Culturally Responsive Teaching: Enhancing Student Engagement and Digital Classroom Learning

Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) when practiced and implemented well, can help reduce students’ academic achievement gap. Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) “requires teachers to acquire particular knowledge, skills, and professional dispositions in order to effectively meet the social and academic needs of culturally diverse students.” (Good, 2008)

There is much literature on culturally responsive teaching in a western context but not so much in non-western contexts. Being an educator in Hong Kong exploring the topic of culturally responsive teaching, I considered the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong but also pondered how the topic of CRT impacts the way I structure learning in the age of online learning where classrooms are becoming increasingly borderless. With online learning, my students can technically be located anywhere in the world!

In this post, I’ll be exploring culturally sustaining pedagogical approaches, especially in an Asian context, that can enhance student engagement and digital classroom learning.

What is Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT)

Culture impacts education more than we think. It lies at the very heart of education and impacts the different aspects of education from curriculum, instruction, administration, to performance assessment. Whether we are conscious of it or not, culture shapes and influences the way we learn and teach because our thought, speech, behavior, values, and belief system are often strongly influenced by culture. (Gay, 2018) Culture helps give our lives meaning and order.

Culturally Responsive Teaching (or Culturally Relevant Teaching) is “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” (Ladson-Billings, 2009) Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) is about “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them. It teaches to and through the strengths of these students.” (Gay, 2018)

There is also the misconception that Culturally Responsive Teaching is all about using racial pride as a motivator for at-risk students. For example, using a successful ethnic minority high achiever as a role model to motivate at-risk students with the subliminal messaging, “If they can do it, you can too!” Now there is nothing implicitly wrong with this motivational tactic but Culturally Responsive Teaching is less about racial pride as it is about “mimicking students’ cultural learning styles and tools”, the strategies their family and community folks use to impart life skills to them before they even start school. (Hammond, 2015)

Unless teachers understand what is interfering with students’ performance, they cannot intervene appropriately to remove the obstacles to high achievement. Simply blaming students, their socioeconomic background, a lack of interest in and of motivation for learning, and poor parental participation in the educational process is not very helpful. The question of “why” continues to be unanswered.

Geneva Gay (2018)

Making Lessons Culturally Responsive

Teaching Chinese to Ethnic Minority Students in Hong Kong

In a study by Ng et al. (2021), the authors investigated the CRT competence of teachers in teaching Chinese to ethnic minorities in Hong Kong kindergartens. The study revealed that exposure to ethnic minority students played a part in the teachers’ CRT competence. Teachers from high concentration ethnic minority students demonstrated higher adaptability in their teaching methods, had a better understanding of ethnic minority cultures, were more caring, and had higher expectations of their ethnic minority students. Teachers from lower concentration ethnic minority kindergartens, on the other hand, had a more monocultural mindset in their teaching and were less competent in CRT.

Mastering Chinese is critical for ethnic minority students who cannot afford international education to succeed in local schools. Unfortunately, since the mother tongue of ethnic minorities is not Chinese, they tend to have lower proficiency in the Chinese language. Gao (2017) found that poor academic performance among ethnic minorities in Hong Kong bears a close correlation to their low level of proficiency in Chinese.

For Culturally Responsive Teaching to be successful, Ng et al. (2021) outlined 4 key factors:

(a) caring and high expectation teachers (or warm-demanding teachers) – teachers have a strong belief that all children should be capable of success in their academic studies regardless of their ethnicities and economic status (Ladson-Billings, 1995)

(b) teachers having multicultural ideology and disposition – teachers have a multicultural commitment and hold values of equality and cultural diversity in their deeper inner cultural notions (Vavrus, 2008).

(c) teacher understanding of the cultures of multicultural children – Teachers should have knowledge of the cultural aspects that are closely related to student learning such as multicultural children’s preferred learning styles, cultural values, traditions, and communicative patterns (Gay, 2002).

(d) teacher adjustment and transformation of curriculum and teaching – Culturally responsive teachers have the capacity to use the cultural characteristics and experiences of multicultural children as scaffoldings to facilitate these children’s learning (Brown, 2007)

Strategies for Making Lessons More Culturally Responsive

According to Hammond (2015), Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) leverages the fact that many diverse students come from oral cultural traditions and uses memory strategies to make learning sticky. CRT taps into the brain’s memory systems to transform static information into applicable knowledge. For instance, using rhythm and music to make information easier to remember, just like the ABC song. When designed and executed well, CRT practices can be helpful for all students, not just for minority students. Here are 3 strategies suggested by Hammond for making lessons more culturally responsive.

1) Gamify it

Unless we first pay attention, we cannot learn, remember, or understand something. Gaming is the best way to get the brain’s attention through call and response and this requires active processing. Oral traditions involve many similar tools found in gaming, like repetition, puzzle-solving, and connecting disparate things.

