What is Culturally Responsive Teaching? An Expert Interview with Dr. Loui Lord Nelson

tags: Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education Linking Research to Classrooms: A Blog for Educators

April 3, 2018


The concept of culturally responsive teaching has been making the rounds on social media.  Education Consultant, Lisa Carey, decided to dig a little deeper into this topic by speaking with Dr. Loui Lord Nelson, author of the book Culturally Responsive Design for English Learners: The UDL Approach and find out more about what it means to be culturally responsive. 

LC: Your book focuses on meeting the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students. Can you describe what that means?

LLN: Culturally diverse students are those whose culture differs from the majority represented by the people designing the instruction or for whom the instruction was designed. Put another way, in 2012 the National Center for Education Statistics reported that over 82% of teachers in the US were white and approximately 49% of public school students were non-white. Those particular statistics do not identify students who are white but are from outside the United States or even other diverse groups of students identified as white from the U.S. Ultimately, there’s room for a lack of understanding, communication, and quality instruction based on cultural differences. Linguistically diverse students would be those who do not speak English, the predominant language used to teach in American classrooms.

Our book brings together these two descriptors to remind readers (a) students who are English learners have strong cultural backgrounds that can enrich any learning environment, and (b) many English speaking students come from cultures outside of the dominant culture of our schools. Again, the experiences of these students can enrich any learning environment.

LC: Your book suggests using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) to meet the needs of diverse learners. Can you briefly describe these two frameworks and how they work together?

LLN: UDL is a collection of evidence-based practices from across the fields of general education, special education, psychology, educational psychology, and neuropsychology and are organized based on what the neuro (brain) sciences have taught us.  UDL is a one-stop-shop when you want to determine what practices you should use in your environment (e.g., classroom) so you can support the growth of expert learners (i.e., those who are purposeful, motivated, resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed). To effectively shop in this store, though, you need to frame your choice of any practice as a way to create accessible, flexible, goal-driven, and choice-filled learning environments.

In 2010, Geneva Gay defined culturally responsive teaching as “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant and effective for them.” What I appreciate about this definition is its emphasis on getting to know the student, valuing that student’s background, and designing instructional experience that are not only relevant but meet their needs.

The overlap between the two is strong. First, both seek to design learning environments where the student feels comfortable, welcome, valued as a learner, and viewed as a learner who is expected to grow. Next, both seek to design a learning environment where learning needs and preferences are met. Where I see UDL enhancing CRT is the concept of learner variability – recognizing that all learners learn differently because everyone has a unique brain. When using the UDL framework, we’re planning for that systematic learner variability we know will be present in our classrooms. Extending this to CRT, most of us have a sense of what cultures will be present in our classroom based on the overall representation in our school. From that same data, we also have a sense of the academic needs and strengths that will likely be present. By beginning from that knowledge set, we can begin using the principles of UDL and guiding principles of CRT defined by Brown University  to guide our design choices even before the students enter our learning environments.

LC: How can classroom teachers incorporate CRT into their lesson planning to better meet the needs of their students?

First, get to know the breadth of CRT.  We reference the principles laid out by Brown University in our book because they are clearly described with examples and are easily accessible. After that, I suggest starting where you feel you can be most effective. Maybe you have been focusing on setting student expectations this year. One of the principles is communicating high expectations. You could weave that new learning into the strategies you are currently using. Or, maybe your goal this year is to know your students better, so you focus on the principle of learning within the culture of context. You decide to focus more on helping students identify how they learn from their family and community members similarly and/or differently than how they learn at school. As they articulate these pieces of their identity, have them reflect on what works well and why? Who is involved? What is the topic? Why are they learning it? Help them establish learning connections between home/community and school by acknowledging the differences, what could be brought into the school environment, and what gifts the students bring to their learning based on their home/community learning.

LC: Why do you believe it is important for teachers to consider culture when designing their instruction and learning environments?

Culture is an automatic and inherent part of each of us. It guides who we are, how we teach, and how we learn. Instead of narrowly defining CRT as a representation of cultures in the curriculum, look more broadly at all “learning encounters,” as stated by Geneva Gay. This way, we have the opportunity to reflect on teaching as more than the delivery of curriculum. Teaching involves constant interactions with our students and unless we reflect on how our culture impacts those interactions and how our students’ cultures impact those interactions, we set ourselves up to diminish learning opportunities. All interactions create a basis for learning; understanding and purposefully integrating the principles of CRT in partnership with UDL expands the accessibility of the learning environment.


Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice.  New York: Teacher College Press.

Ralabate, P. K., & Nelson, L. L. (2017). Culturally responsive design for English learners: The UDL Approach. Wakefield, MA: CAST Publishing.

U.S. Department of Education, Policy and Program Studies Service Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. (2016). The state of racial diversity in the educator workforce. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/highered/racial-diversity/state-racial-diversity-workforce.pdf

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