Cultural Competency in Instructional Design

Describing the context in which I teach is a tricky endeavor. I have taught middle school in the US, both as a teacher and as an instructional assistant, however the majority of my teaching has been internationally. My international students have ranged from Grade 5 to Grade 8; most are from what could be considered privileged backgrounds as their parents are local political and business leaders, or expatriates working for Non-Governmental Agencies, business entrepreneurs or the children of local and expatriate school staff. Currently, I am working as a behavior and speech therapist for two children (both boys) on the Autism Spectrum Disorder; one of my kiddos is about 30 months, the other is six-years old.

Given my experience teaching in ethnically diverse classroom, it is nonetheless incumbent that I approach cultural diversity with care. Just because I have lived and worked in diverse cultural settings, I am not immune to the cultural conditioning of my own background. My perspective is colored by my own unique set of experiences, socioeconomic background, gender, spiritual leanings and all the other aspects that make me uniquely me. Likewise, though my students are typically from well-educated, affluent backgrounds, their individual needs based upon their unique cultural background coupled with a distinctive life experience undermine any effort to neatly package any one student as a “typical ___________”. With this thought in mind, the statement regarding cultural competency that strongly resonated with me comes from Passports, Cultural Competency for Teachers found on the Oregon Public Broadcasting website, “It is an understanding of the hidden rules within different economic and cultural structures in order to have productive relationships with students.” All societies and cultures have rules (customs) for interaction. I expect that when I am introduced to someone for the first time that we will shake hands. However, when living in Egypt, I had to learn that some devout Muslim men would place fabric between their hand and mine; it was considered inappropriate for an unrelated man and woman’s hands to touch. This rule was easy for me to discover, it only took one interaction (and explanation by an Egyptian friend) why this happened. What wasn’t evident were the myriad other “rules” governing male/female relations in Egypt. Some I learned, others I did not, but once I was able to begin to understand the origins and reasoning behind the rules, it was easier for me to interact socially and in the workplace. I didn’t always like these cultural rules, but they were not mine to like or dislike, merely observing to the best of my ability.

Hence, I look to my culturally diverse student’s individuality and humanness as inspiration and guidance in my instructional practices. When I taught in Mongolia, one of my students (the daughter of a TA at my school) lived with her mother and extended family in a traditional felt house called a Ger; we know them as the Russian name, yurt. What does living in a Ger entail? Water must be purchased and carried to the home from a public water tower; showers are communal and are also paid for. An outhouse is the norm and heat comes from a traditional (and inefficient) coal-fired stove that causes the hair and clothing to smell like, well, coal smoke. My students’ mother told me that the teacher the year prior had announced that she and her daughter lived in a Ger to the class, and students made fun of her daughter for smelling like coal smoke. This student contacted hepatitis towards the end of the school year; she was in the hospital for six weeks while she recovered. When designing instruction, I had to take into consideration that this student did not have internet access at home, that her mother wasn’t a fluent speaker of English, that while the expatriate students left the country for holiday to visit Thailand or Australia or Europe, this student and the other TA’s children spent their time in-country and would have no amazing vacation story to tell upon return to classes. Contrast this student’s experience with what one could imagine the Head of State’s daughter’s life was like; she was a student in my class the year prior. I had to consciously remind myself that while I held the same standards for conduct, homework completion and effort as the other students, I could not expect more simply because of who her father is. This scenario is repeated to differing degrees in all the classrooms that I have taught. One must not downplay the differences that socioeconomic class play within the dynamic of a classroom.

Currently, I have the opportunity to work one-on-one with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) techniques. Though I am not in a traditional classroom setting, my experience working in my student’s home has had a profound impact on my understanding related to this student population. Not only do I get an insider’s glimpse at the struggles and effort it takes to parent learning disordered students (there are three siblings with ASD in this household), I can see first-hand how issues such as parent education level, family dynamics and household resources impact student learning. While I do not plan to pursue a Master’s degree in ABA, I have nonetheless been able to receive training and have conducted independent research that will enhance my ability to employ research-based instructional practices when I return to a traditional classroom.

