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Understanding Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

Written by: Naashia Mohamed
Published on: Aug 2, 2021

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy
Image credit: Blend Images/Getty Images

In recent years, there have been many calls to transform approaches to schooling in pluralistic societies that have treated the languages, cultures, and ways of being of people of colour as deficiencies that have to be overcome to succeed both in and out of school.

Scholars have proposed a range of educational frameworks that can be adopted to engage learners whose experiences and cultures are traditionally excluded from mainstream settings, and adopt ways of repositioning their linguistic, literate, and cultural practices as resources and identity-affirming assets.

Such culturally responsive pedagogical approaches will empower students not only academically but also socially, emotionally, and politically. Given the range of different frameworks that promote culturally responsive pedagogies, (e.g., culturally relevant teaching, culturally responsive teaching, and culturally congruent teaching) let us turn to see what the terms really mean and how the frameworks sustain the cultures of minoritized students.

What Is Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy?

Ladson-Billings (1995) introduced the term culturally relevant pedagogy over two decades ago, based on her work with effective teachers of African American students. She outlined three goals to be attained if teaching was to be culturally relevant.

Goals of Culturally Relevant Teaching

  1. Teaching must yield academic success.
  2. Teaching must nurture positive ethnic and cultural identities in all students while supporting them to achieve academically.
  3. Teaching must help students to make sense of and critique inequalities that exist in societies.

Building on Ladson-Billings’ work, Gay (2010) proposed a framework that she referred to as culturally responsive teaching. She called for educators to centralise the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of culturally minoritized students by making positive changes not only at the level of instructional strategies, but by transforming the classroom climate to be more culturally responsive to the students’ needs and perspectives. This included changes to teaching materials, teacher-student relationships, and incorporating critical thinking and self-reflection to encourage students to acquire high expectations of academic success, develop sociocultural competence, and practice critical consciousness to help them critique and interrupt social inequities. According to Gay, culturally responsive teachers should make the following changes to their classroom practice:

Practices of Culturally Responsive Teachers

  1. Assist students in restructuring their attitudes and beliefs by replacing deficit perspectives with asset-based perspectives.
  2. Understand and resist opposition to asset-based approaches in educating linguistically, culturally, and ethnically diverse students.
  3. Make culture a central focus and understand the ideologies, characteristics, and contributions from all groups in society.
  4. Connect instructional practices to the sociocultural characteristics of students and teachers.

Django Paris (2012) further expanded these approaches to move beyond using the culture and language that students bring to the classroom as bridges to schooling success. He collaborated with H. Samy Alim (Paris & Alim, 2017), to claim that practitioners need to think of using schooling to support young people in sustaining the cultural and linguistic practices of their communities and build positive identities, while simultaneously granting them access to the dominant cultural competence of the society. They called this broader, more holistic approach culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP). Ladson-Billings (2014), who initially proposed culturally relevant pedagogylauds CSP as a “remix” of her approach with an added focus on sustaining the static and evolving cultures of students to better prepare them for pluralistic, multicultural, and multilingual societies.

While CSP is a broad approach that can be applicable to all groups and communities in a society, scholars working within the field of indigenous education have reframed CSP as culturally sustaining/revitalising pedagogy. They maintain the premise and components of CSP, but interlace these with a focus to revitalise the indigenous languages and cultures that have suffered and continue to suffer under settler colonialism.

These asset-based pedagogies decentre Whiteness and reframe English-monolingual xenophobic gazes to move beyond empowering individual students to build a sense of collective empowerment for minoritized communities in society. In the instruction to their 2017 volume on culturally sustaining pedagogies, Paris and Alim (2017) ask us to “reimagine schools as sites of diverse, heterogenous practices [that] are not only valued, but sustained” (p. 4) and to critique oppressive systems that view success “in terms of a unidirectional assimilation into whiteness” (p. 3).

But Does It Work?

You might think that in an age where calls to rebalance racial, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural inequities have reached a tipping point, these pedagogical proposals are to be expected, but how do we know whether they actually work?

Many studies that have investigated culturally relevant, responsive, and sustaining pedagogies have highlighted their benefits. For example, studies in cognition and education have found that drawing on the funds of knowledge that students bring into the classroom builds on their worldview and prior understanding, which helps to shape comprehension of new information. Research in classroom practice indicates that when instructional resources reflect students’ backgrounds and experiences, students are more likely to engage in deep and meaningful learning. Though this is true for any student, studies that have focused on minoritized students show that with the use of CSP, positive changes can be observed in students’ academic achievement and attendance. Students are also observed to show greater interest in school and have higher levels of persistence in academic and social activities.

At a broader level, CSP can help to establish intercultural competence and develop an inclusive school culture that values diversity and recognises the strengths and contributions of all students and communities. Studies have shown that when young people develop strong racial, ethnic, and cultural identities, they

  • show positive academic attitudes,
  • have higher levels of self-esteem,
  • are better able to navigate discrimination, and
  • are more interested in befriending people from all backgrounds.

Globalisation has created increasingly diverse societies everywhere across the world. CSP offers a way to support all students to learn in ways that honour their own and others’ cultural heritage and lived realities.


  • Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press.
  • Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491.
  • Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. the Remix. Harvard Educational Review, 1.
  • Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93–97.
  • Paris, D., & Alim, S. (2017). Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world. Teachers College Press.