2) Make it social

In the African philosophy of “ubuntu”, a person’s sense of self is shaped by his/her relationships with other people. This concept suggests that “as a human being, you—your humanity, your personhood—you are fostered in relation to other people.” (Paulson, 2020) Therefore, if we design and organize learning in a way that encourages students to rely on each other, we are tapping into the diverse students’ gravitation towards community. An example of this is building team games into classroom activities. Hammond (2015) further suggests that “even making learning slightly competitive in a good-natured way increases students’ level of attention and engagement.”

3) Storify it

In oral traditions, stories play a big part in teaching lessons to children simply because that’s the way content is remembered. We tend to remember stories better and to use story structures to make sense of the world because that’s the way our brains are wired.

By turning learning content into a coherent narrative (story), teachers can help diverse students (and all students, really!) to learn more effectively. (Hammond, 2015)

Using Technology and Digital Content to Create Culturally Responsive Classrooms

Oftentimes, schools expect students to show up to class, leave behind all that they are, and take whatever schools offer. This expectation is not only unrealistic but also unfair to the students. In order to make learning effective, lessons need to be relevant to trigger student interest.

Culturally Responsive Teaching focuses on “students’ cultural knowledge and frames of reference.” In order to meet the learning needs of students, educators need to first learn who their students are. Fortunately, technology can help to close the learning gap. (Fingal, 2019). Here are some ways to make classrooms more culturally responsive using technology, especially in the context of teaching multicultural children in mainstream classrooms.


  • Translation – in addressing the needs of students and families whose native language is not English, the use of translation apps like Google Translate, iTranslate, or Reverso can help greatly with understanding and communication.
  • Livestreaming – educators can consider bringing families into schools virtually, especially for special events, through the use of livestreaming sites like YouTube Live, Facebook Live, or YouNow.
  • Web accessibility – in considering web accessibility, educators can consider including text-to-speech and translation tools, as well as using interactive images with ThingLink to provide information using multiple means.
  • Collaboration – Using video communication platforms like Google Hangouts, Zoom, and ePals to let students collaborate and communicate with people around the world. Teacher feedback also need not be limited to text feedback. Instead, educators might consider using personalized videos to provide feedback. (Fingal, 2019)


  • Promote Student Voice – promoting student voice involves listening to and acting on students’ preferences, interests, and perspectives in class. This in turn “helps students feel invested in their own learning and can ignite passions that will increase their persistence.” (St. John & Briel, 2017) In a study by Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations (2016) surveying students in grades 6-12, students who have a voice in learning, “are seven times more likely to be motivated to learn” as compared to students who didn’t believe they had a voice. In promoting student voice, teachers can leverage tools like Jamboard or Miro for students to brainstorm things they want to explore and learn about. Teachers might also consider whether the perspectives represented through class materials reflect class diversity. Students can be encouraged to go online to “seek out materials created by individuals who reflect the student body and community.” These can be in the form of blog posts, poetry, music, etc. (St. John & Briel, 2017)
  • Make Learning Contextual  – contextualizing the learning by tying the curriculum to students’ social communities can help make lessons more relevant to students. In   teaching on the topic of festivals especially in language education, the festivals observed by ethnic minority students can be included and digital interactive media such as virtual tours can be incorporated into lesson plans. The Google Arts & Culture is a great example of how educators can instantly bring treasures, stories and knowledge of over 2,000 cultural institutions from 80 countries into their classrooms. Here is an example from Incredible India which include virtual reality tours.
  • Blended Learning – “Blended learning is the thoughtful fusion of face-to-face and online learning experiences,” (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008). In blended learning, a student might attend an in-person classes supplement by doing revisions online, such as using an adaptive learning platform or an e-learning platform. An ethnic minority student who just got off a physical Chinese class can go home and continue learning by logging on to an e-learning platform that has videos of the teacher reading Chinese characters out loud so the student can listen and practice at his/her own pace at home.


For educators who wish to engage in Culturally Responsive Teaching, a shift in mindset is required. It requires the shifting of a cultural deficit perspective, i.e. “viewing that individuals from some cultural groups lack the ability to achieve just because of their cultural background.” (Silverman, 2011) It also requires a shift in subtractive views, i.e. “practices that remove students’ culture or language from classroom contexts, and assuming that students’ academic successes depend on the degree to which they give up their own cultures or linguistic practices or traditions to assimilate into mainstream culture.”

Instead, CRT requires that educators include multiple perspectives in curriculum design and actively reviewing existing practices. It also requires better teacher education and more exposure to CRT for teachers. Admittedly, Culturally Responsive Teaching alone is not the panacea for improving the education of marginalized students. The education establishment and policy reform also need to change in order for improvement to take place. (Gay, 2018)


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