Schools today are becoming increasingly diverse. Any educator who has been working in schools for a long time has likely seen the differences between students who were in their classrooms 20 years ago and students who are in their classrooms today.

From racial and ethnic diversity to linguistic diversity to diversity in ability levels and more, most schools and classrooms have seen a dramatic change that is likely to continue. As diversity in the classroom and school widens, so does the need for educators to be responsive to diverse student and family needs, beliefs, values and attitudes.

Defining cultural competence

What is culture? Ask five different people, and you may get five different answers. Culture can be defined as the principles and guides of behaviors, our values and traditions that have been learned and are shared among a particular group of people.

In this sense, many different groups of people — including businesses, schools, ethnic groups and neighborhoods can have their own cultures. Culture is dynamic and can change over time; what is "normal" and "the way we do things around here" at one time may seem outdated or even absurd as time passes.

Culture can also be described in terms of an iceberg. On the surface are elements such as art, food, music, literature and celebrations. These cultural elements are clearly visible and carry a low emotional load.

But just as the largest part of an iceberg is underwater, so too are most elements of culture invisible and beneath the surface. These elements, termed deep culture, include topics such as nature of friendships, notions of modesty, eye contact, touching, facial expressions, body language and more.

Cultural competence, then, can be described as having an awareness of your cultural identity, beliefs and values systems, and how those impact your way of thinking and behaving. It also includes the ability to integrate and transform knowledge about people and cultural groups into practices used in settings such as businesses, schools and classrooms to increase the quality of services and produce better outcomes.

For students in our schools, cultural competence and culturally responsive teaching are both beneficial to the student and their learning, and will help all students to be ready for college and careers in the 21st century.

Why cultural competence is important in the 21st century

Leaders in both education and business are chiming in on the skills important in today’s world and in the future. Among the critical skills today’s students need are being able to think on one’s feet, think critically, and collaborate with people from various cultures and in different parts of the world.

The American Management Association includes working effectively with individuals from diverse groups and those with opposing viewpoints as a critical skill for employees today. As the world shrinks, so does the importance of being able to work, communicate and collaborate with diverse teams. Global communication is now instantaneous and happens on a daily basis.

In companies as well as in classrooms, people have diverse attitudes, ideas, thought processes and more. As students learn to collaborate with others, they build skills such as listening to other perspectives, integrating a variety of ideas, and gaining insight into others’ thought processes and ways of problem solving.

The diversification of perspectives, ways of looking at the world and various issues, and learning different ways people solve problems benefits students and ultimately our society. Innovation stems from the varied experience and perspective of the people we work with.

Culturally competent educators: Key components

People who are culturally competent share a variety of attributes. Each of these helps the person to produce better outcomes for themselves and others. For educators, cultural competence helps students achieve at higher levels and helps students be prepared for college and careers in the 21st century.

The following list of attributes is not exhaustive. However, as people move toward being culturally competent and responsive, these attributes become more apparent.

Cultural self-awareness: People know how their experiences, knowledge, values, upbringing, beliefs and societal expectations and norms shape their thinking and acting. People consider how these factors affect how they react to certain situations.

Value of diversity: People respect, accept and honor differences, including cultural customs, traditions, ways of communicating, ways of thinking and differing values and beliefs.

Responding to cross-cultural difference: Cross-cultural communication and interaction can, at times, be problematic. Culturally competent educators and people are aware of this and know how to respond in these situations.

Learning about students’ cultures: Culturally competent educators learn about and research their students’ cultures. This knowledge helps to understand student behavior as well as their ways of doing things. This knowledge can also be used to help students link new learning to prior knowledge and experiences.

Making positive changes: True cultural competence does not come without creating positive change in the classroom, school or workplace. Cultural competence is not only being aware or sensitive to other cultures, but rather changes behavior to more positively affect their interactions among people of different cultures.

Culturally competent classrooms: Key components

A variety of characteristics can make the classroom more welcoming and conducive to cultural competence. While not every factor listed must be in place for a classroom to be welcoming to students from a variety of cultures, these elements help to make each student feel welcomed and a part of the classroom community.

Print-rich environment: This includes having anchor charts, word walls, posters, visuals and materials on the walls that display important language and concepts related to the unit of study. It should be obvious to students and the community what is being studied, as well as the academic language that is related to that topic.

Acknowledges and celebrates students and their cultures: Relating to, sharing examples from and pointing out connections to the cultures of the students in your classroom sends the message that you value the students and their cultures.

Optimal arrangement: Arrange the room so students are seated in pairs or small groups for collaboration and communication, can see the front of the room without being blocked by the teacher's desk or technology station, and in a way that lets students move about the room.

Materials reflect a variety of cultures and perspectives: Include pictures, literature and other text that represents the cultures to which your students belong. Various ethnicities, races, genders, perspectives and cultural groups should be represented in the various materials including literature, magazines, videos, pictures and more.

Student work is prominently displayed: Exemplary work from students should be displayed in the classroom and, if possible, throughout the hallways in a school. Because students have differing language proficiency levels and ability levels, exemplary work for each student should be displayed.

Rules, procedures and protocols are clear: Students should be clear on the classroom procedures and protocols that are used throughout the day. For culturally and linguistically diverse students, it is helpful to share the reasons why we do certain things in certain ways. For example, you may need to be explicit about looking at the speaker as a way to show you are listening and being respectful.

Strategies for the culturally competent classroom

Many instructional strategies can be used in the classroom to help build a welcoming and culturally relevant environment. The strategies listed below will support culturally and linguistically diverse students, as well as help to build cultural competence for all students.

Choral calling and reading: This strategy involves all students reading or saying something at the same time. When students choral read and choral call, every student gets the chance to practice reading and saying the word or words without feeling singled out.

10/2; chunk and chew: Give students processing time after a few minutes of input. While the numbers are meant to depict minutes of instruction to minutes of processing time, the times listed are not meant to be absolute. You do not have to stop after 10 minutes of instruction and give two minutes for students to discuss the concepts and process the information. Instead, the idea is to chunk information in manageable pieces and have students process or "chew" on the information by discussing it with their peers.

Numbered heads/equity sticks: Students sit in teams of four. Each student then has a number (1-4). The teacher uses the equity sticks (tongue depressors or Popsicle sticks with numbers on them) to randomly call on students. When a particular number is called, the person with that number shares what was discussed.

Use of native language: Allow students to speak to each other in their native language in the classroom as appropriate. Generally, it is appropriate for students to speak in their native language when they are clarifying instructions or concepts, or discussing background knowledge and experiences. When the students report out to the class, they should share in English as that is the common language of the classroom.

Movement: Having students move around the room helps increase blood flow to the brain and keeps students actively engaged in a lesson. Students can move around the room to discus concepts with another student, or work with another group.

Sentence frames, starters and signal words: These tools provide students with language that is more inclusive, more formal and academic, or more specific. Language is a powerful tool in being more culturally inclusive and competent. By choosing our words carefully and sharing culturally responsive language with students, we equip them to be more culturally competent.

Becoming a more culturally competent educator is a journey. As we reflect upon and consider our own beliefs, values and ways of doing things, learn about our students and their cultures, and act to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment, we not only benefit culturally and linguistically diverse students, but also all students as they learn to interact in an increasingly diverse society.