What is culture?

Culture is the complex phenomenon that includes the changing worldviews, knowledge, values, traditions, beliefs, capabilities, and social and political relationships of a group of people that give meaning to and influence their life and actions. This means that culture goes beyond visible and tangible aspects, such as food or dress, to include more implicit behaviours to do with social roles, behaviours, communication and beliefs. Culture is shared between and learnt in groups of people that are bound together by a common history, location, language, religion or social class, yet it is multifaceted and dynamic, so that there are variations between individuals within cultural groups.

Why culturally responsive pedagogies are important

Culturally responsive pedagogies can reduce the gaps between the highest and lowest achievers while at the same time raising overall levels of achievement. Research shows that culturally responsive pedagogies raise student achievement for all cultural groups, ensuring that all students are given the encouragement and support to realise their educational potential regardless of their social, economic or cultural background or individual needs.

Many schools and teachers struggle to engage students from cultural backgrounds that differ from the dominant culture represented in mainstream school. New Zealand has one of the widest achievement gaps in the OECD, meaning that, while some students are performing at very high levels, others are performing at extremely low levels. When other variables are taken into account, achievement in New Zealand’s education system can be delineated by culture and ethnicity. In particular, Māori and Pasifika students and students from low socio-economic backgrounds do not achieve at the same levels as other cultural groups. Disciplinary issues are also more prevalent in students from cultural backgrounds that differ from the mainstream culture of schools.

While student diversity is increasing, there is a general lack of diversity amongst New Zealand’s teachers. Cultural gaps between students and teachers, when left unaddressed, can lead to misunderstandings of teacher expectations on the part of the student, or of student behaviour on the part of the teacher. Most schools, teachers, curriculum documents and texts reflect, transmit and reproduce the discourse, knowledge and values of the mainstream culture, while excluding or negating those of minority or diverse groups. When students’ home background is the same as or similar to the mainstream culture, school activities are familiar, and they can easily build on their cultural understandings to learn school content. When the cultural knowledge and values of students from diverse backgrounds do not correspond or perhaps conflict with the expectations, values and knowledge of school, students who cannot or do not want to participate in the dominant discourse may be marginalised and fail.

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