Culture & Beliefs in the Classroom

Teaching & Learning Strategies in an Indigenous Context  //  Week One


How does our culture and beliefs impact the class room? It is important that as teachers we know our students so that we can understand and use their life experiences and prior knowledge to help connect new information with what they already know, and when doing so we must be culturally competent.

Culturally competent; a person is culturally competent if they have the capacity or ability to understand, interact and communicate effectively, and with sensitivity, with people from different backgrounds.

When we are able to do this, we are able to understand a students identity in many ways – for instance, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander identity is about ancestry and country of origin; about seeing oneself as Aboriginal. It is not about skin colour, DNA or bloodlines. Identity is very personal, and it evolves for each person as they learn more about their own cultural background – and so it is paramount that when teaching, all cultures are included and represented in the classroom as not to exclude any one group or individual.


What we may understand to be rude or inappropriate from one student may be a sign of respect or understanding from another student. For example, a student avoiding eye contact could be seen as a disrespectful gesture when in terms of a white western individual, whilst in some cultures casting the eyes down may be demonstrating respect for the person speaking. In diverse classrooms, we must make it our goal to immerse ourselves in the different cultural backgrounds of our students so that we can come to understand them completely. Information about students’ worlds is important information that teachers need when creating a learning environment. A few important things for us to find out are;

  • How students are taught at home or how they have learned best so far; do they lean by watching or listening or doing?
  • How questioning is used in the home and community; a question-answer pattern plays a major part in teaching and learning what students already know, however a response of silence is used in a positive way in Aboriginal conversation which may be interpreted as ignorance or shyness if the culture is not understood
  • Classroom behaviors; are students independent learners? are they familiar with following instructions from adults?
  • Languages, dialects, and tone; written or oral languages, gestures and body language
  • Expectations and consequences; do your students know the expectations and goals you have for them? Are your students used to rules? What expectations exist in their homes?
  • Classroom relationships; you might need to establish closer or different relationships with your Indigenous students to build trust that is needed for engagement and respect. Parents of your students might need to know and trust you in order to maximize the attendance of students. DID YOU KNOW it is offensive in some cultures to publicly draw attention to errors or successes of students.
  • Context and relevance; students will deeply engage with tasks that are meaningful and relevant to them
  • Knowledge about learning; Are your students holistic or incremental learners? Do you know if they know how to provide feedback to you? Do they know it is OK to ask for help and how to do so?

When we listen to our students, we learn from our students and we can begin to see the world from their perspective. Students can feel empowered when they are taken seriously and attended to as knowledgeable participants in learning conversations and can feel motivated to participate constructively in their education. But we need to give them that opportunity.


It’s important to recognize differences between students’ cultures, languages, existing knowledge, ways of learning, relationships, and worldviews. In recognizing and acknowledging differences, teachers can then seek to learn more about them in order to better understand the students and their individual needs. If assumptions are made on behalf of a culture or individual, the likelihood of the student not earning what they have been taught increases. We need to cater for all walks of life, all types of learning and all cultural differences and understandings.


Many individuals in the teaching profession would consider themselves to be non-racist which is required for a healthy and welcoming learning environment – particularly when working with students from a different cultural background. Even if our classrooms are not overly diverse, the values and teachings about racism in the class is incredibly important. A teachers, we are very powerful position of being change agents. We can model and nurture equity or we can model and nurture the inequity status quo; if prejudice and racism exist in a society, we can either continue the prejudice and racism (including failing to recognize it) or we can deliberately act to eliminate it. How will you deal with this situation in a class? How would your personal experiences or beliefs or culture shape your actions?

Sometimes people can be racist or make people feel they are being treated differently on the basis of their skin colour  through certain often unintentional behaviors;

  • having lower expectations or standards for some students with statements such as “these results are really good for these kids
  • talking to white students while they are waiting to enter the classroom, but not engaging with Aboriginal students
  • making Indigenous parents and families feel inferior or unwelcome through the way they are looked at or treated
  • not including higher-order thinking in lessons because “these kids won’t be able to do it”
  • giving Indigenous students “busy work” to do rather than challenging them
  • posters in the classroom representing only one culture
  • not listening seriously to students or being prepared to learn from them
  • behaving in ways that make students feel they are inferior or need “fixing”

Our ideas of a culture are shaped by what we know and what we learn about that culture and the people that are a part of it; from stories. In her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the idea of how stories can make or break stereotypes and cultural views, and that “single stories make stereotypes; whilst they may be true, they are incomplete”. This discussion reveals of how our views of a culture or people can be caged by a single story, that to reflect on only one flattens our experiences and understandings; that if we show a people as only one thing, then that is what they become.


In order to really know people from another cultural group, we need to know ourselves to compare our experiences and understand and accept differences. Simply having knowledge is not enough to be culturally responsive; teachers need to be willing to learn to understand their students, they need to be willing to become students of their students and their cultures.

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to disposes and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower and humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people,but stories can also repair that broken dignity”

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Deficit thinking; people that believe that because of who their students are, they are not able to learn what is expected

Agentic thinking; when teachers really believe that they can make a difference for students and realize that all students have gained strengths because of who they are.


Perso. T & Hayward C. (2015)
Teaching Indigenous Students

TED Talks
The Danger of a Single Story
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie




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