Race is one aspect of human identity that changes reflecting the politics and science of the times. Now more than ever students are identifying as mixed-race or do not identify with any race category at all. The latter is especially true for Hispanics, according to a recent Census bureau research. Racial categories, which have been included on every U.S. census since the first one in 1790 have changed from decade to decade. The biggest mistake teachers make when trying to approach the topic of race is not to recognize that race is a social construct. The actual genetic difference between individual human beings is only about 0.1%. The second mistake teachers make is not seeing variation within racialized groups. Teachers do their best when they design learning experiences that reveal the multifaceted and complex nature of human identity and offer ample opportunities for students to teach others about their unique cultural experience.
According to Sonia Nieto, a leading scholar on this topic, culture is extremely dynamic, multifaceted, embedded in context, influenced by social, economic and political factors, socially constructed, learned and dialectical. Further, she suggests that culture is not a given, but a human creation, dependent on particular geographical, temporal and socio-political contexts and therefore vulnerable to issues of power and control.[i] Understanding the interrelationship between culture, learning and how students construct knowledge is important, especially now when we fall into the trap of reducing students to fixed, racialized identities when in fact, a student’s culture is the total expression of his or her humanity—that which includes race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation but that which also includes other parts of who we are that are not always apparent, such as how we express ourselves through language and art, what religion we identify with if at all, how we communicate love, how we understand relationships and power in society and how we perceive, interpret and integrate historical events.
Culture and learning are connected, however fluid. Advances in the modern learning sciences have revealed that our brains are constantly shaped and reshaped by the interaction with the surrounding environment.[ii] Social experiences and human interactions that engender fear, trauma, stress, hate, shame, embarrassment, low self-esteem impact brain functioning and cognition. These experiences are endemic and indicative of oppression. Our country grapples with a long history of racism and inequality, therefore it is important for teachers to learn to pay attention to their own mindset and behavior. The goal is to reduce stress, build trust and create an inclusive environment with love and acceptance so learning can occur. In order to do this work artfully, proactive teachers adopt a practice to foster critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is awareness of the intersection of factors that contribute to a person’s identity, a person’s sense of well-being and their readiness to learn.
Three strategies to develop critical consciousness are a) take time for self-reflection and meditation, b) engage in intergroup dialogues on culture and class c) analyze human rights movements and d) participate in imagery-based learning activities to strengthen your brain’s ability to see the world with novelty (Siegel, 2007).
In my forthcoming book, Walking the Path: Conscientious Teaching and Leading (pending publication, Routledge, Summer, 2019), I provide teachers and school leaders with numerous practices, strategies and tools for developing critical consciousness infusing mindfulness and social justice pedagogy.
[i] Nieto, S. (2008) Culture and education. In Yearbook for the National Society for the Study of Education. Blackwell Publishing
[ii] Rose, D et al. (2011/12) The Universal Design for Learning Framework to Support Culturally Diverse Learners, Journal of Education