Cultural Bias in Teaching

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Cultural bias in teaching can be described as teachers and administrators holding the belief that the dominant or mainstream (presumably European and North American) cultural ways of learning and knowing are superior to ways of learning and knowing that do not reflect such a culture. Historically, the research on cultural bias in teaching and learning can be traced back to the research of Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) and Alexander Luria (1902–1977). Both psychologists launched research programs determining the cultural bias inherent in evalua-tors' critique of young children's problem-solving strategies.

Throughout their work, it was uncovered that many mainstream evaluators would render impoverished Soviet children's responses to cognitive tasks incorrect (Vygot-sky, 1978). However, according to Vygotsky and Luria, this evaluation oftentimes reflected the evaluator's cultural frame of reference. That is, the evaluation of the correct response was found to be a) biased towards a set of culturally aligned ways of thinking, knowing, and problem-solving, and b) biased against alternative, cultural ways of thinking, knowing, and problem-solving. Work in the late 1990s and early 2000s has shown that cultural bias continues to inform the ways individuals evaluate student performance (Baker, 2005; Ndura, 2004).


For many education researchers, cultural bias in teaching is evidenced within various academic texts and modules across multiple academic domains (Baker, 2005, Loewen, 2007). Particularly in the United States, several researchers agree that most contributions to academic subject matter (i.e., history and social and natural sciences) are made by members of the majority race or culture (American Psychological Association, 2003; Gay, 2000; Rogoff, 2003) and much of the text throughout this subject matter is used to reinforce the superiority of this group (Loewen, 2007). Loewen (2007), for example, offers that most elementary and secondary U.S. history textbooks offer a romanticized view of the Europeans' experience in the United States whereas most of the experiences of Native Americans and/or Africans in these same lands are either misrepresented or underrepre-sented. He and others have also noted that many of these texts have continued to marginalize the achievements and significant traditions of many ethnic minority populations living in the United States (Howard, 1999; Loewen, 2007). Other works have shown that additional academic domains such as the natural sciences and English also promote a U.S./European ideological focus (e.g., Solano-Flores & Nelson-Barber, 2001).

In addition to cultural bias found throughout public school curricula and standardized testing, cultural bias is believed to be salient throughout the instructional practices promoted and executed by school teachers and administrators (Boykin, Tyler, & Miller, 2005; Gay, 2000; Nieto, 2001). Here, cultural bias beliefs sanction as appropriate certain forms of classroom behavior, including the manner in which a student is to perform and learn during class time. An example of cultural bias in classroom practices is reflected in the belief that learning must occur in a controlled environment, where students are seated independently and working quietly on a singular task and are only to interact and correspond to the instructor (Gay, 2000). For many, these activities reflect a mainstream cultural perspective (Gay, 2000; Howard, 1999; Nieto, 2001).

These same works have also claimed these learning behaviors and activities are inconsistent with the varied and cultural-laden learning experiences many ethnic minority students have outside the classroom. Some of these experiences reflect communalism or interdependence along with verve or the presence of and adherence to multiple and simultaneous activities (Boykin, Tyler, Watkins-Lewis, & Kizzie, 2006; Gay, 2000). Despite the salience of these learning activities that display an alternative cultural worldview, many classroom teachers continue to promote learning and instructional practices that reveal an adherence to a mainstream ideology or worldview (Boykin, Tyler, Watkins-Lewis, & Kizzie, 2006; Tyler, Boykin, & Walton, 2006).

Thus, cultural bias in teaching occurs when classroom instruction, learning activities, materials, and lessons largely reflect the contributions and/or cultural values and perspectives of the majority race or culture. In the United States, that race is White, Caucasian, or European American, and the culture is largely mainstream oriented (Strickland, 2000). In most classrooms with predominantly ethnically and culturally diverse students, cultural bias is also presented as an inherent promotion of the perceived superiority and effectiveness of mainstream cultural modes of learning, thinking, and performing (APA, 2003).

An explicit example of cultural bias in classroom learning and thinking is found in the work of Perry and Delpit (1998). The researchers report a study in which African American students' responses to test items were evaluated. One test item showed a man standing, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. Students in the study were asked about the destination of the man in the picture. Perry and Delpit (1998) reported that the test writers concurred that the correct answer was that he was going to his place of work or business. It was reported, however, that many of the African American children thought the man was going to church.

Perry and Delpit (1998) argued that the African American students' response reflected aspects of their cultural background. Specifically, within their communities, men dressed in suits and carrying briefcases are typically going to church. Yet, from a mainstream cultural perspective, this response is deemed incorrect. Students were to observe that the suited man carrying a brief case is going to work and not church. For Perry and Delpit (1998), however, marking the African American students' responses incorrect reveals bias toward a knowledge base rooted in a North American or mainstream cultural value system. It also shows bias against knowledge emerging from an alternative, albeit equal cultural value system. Other works support these claims (Baker, 2005).


