How can teachers attune to students’ cultures?

I recently returned from a long-awaited trip to Guam. As a member of the NSF INCLUDES SEAS Islands Alliance research team, I was there to study how Indigenous/diasporic islanders, who have historically been underrepresented in the geosciences, maintain identity and a sense of belonging to their heritage culture, while developing STEM identities and a sense of belonging to the STEM community. In Indigenous/diasporic settings, in-person research is particularly effective. Personal relationships, which can take many years to cultivate, are vitally important to garner trust and foster genuine community participation in research activities. This is not just a question of geographic distance or lack of sophisticated technology, it is a matter of cultural protocol. We gain the most trust when we meet with participants in the same space, and essentially breathe the same air. The cultural context matters when conducting research. It also matters when teaching.

Girl takes a water sample

Photo by Z. Johnson

The local cultural knowledge that students bring to learning—their community-based values, beliefs, and perspectives—have great influence over how they approach schooling in general.[1][2][3] Knowing science content is necessary but not sufficient to be an effective teacher. Science teachers of Indigenous learners must know how to broker knowledge systems—to help learners compare Western science and Indigenous science. One knowledge system is not better than the other, though they may serve different purposes. Both systems are equally valid ways of making sense of the natural world.

Teachers may know that it is good to link instruction with students’ background knowledge—including cultures and ways of knowing—but they may not have concrete examples, images, or direct experiences with how to do so. Strategies that teachers use in the classroom to make content more accessible to students from different backgrounds and cultures are neither well-defined nor well supported through teacher preparation.[4][5] Not only is it rare that teachers know how it might look, sound, and feel to use teaching strategies that support cultural inclusion from lesson to lesson or moment to moment, it is also unlikely that teachers have had training or developed a professional vision for ways of teaching that are most helpful to Indigenous learners.[6] This disconnect between students’ lived experiences and what teachers know about the local community is a real problem in most Indigenous classrooms, given the high numbers of non-Native and outsider teachers who work in these often remote communities.[7] To address this disparity, my team and I developed a framework with objectives for teachers to adapt science learning experiences to be relevant and authentic for Indigenous learners.

The Tool

We researched major themes unique to Indigenous classrooms and culturally relevant education (CRE).[8] From this treasure trove of literature, including published frameworks of multiple Indigenous teaching methods,[9] we developed a theoretical framework. We transformed this framework into a tool (part of which is shown in Table 1) for teachers to use and customize for their local contexts.

Table 1. Family and Community, one of eight facets of CRE represented in the tool.

Kaleo Hanohano, a partner teacher and key contributor to the framework, adapted the tool and localized it for her Hawaiian classroom (see Table 2). She aligned each of the themes to Hawaiian cultural values to help her plan culturally relevant lessons. The red and blue font and the right column are adaptations she made to the tool. In addition, she added levels of proficiency to assess growth. These three columns correspond to locations on the body: the trunk, the core, and the head, a distinctly Hawaiian perspective of learning and development.

Table 2. The Family and Community facet of CRE, adapted for a Native Hawaiian learning environment. 

Using the Adapted Tool: Culturally Tuning a Biology Unit 

With this tool, a high school biology teacher from Hawai‘i, Mr. Kumu, culturally attuned a genetics unit that had been taught for several years. In the unit, students wrestled with a central question: Are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) inherently good or bad? In the original unit, students answered this question from a biotechnology standpoint. They developed arguments either for or against GMOs. In the modified version of this unit, rather than considering the legal, political, and economic perspectives and evidence of GMOs, the teacher asked the students to interview family members and community elders and to listen to their viewpoints and understandings about GMOs. Like before, students used the conversations they had with family and community members as evidence to support their arguments for or against GMO farming. He deliberately connected ethics rooted in the students’ home cultures with family and community perspectives on GMOs. He taught the students how to advocate for the well-being of their community. After culturally enhancing this lesson, students’ learning became personalized and more relevant to their lives. Students sought out different sources and perspectives on the hot topic of GMOs, including religious values and beliefs. Family and ethics became an explicit part of the design of the learning environment.

This kind of personalization benefits all students but is especially helpful for students from non-Western cultures. Teachers can use the tool to examine their own instructional contexts and identify areas to address in their own unique situations. The tool includes a checklist of objectives that educators might use in reflecting on the elements of Indigenous-linked CRE approaches that may be appropriate for their learning environment. By creating the tool, my colleagues and I are not suggesting there is one way to teach. To the contrary, what we are saying is that there are similar and different ways to teach across the culture-based educational landscape and that the information organized in the framework presented here may be of use to teachers seeking to self-diagnose and explore their own pedagogy. The framework and accompanying tool we developed provide essential scaffolding for teachers to broker worldviews. As researchers, we’re continually looking to understand how to best support teachers and students from different backgrounds, helping them create linkages between science materials and the cultural worldviews shared in the classroom.

What about you? What kinds of cultural assets do your students bring to the classroom?

Jon Boxerman is a learning scientist who conducts culture-focused, asset-based science education research. He is a research associate with the Culture and Language in STEM Education program at WestEd directed by Sharon Nelson-Barber. The full CRE tool is published in Nelson-Barber, Johnson, Boxerman, et al., 2022. For more information about the tool, email
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The material in this document is based upon work supported by National Science Foundation under grant awards DRL-1626939 and DRL-1930852. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
[1] McCarty, T., & Lee, T. (2014). Critical culturally sustaining/revitalizing pedagogy and Indigenous
education sovereignty. Harvard Educational Review, 84, 101–124.
[2] Medin, D. L., & Bang, M. (2014). The cultural side of science communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 (Supplement 4), 13621-13626.
[3] Solano-Flores, G. & Nelson-Barber, S. (2001). On the cultural validity of science assessments. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 38. 553 – 573.
[4] Nelson-Barber, S. & Trumbull, E. (2019). Place-based science education for Indigenous students. Denver, CO: Metropolitan State University of Denver.
[5] Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., & Gardner, M. (2017). Effective teacher professional development. Learning Policy Institute.
[6] Nelson-Barber, S., & Johnson, Z. (2019). Raising the standard for testing research-based interventions in Indigenous learning communities. In Tom, M., Sumida, E., & McCarty, T. (Eds.). Indigenous knowledges and learning: Vital contributions towards sustainability, International Review of Education.
[7] United States Department of Education (2016) A first look: key data highlights on equity and opportunity gaps in our nation’s public schools. US Office for Civil Rights, Washington, DC
[8] Aronson, B., & Laughter, J.C. (2016). The Theory and Practice of Culturally Relevant Education. Review of Educational Research, 86, 163 – 206.
[9] Nelson-Barber, S., Johnson, Z., Boxerman, J., & Silberglitt, M. (2022). Indigenous Mapping – Using
context-adaptive research methods to address pedagogical challenges in Indigenous citizen
science. In M. Atwater (Ed.). Handbook of Multicultural Science Education. New York: Springer.