Book Review: Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain

by Robert Cole, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

When trying to understand such a broad topic as culturally responsive teaching, having a framework from which to work is often helpful. While far from all encompassing, a framework provides a structure for reference. One such framework is created by Zaretta Hammond and expounded upon in her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (2015). Hammond refers to her framework as the Ready for Rigor Framework.  Moving students from being dependent to independent learners and building intellective capacity is the focus of her framework. Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) is a pedagogical approach rooted in learning theory and cognitive science (Hammond, 2015). Hammond states that when implemented as intended, CRT can help build intellective capacity increasing students’ ability to process complex information more effectively (Hammond, 2015).

Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain (Hammond, 2015) stands out to me in that it is not only grounded in research but it also brings bodies of research from the fields of cultural responsive teaching (CRT) and cognitive science together. Hammond integrates these bodies of research in a unique way I’ve not seen in other resources. While this book should not be viewed as a CRT how-to, it provides important insight into the role our culture plays in making meaning. Being aware of such roles, building partnerships with learners and increasing intellective capacity may provide more opportunities to consider the design of learning activities and even the courses in which they occur.

The book is presented in three parts; Part I – Building Awareness and Knowledge, Part II – Building Learning Partnerships and Part III – Building Intellectual Capacity. In Part I, Hammond introduces her framework, Ready for Rigor, and provides context for its application. In addition, she relates the framework and contextual information to learning and cognitive science and explains a relationship between how students learn and the culture in/by which they learn and how these components relate to the larger process of schooling.

Part II focuses on building foundations of learning partnerships and establishing alliances in the learning partnership. The partnering and aligning process is opportunity to shift from a negative academic mindset to a more positive mindset. Hammond points out that those with a positive academic mindset are typically “more willing to engage, work harder and persevere when challenged” (2015). While students who possess a more negative academic mindset are more likely to “act up or zone out as part of their response to the belief that they cannot be successful” (Hammond, 2015).

Part III brings together strategies for building intellective capacity and cognitive science. Hammond describes intellective capacity as the ability to process complex information more effectively and asserts that cognitive science indicates that culturally responsive teaching is critical to this process. In recounting the process for building this intellective capacity, Hammond explores culturally oriented techniques that may provide ways of making meaning for students that other pedagogical techniques would not.

In the epilogue of her book, Hammond poses two questions applicable to how we may think about teaching and learning: “What are the strategies we can use to help dependent learners do complex thinking and how do we build our own teaching practice in order to help them (Hammond, 2015)?” In answering these questions, she proposes we create environments that welcome students’ natural ways of learning and shape the content so that they see its connection to their lives and funds of knowledge. This book is a good place to start thinking about these concepts.

Reference Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.