spoken word artists… A commitment to fully integrate hip-hop culture into the Academy'. The idea is that youth culture, hip-hop especially, can change the way in which people think learn and perform. It is global but still largely absent from universities, but the University program intended to 'recruit and financially support student artists' just like they had with athletes. They were enrolled on an existing undergrad major, quite often education. They have to meet conventional university requirements and 'this is where we began to see some cracks in our programming'.

Many expressed a desire to give back, most commonly by becoming teachers, but many were disappointed 'in the quality of the programs', finding themselves in conventional teacher education courses mostly filled with 'young White women from suburban (and some rural) communities who still thought about POC… in deficit terms'. Of those who left, some opted for alternative certification routes.

So she created a special seminar course — 'Pedagogy Performance and Culture', open to any undergraduate, but with at least half (10) slots reserved for First Wave (FW) students. There was a concurrent public lecture series after each class, so that each of the lecturers could be invited to the seminar. They included 'scholars, artists, community activists and media personalities', often with particular interests in hip-hop. The students depended on her, but she depended on them to lead into new ways of understanding popular culture and how it might be used 'to engage in conversations about critical theoretical concepts such as hegemony, audit cultures, and neoliberalism as well as develop new pedagogical strategies' (79). The session might start by somebody prepared to 'spit a poem' and these were often very successful and engaged in various forms of social injustice, and also demonstrated that learners can be the source of knowledge and skills.

They had conventional syllabus, discussions and assignments, and read 'canonical social theorists', but they also had alternative texts like hip-hop lyrics, videos of hip-hop, protest poetry. The final assessment was a performance, originally a public performance incorporating concepts discussed in class, or, for non-First Wave, a curriculum project using hip-hop, but the students began to collaborate among themselves — one borrowed from FW students techniques to increase dramatic expression. So eventually all students participated in a final 'cypher' (80), with self formed groups, although they had to include FW and non-FW, and could work with the artistic director. The point was to show how education research was 'melded' with this new cultural form. Before the public performance, they rehearsed, FW were particularly nervous about the limited time they had to develop their art, while the others are just nervous about performance. However the performances were 'seamless' and non-FW were sometimes prominent. Some of them admitted that they had never expected POC to be 'raising the critical questions and pushing the discourse'.

[Shame no examples really]

She included examples mostly from African-American, Latino and Southeast Asian immigrant cultures, and addressed a recent controversy about including Mexican-American studies in Arizonan schools. This demonstrated for her the need for change to meet new generations.

So gradually, culturally sustaining pedagogy worked and the other authors in this volume [?] show some developments. She had been taught the importance of theory in educational research at the beginning of her career, especially in Cohen's notion of '"status equalisation"' (81) which suggested that in the classroom, some students would disadvantaged 'just by virtue of who they are', the demographics limited their opportunities because they were used to make judgements about their abilities. Cohen had developed a remedial instructional strategy — 'cooperative learning'.

However, that was developed in very different ways, and became a mere activity, used to change the pace in classrooms. She learned that 'consumers of your ideas feel free to use (or abuse) your idea as they see fit'. She noticed the same with Zeichner and his notion of reflective teaching and how it had become a buzzword, especially at conferences, turned into some sort of process without content. Her own work on culturally relevant pedagogy has also had a life of its own and has become 'totally unrecognisable… often a distortion and corruption of the central ideas I attempted to promulgate' (82). People had added some books about people of colour, had a particular ethnic celebration or posted diverse images. We need to remain vigilant and steadfast and guard against degradation

[Review of the contributions ensues]. Paris and Alim consider hip-hop but are critical of much of hip-hop education that currently exists, which is voyeuristic and trendy, and does not break with hegemonic hierarchy. McCartney and Lee talk of culturally revitalising pedagogy working with indigenous youth and trying to revitalise their disappearing languages and cultures, and wonder whether this can be done without national sovereignty.

In a coda, Ladson Billings says that we need more significant theoretical grounding, not just to abbreviate summaries of data but to explain why things happen. She likes Giroux and Simon on critical pedagogy, developed especially for 'the subaltern or underclass' (83). She recognises that 'in this era of state-mandated high-stakes testing', conventional 'mundane content and skill-focused curricula' cannot be ignored, but this requires teachers to take on a dual responsibility, to meet both demands.