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Arkansas State University

Developing Cultural Literacy

The world seems smaller than ever. A multitude of digital communication channels keep people in contact around the world, and businesses and institutions are increasingly international. Locally, both urban and rural communities are growing more diverse as the multicultural identity of the U.S. continues to develop. Student populations reflect this in classrooms nationwide. Cultural literacy — or the ability to understand, interact and collaborate across different cultures — has become a necessary skill in the 21st century.

This shift toward a global community means educators must help students become global citizens. The collaborative potential of digital technology (combined with innovative teaching strategies and student-led learning) means that cultural literacy in a collaborative classroom is not out of reach. By earning a Master of Science in Education in Educational Theory and Practice degree, educators can learn how to implement these technological and educational innovations.

The Roots of Cultural Literacy

E.D. Hirsch Jr. coined the term “cultural literacy” in 1987. He used the term to imply that just as literate people are fluent in reading and writing, culturally literate people should be fluent in their cultural heritages, histories, literature, art, politics and the like. Perhaps his most controversial work was a list of 5,000 facts pertaining to American heritage that Hirsch and his colleagues believed every American should know. The heated debate over the narrow, majority-based cultural histories this list reflects is still ongoing — as is debate over the benefit of contextual knowledge inherent to process-based learning versus simple fact retention, which such an “essential” list represents. Some consider the latter the predecessor to the simplistic multiple-choice testing method.

Although some consider this term narrow in its original cultural scope, it has since evolved to represent multicultural thoughtfulness and understanding. Developing cultural literacy is crucial in the modern classroom, in that the increasing diversity of the student population necessitates understanding and appreciation of others’ experiences, backgrounds and cultures.

Cultural literacy helps students interact and collaborate effectively, both of which will be necessary skills in their lives after graduation. According to educational theories such as Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory, learning occurs in the social context of community. As such, a deeper understanding of diversity in one’s community should improve learning. This means that cultural diversity is our greatest educational resource.

Co-Constructing Knowledge and the Collaborative Classroom

So how do educators develop a classroom environment that fosters cultural literacy? The most fundamental approach is to base teaching models on the idea of co-constructing knowledge and developing collaborative classrooms.

The concept of co-constructing knowledge is simple: teachers stop playing the traditional role of teacher-as-orator or the sole director of knowledge and learning. Instead, they focus on student-led learning, which values student input regarding how and what they would like to learn.

In the new model, teachers are facilitators, providing learning tools and offering instruction and suggestions as students need it. Taking ownership of their learning helps students build motivation. Moreover, students grow comfortable with sharing their insights and needs with fellow students, which fosters cultural understanding through natural group process-based learning. Of course, teachers have to figure out how to meet achievement standards within this model, but with a creative, interactive approach, teachers and students together can address these standards without sacrificing cultural literacy.

More practically, a collaborative classroom naturally encourages co-constructed knowledge and cultural literacy. The collaborative classroom throws out old conventions of space and teaching: there is no teacher’s desk, and students’ seating arrangements promote constant dialogue, discussion and student-led learning. The teacher becomes a resource, modeling roles for group interaction, communication building devices and learning strategies. Digital technology lets students interface with other classrooms worldwide to collaborate on projects and web-based applications. All of these classroom elements can promote cultural literacy.

Students’ future success depends on their ability to interact positively with people from any background. Teachers must play an active role in this development; successfully preparing students for colleges and careers means improving both academic and social learning skills. By enrolling in a master’s degree in education program, educators can explore new teaching models like co-constructing knowledge and collaborative classroom design.

Learn more about Arkansas State University’s Online Master of Science in Education in Educational Theory and Practice.


Edutopia: Collaborative Learning Spaces: Classrooms That Connect to the World

The Southeast Center for Arts Integration: Creating a Collaborative Classroom

Edutopia: Deeper Learning: A Collaborative Classroom Is Key

The Atlantic: What Every American Should Know

Educational Leadership: From Cultural Literacy to Cultural Thoughtfulness

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