Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: Moving Below the Surface

by Dr. Michelle Yzquierdo 

The Cultural Proficiency Continuum 

As the demographics of the nation’s students become increasingly more diverse, we often find ourselves in front of beautiful children who do not look or sound like us. Many in education compensate for this difference by adopting the perspective of color-blindness, acting as though cultural differences are insignificant or do not matter. When looking at the cultural proficiency continuum (see Figure 1), which describes how an entity responds to diversity, one can see that being color-blind is certainly a better option than being culturally destructive or culturally incapacitated. And often, when educators embrace a color-blind philosophy, they do so with the best of intentions, misguided as they may sometimes be. Claims such as,  “I don’t see race,” or, “I treat all my kids the same,” are often the banner responses of a color-blind individual. Truthfully, I probably uttered similar phrases when I was a new teacher. But the reality is that culture does matter, and to be effective and engaging with an increasingly diverse student body, we educators must strive to move along the continuum into cultural competence and cultural proficiency.

Cross, et al., 1989

Aspects of Surface Culture

How does one become culturally proficient? There is certainly no shortage of blogs, webinars, articles, books, and trainings on how to respond appropriately to diverse students. Many of these resources recommend such things as celebrating diverse student holidays, hosting cultural exchange nights and international family events, purchasing books and other educational materials that reflect the diversity of your students, and representing your diverse students in your physical classroom space by posting maps, flags, and other diverse artifacts. These ideas are certainly worthy of consideration and are great examples of how to create a welcoming environment for your diverse students. In fact, I suggest many of them in my book, Pathways to Greatness for ELL Newcomers: A Comprehensive Guide for Schools and Teachers. But being culturally proficient is more than engaging in welcoming practices such as having a diverse student bookshelf, acknowledging Chinese New Year, serving tamales for parent/teacher night, greeting your Indian students with “namaste,” or learning a few words of Arabic. For those of you who have mastered surface culture values (and have a great tamale recipe), I challenge you to explore aspects of deep culture (see Figure 2).

Aspects of Deep Culture

One of the reasons educators tend to gravitate toward aspects of surface culture is that they are tangible. I can see that the food my students and their families eat is different from the food I eat. I know that my students celebrate different holidays than perhaps I celebrate. Surface culture values are relatively easy to research and incorporate into daily interactions with students and their families.

Conversely, aspects of deep culture are often an enigma, perhaps even to the individual who possesses them. There are many examples of deep culture influencing our behavior and our interpersonal interactions, yet most of us are unaware of these. Also, it is much more challenging to incorporate deep culture values into our work as educators. Consider the following two examples and how they might have social, emotional, or instructional implications for our diverse students and their families.

Views on Time: Clock Time Versus Event Time

Western cultures, including the United States, tend to subscribe to clock time, where time is linear, and individuals let an external clock dictate when tasks begin and end. “Time is money” is an often-repeated phrase, and time is seen as limited in supply. Time is often measured with deadlines and due dates, and failure to meet those deadlines is often viewed as the result of a poor work ethic, poor time management, or lack of motivation.

Conversely, many other cultures around the world subscribe to event time, where time is viewed as cyclical and endless, and tasks are planned relative to other tasks. Individuals in an event time culture transition to another task when the first task is complete, and relationships often take precedence over any deadlines or due dates. It can be helpful to think about what challenges a student or a family from an event time culture might have with our highly scheduled school days, which are compartmentalized into chunks of time by a daily bell schedule and full of deadlines and due dates. 

Views on Authority: Low Versus High Power Distance

Power distance is a measure reflecting the relative extent to which individuals accept and expect unequal power distributions. Simply put, some cultures are more accepting of unequal power distribution (high power-distance cultures) than others (low power-distance cultures).

A high power-distance culture (Latin America, Arab countries, and parts of Asia) will have an obvious hierarchy of power among members. There may be power differences related to gender and age, among others. These cultures emphasize the importance of obedience, and schools tend to be more teacher-centered, discipline is paramount, and there is a clearly defined role of obedience and subordination expected from students. Teachers are the keepers of the information that is to be bestowed upon the students.

In comparison, in a low power-distance culture, like the United States, power is more evenly distributed among members. There is more equality among genders, and children are seen more as equals. Schools tend to be more learner-centered, and students are encouraged to explore and form their own ideas and opinions while the teacher facilitates the learning. Differences in power distance have potential implications for students and could very well be a point of culture clash for diverse families as well.

So What?

On your journey to cultural proficiency, exploring and implementing some of the ideas above that address surface culture values is a fantastic first step. This has been considered low-hanging fruit within the districts I’ve worked in. In addition, I would encourage you to explore some of the cultural values toward the bottom of the iceberg, below the surface of the water. These deeper cultural values have a profound impact on the way our students relate to us and to each other, and they have the potential to greatly influence student success in school. The more we learn and understand other cultures’ values (both surface and deep culture), the more we will be able to empathize, engage, and adapt effectively to our beautiful, diverse students and their families.


Cross, T., Bazron, B., Dennis, K., & Isaacs, M. (1989). Towards a culturally competent system of care, volume 1 . Washington, DC:CASSP Technical Assistance Center, Center for Child Health and Mental Health Policy, Georgetown University Child Development Center.

Hofstede, G. (2011). Dimensionalizing Cultures: The Hofstede Model in Context. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1).

Schwartz, S. H. (2008). Cultural value orientations: Nature and implications of national differences. Jerusalem, Israel: The Hebrew University.

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