As I hone my instructional practices and thinking around meeting the needs of all students with equity, I have another chance to reflect on and refine my philosophy of grading and homework policies. My thoughts surrounding grading policies have shifted dramatically since taking the Standards-based Assessment course autumn term; I believe that school districts should focus on developing and communicating curriculum (including assessment) that is based on State standards. I now believe that non-academic behavior and dispositions (attendance, punctuality, citizenship, etc.) should be reported separately. I am still working-out what “zero-less” grading would look like in practice but I have come to realize that a bunch of zeros on the grade book do not communicate a student’s achievement. My thinking at this point is that if my instructional practices are sound, including a culturally relevant curriculum, endemic missing and/or late work will not be much of an issue. Likewise, I must consider how cultural differences around the value of homework can and should play a role in my expectations and instructional strategies. It appears that the research says, according The Wallace Foundation (2013) “homework has both positive and negative effects.” My direct experience with homework is that it is very much culturally biased; in addition to considering the cultural value (or not) placed on homework, I must consider the value to enhancing student learning. Assigning it “just because” is not a good enough reason.

One instructional practice that I have spent a good deal of time thinking about and experimenting with is student grouping. I believe that student grouping should be a deliberate decision made to engage and expand student comprehension, skills, intrapersonal relations and learner dispositions. This will look different depending upon the task at hand, but should include both hetero and homogenous groupings; it is important to provide opportunities for different pairings/grouping to work together. According to the Wallace Foundation (2013) “Relatively high expectations for learning, a faster pace of instruction, peer models of effective learning and curricula that are more challenging are among the reasons offered for this advantage.” One of my goals for this course is to hone my ability to group students and offer support in guiding their interaction in ways that are mutually advantageous for all learning abilities. This will help me to ensure that instruction and expectations are high for all students, regardless of their ethnic/cultural background.

One of my assumptions regarding curriculum have been that if my students are engaged with higher order thinking tasks and projects, that good learning is happening. In the past, I have assumed that I am fairly competent at designing curriculum, but admittedly have a LOT to learn! I suspect that I still don’t know what I don’t know, yet. For example, when I was teaching grade 5 Primary Year Programme (PYP) at an IB World School, I didn’t fully grasp what I am now beginning to understand is a constructivist approach to learning. I taught different units of inquiry that focused around a central idea. My students engaged in much reflecting on their learning and were encouraged to examine any preexisting conceptions in light of the knew learning that was taking place, but I question whether I was truly acting as a facilitator? Exploring the strategies and practices of a Constructivist framework will provide me with an opportunity for research-informed reflection on my past and future practices in this area.

Another area that I am interested in expIoring further is the role that vocational programs can play in creating relevance for some students. There seems to be an undercurrent of thinking that reasons if a student chooses not to go to college that they have somehow failed. It seems that through the absence of schools offering traditional shop classes that could lead to a career in “The Trades” and other apprenticeship programs, student needs are not being served. For many students the relevance simply isn’t there. This is a link (Project H )to a response that I wrote for a Web 2.0 class last year after watching Ted Talk presenter Emily Pilloton of Project H Design.

Essentially, her company utilized design in an underserved, rural community as a means to foster community change and educational opportunities for students. Some of the students engaged in the project went on to a traditional four-year college, while others did not. But, all gained valuable hands-on work experience in their project-based learning that was rigorous, relevant as well as being a college-prep course. Project-based learning utilizing technology and mechanical skills should not be undervalued.

My final thoughts are in relation to Wanda Brown’s statement in the Achievement Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee (January 2010)“…the achievement gap is evidence of the inadequacies of our education system, not our students’ ability to learn. All students can learn – the question is whether we give all students equitable opportunities or access to the tools they need to learn (p. 3).” Reimaging an achievement gap as an opportunity gap, as the committee does, squarely places the responsibility for education all students, regardless of cultural or socioeconomic background back on educators. Increasing cultural competency amongst educators is a first step, but truly, systemic change within schools and the community at large must occur before dynamic and long-lasting change will take hold. This dispelling of misconceptions and prejudice doesn’t occur overnight; it will be a long, tedious process that will require dedication and cooperation, community outreach and building. Without this fundamental shift in educational ideology, even the best instructional practices won’t close the opportunity gap.


Classroom Conditions (2013). Retrieved from:

Closing Opportunity Gaps (2010). Retrieved from:

Cultural Competency For Teachers. Retrieved from:

Emily Pilloton: Teaching Design for Change. Retrieved from:


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