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The Importance of Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Learning Partnerships

Increasing diversity across race, ethnicity, and culture is evident across schools in the United States, with Latinx students making the largest and fastest growth (U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

There is no denying the fact that these public schools are becoming more racially and culturally diverse. In equitably meeting the needs of all families and students, the pedagogy schools work from must also change, stretch, and grow as the communities do. 

Working from a framework of cultural responsiveness that is rooted in mutual respect, trust, and empathy has been proven to increase academic achievement, the quality of teacher-student relationships, and overall school climate and culture. Moreover, culturally responsive pedagogy addresses students individually, viewing them as a whole; walking into the classroom with cultural funds of knowledge, assets, skills, and potential. When done correctly, culturally responsive pedagogies can richly enhance the learning experience for students which positively impacts families, teachers, staff, and the broader community. 

This holistic pedagogy allows teachers to genuinely and sustainably practice the art of facilitating knowledge while being in authentic relationships with students. How do culturally responsive learning partnerships impact the acquisition of critical thinking skills in middle and high school students?

Beginning to reconceptualize the way we understand and weigh the teacher-student interaction, it is helpful to lean on neuroscience to understand the ways in which cognition and emotion play a role when looking deeper into the relational experience within a learning partnership. Researchers Immordino-Yang and Damasio (2007) found that emotional thought is a process not separate from cognition but very much complexly intertwined in the learning process. Previous to this research, cognition, and emotion were viewed as two different entities, not involving one another. However, this is not the case, the way we feel has just as much to do with how much we learn. That is to say, that the emotional relationships and dynamics we have in the classroom directly affect the acquisition of knowledge. Emotion is central to learning and plays a crucial role in moral decision making, higher-order thinking skills, and social behavior.

The big idea here is amplifying and changing our approach to acknowledge the importance of authentic student-teacher learning partnerships, since it is proven that they are vital to students’ individual success.

The Brain and Culture: Responding to the Individual Student

The human brain makes meaning by categorizing and drawing associations from one idea to another, filing knowledge, interpretations, and feelings within each experience. Culture is to the brain as software is to any hardware. Culture programs what we know, how we learned it, the way we see the world, the way we interact with life, and many more nuanced aspects to the human experience.

“All instruction is culturally responsive. The question is, to whose culture is it responding?” (Gonzales, 2018). The systems that students have created in their brains are culturally relevant and when they are learning in ways that mirror how they learn at home, then that same system can be used to increase learning capacity.

Many times, the quality of the interaction we have with students is overlooked and a majority of attention is spent on the pacing guide, standards, and test scores. Working with children who are experiencing life through various cultures, lenses, challenges, similarities, and differences, we must do a better job at addressing the student-teacher relationship, meaningfully. This calls to change the direction of the current high stakes testing climate and turn inward towards our students. “The history of education can be viewed as a progression and transformation of this basic interaction” (Battro, Calero, Goldin, Holper, Pezzatti, Shalom, & Sigman, 2013, p.179). 

In an in-depth case study, researcher Newcome (2018) found that when two 5th and 6th grade teachers showed students authentic care, validated the funds of knowledge students brought into the classroom, and took the time to build positive relationships they helped students feel emotionally safe which enabled them to take on more academic risk and take on challenges. These students felt supported in their academics, gained social capital, and grew developmentally by being in a reliable relationship with an adult who modeled social-emotional skills like active listening and resolving conflicts. Students and teachers expressed love for each other and felt secure in their relationship knowing that after the school year, they would still keep in touch and be there for one another. The findings of this study prove the power that is embedded with practicing culturally responsive teaching and being in authentic, caring relationships with students.

Placing heavy weight on this complex and culturally relevant interaction is fundamentally part of culturally responsive pedagogy. This connectedness creates positive student attitudes towards school and academic motivation and engagement in Latinx youth. This not only supports the direction of the question posed in the introduction but confirms the purposefulness of student-teacher relationships.


Different perspectives from the literature promote the use of caring pedagogy, humanizing pedagogy, and Moll and Greenberg’s work with funds of knowledge. Themes that emerged from the literature involved inviting students to be in a relationship and partake in the classroom, as well as utilizing care to cultivate positive relationships. These themes are supported by findings in Immordino-Yang and Damasio’s work that confirm the interdependence of emotion and cognition. One caveat that must be stressed is the importance of continuing to hold high academic and developmental expectations for students. This is not “soft” pedagogy as patriarchal thinking would lead us to believe, however, it is a humanized, scientific approach that works to optimize the learning experience by being on the same page as students and developing mirrored neural cells that feed our innate human interdependence to stretch our learning capacity.

There are still many questions surrounding how adults can begin to strengthen relationships with students who they differ from culturally. With a majority white middle-class female teaching force and an increasingly diverse student body, there is direct cultural tension if the goal continues to be the assimilation of difference. With similar themes occurring through the articles presented, this demographic difference continues to permeate my thinking.


Public schools in the United States have become hyper-focused on standardized testing since the implementation of No Child Left Behind. This sort of factory model of schooling – to test, sort, and label students diminishes the value within the student-teacher relationship and the purpose of education. In education, any type of standardized measure treats every student the same. However, what we know is that the human experience tells a story of unique differences in which our life experiences, culture, race, gender, socioeconomic status, disability, and relationships all affect who we are, what we know, and how we learn. Culturally responsive learning partnerships boil down to authentic, caring, trust building relationships between students and teachers. Emotion and cognition work together within an individual, and the quality of interactions we have with students plays a significant role in the quality of education students receive. The quality of these partnerships can determine and impact the acquisition of critical thinking skills.

If we want to be in learning partnership, then we must focus on the quality of our interactions, take care of our bias, assumptions, and judgments as they arise and meet people with acceptance, understanding, love, and nurturing.

Relating is an art that takes honesty and vulnerability. I’d love to hear your thoughts, reach out at info@liberatedlearning.org.

In culture, community, and caring, 

Dahlia Quintanilla

Battro, A., Calero, C., Goldin, A., Holper, L., Pezzatti, L., Shalom, D., Sigman, M. (2013). The Cognitive Neuroscience of the Teacher-Student Interaction. Mind, Brain, and Education. Vol. 7 Number 3. Blankstein, A. M., Noguera, P., & Kelly, L. (2016). Excellence through equity: Five principles of courageous leadership to guide achievement for every student. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
Carey, B. (2014). How we learn: The surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens. New York, NY: Random House.
Gonzales, J. (2018). Episode 78: Four Misconceptions About Culturally Responsive Teaching. Cult of Pedagogy. Retrieved from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/pod/episode-78/ Hammond, Z., & Jackson, Y. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oak, CA: Corwin. Immordino‐Yang, M.H. and Damasio, A. (2007), We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1: 3-10. doi:10.1111/j.1751-228X.2007.00004.x
Newcomer, S. (2018). Investigating the Power of Authentically Caring Student-Teacher Relationships for Latinx Students, Journal of Latinos and Education, 17:2, 179-193, DOI: 10.1080/15348431.2017.1310104 Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2017). Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Thompson, S., Martinez, M., Cavazos, L. (2018). Exploring the Intersection of Evidence-Based Practices and Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Practices. Intervention in School and Clinic. Vol. 54(1) 6-13 DOI: 10.1177//1053451218762574
U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Racial/ethnic enrollment in public schools. Retrieved from: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cge.asp
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