Turn the Page: Looking Beyond the Textbook for Culturally-Responsive Curriculum
Recently, Education Week published an article describing culturally-questionable activities and language found in Studies Weekly, a social studies curriculum used by more than 13,000 schools across the country. As the leader of an education company, it was a sobering reminder of the complexities and responsibilities involved in creating curriculum.
This responsibility goes far beyond ensuring factual accuracy; it extends to creating culturally-responsive curriculum that not only integrates the experiences of diverse cultures and historically underrepresented groups, but also actively engages cultural learning styles and scaffolds students toward freedom of thought and independence.
Of course, curriculum is only a small part of what’s needed to create culturally-responsive classrooms. Schools must commit themselves to the effort. They must be willing to invest the time and resources necessary to support teachers as they critically examine and develop their practice. No curriculum can be a substitute for that deep and difficult work.
But curriculum can and should support that work in every way it can. Study after study has demonstrated that high-quality curricular resources play a vital role in improving student learning. And according to Zaretta Hammond, teacher educator and author of “Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain,” that’s the aim of culturally-responsive teaching: to build “the learning capacity of the individual student.”
So how can curriculum publishers and educational companies be meaningful partners in creating culturally-responsive classrooms? The truth is there’s no one simple solution, no bandaid to fix existing resources by swapping out a few words here and there, or rewriting the questions on a worksheet.
Culturally-responsive curriculum can’t be delivered by an algorithm any more than it can by a static textbook
We must—quite literally—throw out the book on how we create and deliver curriculum to teachers and students. To do this, educational companies need to rise to several key challenges.
Commit to the Work
We must roll up our sleeves and do the same kind of difficult, introspective work that is happening at the schools that use our curriculum. We must conduct critical analyses of our instructional materials to identify bias, ensure representation, and embed responsive practices. This work has to be more important than our sales or overall bottom line.
We must also reflect the work. Are we committed to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in hiring as we build out our teams? Do we set aside regular time to refine these goals and reflect on our progress? Are we requiring DEI professional learning and development for our team members?
Promote Student Agency
Curriculum is far more than content. It’s an instructional guidance system that either consciously or unconsciously promotes specific pedagogies.
Traditional curriculum—not surprisingly—has promoted a direct instructional model in which the teacher or text is the ultimate source of knowledge. This kind of curriculum can never be truly culturally-responsive because its goal is not to develop the independence of the learner. We must consciously prioritize in our curriculum those pedagogies that honor student voice and choice, develop students’ critical questioning and thinking skills, and scaffold them toward greater independence. Inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, and other deeper learning instructional approaches promote these aspects of student agency, and we should embrace their methods in our curriculum.
Move Beyond a Static Textbook
The technology exists to revolutionize how we deliver curriculum to teachers, but most schools still rely on printed textbooks as the main source for curricular materials. That’s a problem because a textbook can’t respond when context shifts, when meaning changes, or when new voices emerge that offer historically-underrepresented perspectives.
I’m not recommending that we sit students in front of computer screens. Culturally-responsive curriculum can’t be delivered by an algorithm any more than it can by a static textbook. But we can focus our technological solutions on supporting the practicing classroom teacher. In fact, the challenges articulated below necessitate a new approach to delivering curriculum.
Create Feedback Loops
Our team spends countless hours vetting every source and activity. We seek feedback from independent practitioners to uncover bias. But the reality is, despite all these efforts, I know that sometimes we will still get it wrong. Sources and activities will make it through that carry implicit bias. Using technology to deliver curriculum provides channels for feedback and revisions that are not possible in printed texts. We should ensure that we embed clear mechanisms that not only allow educators to provide feedback but also enable curriculum writers to respond to this feedback in real time.
Support and Empower Teachers to Customize for Their Classroom
Curriculum on its own has little value. In the hands of a skilled teacher, however, it can transform outcomes for all learners. Curriculum must, therefore, be accompanied by deep, connected, professional learning that encourages teacher reflection and supports the analysis of instructional practice and student learning.
In order for a curriculum to reach a diverse range of learners, it can’t be a one-size-fits-all model. We must provide teachers with the ability to customize unit structure and learning activities, select from a range of primary and secondary sources, and adapt assessments to meet the needs of all learners.
These challenges will not be easy to meet. But that is the work we must do. It is a monumental, ongoing task; one that requires all of our humility, ingenuity, and courage.