What results from these culturally biased beliefs is an in-school cultural socialization process in which ethnically and culturally diverse students are exposed to instructional practices and learning activities that do not reflect their cultural-laden modes of learning and knowing. In fact, their adherence to more mainstream culture-based classroom practices is oftentimes, imposed and coerced. Some evidence exists to support each of these claims (Tyler, Boykin, Miller, & Hurley, 2006; Boykin, Tyler, Watkins-Lewis, & Kizzie, 2006; Tyler, Boykin, & Walton, 2006). The result of this in-school socialization process is cultural discontinuity.

Cultural discontinuity is defined here as a school-based behavioral process in which teachers and administrators are a) active in promoting adherence to classroom curricula and classroom learning and instruction that reflect mainstream or European and/or North American cultural values, and b) active in diminishing preferences for and practices of learning modes and practices that reflect the indigenous cultures of ethnically and culturally diverse students. While Ogbu (1982) charged that all students experience home-school discontinuities throughout their schooling experiences, such discrepancies are considered more pronounced for ethnically and culturally diverse students (Gay, 2000; Nieto, 2001). For these students, home-school cultural discontinuity emerges from cultural bias in teaching.

In particular, the values and behavioral preferences of many ethnically and culturally diverse students are discontinued in classrooms because of a) the bias held for mainstream cultural norms and values in public school classrooms, and b) the bias held against those cultural norms and values brought to such classrooms by ethnically and culturally diverse students. Specifically, it has been suggested that most ethnic minority students emerge from households that maintain several culturally aligned practices and behaviors that do not reflect a mainstream ideology, but rather aspects of their indigenous cultures (Gay, 2000; Howard, 1999; Nieto, 2001; Vygotsky, 1978). For these students, it is often difficult and undesirable to abide by a set of behaviors that do not reflect their indigenous culture or cultures (Boykin et al., 2006).

Yet due to cultural bias in teaching, where there is an apparent adherence to mainstream forms of thinking, learning, and behaving (Howard, 1999; Loewen, 2007), ethnically and culturally diverse students often have to discontinue learning behaviors and activities that reflect aspects of their home or indigenous culture. In fact, they are often told to replace these indigenous cultural value-laden behaviors with classroom practices and behaviors reflective of mainstream cultural values. Not doing so often leads to misperceptions of students' learning abilities and in some cases, recommendations for in-school remediation and/or psychological services (Baker, 2005).


Some research corroborates the claims that cultural bias beliefs and cultural discontinuity practices are part of the classroom realities for ethnically and culturally diverse students (Gay, 2000; Nieto, 2001). Regarding low-income African American students, research conducted by Wade Boykin and associates has determined that many classroom teachers are biased toward mainstream ways of learning and instruction. For example, in one study, classroom teachers were asked to respond to a questionnaire assessing their endorsement of mainstream and alternative ethnocultural classroom practices. Teachers reported significantly higher reports of classroom practices that reflected mainstream cultural values (i.e., competition and individualism) than those practices that reflected students' alternative ethno-cultural values such as communalism and verve (Boykin, Tyler, Watkins-Lewis, & Kizzie, 2006).

Another study asked teachers to report their perceptions of the academic motivation and achievement of hypothetical students displaying either mainstream or alternative ethnocultural classroom practices. Teachers read a scenario depicting a student engaged in classroom learning in one of four culturally aligned ways. Teachers then completed a scale assessing their perceptions of the student's motivation and academic performance. Motivation and achievement ratings were significantly higher for hypothetical students displaying mainstream cultural classroom practices than those students displaying alternative ethnocultural classroom practices (Tyler, Boy-kin, & Walton, 2006). Together, these two studies show that many teachers of low-income African American students hold biases for mainstream cultural practices in the classroom. Moreover, the findings indicate that such biases also inform how teachers perceive and evaluate students displaying alternative ethnocultural values.

In addition to research illuminating the presence of cultural bias towards mainstream cultural values and practices, other work has determined that many ethnically and culturally diverse students experience cultural discontinuity throughout their schooling experiences (Gay, 2000; Nieto, 2001; Rogoff, 2003). Some evidence suggests that low-income African American students actually prefer classroom learning in ways that reflect their indigenous cultural values (Tyler, Boykin, Miller, & Hurley, 2006). Other works have determined, however, that these students are not allowed to carry out academic tasks in these culturally specific ways.

For example, in one qualitative study, 21 classroom teachers maintained classroom practices and instructional styles that largely reflected mainstream cultural values. Observations of classroom practices reflecting alternative ethnocultural values were marginal (Boykin, Tyler, & Miller, 2005). In another study, African American students reported that they would be disciplined at school for displaying classroom behaviors reflecting alternative ethnocul-tural values. The cultural values in question were communalism or interdependence and verve or simultaneity. These same behaviors and values, though not allowed in school, were permissible in their households (i.e., working in groups or listening to music while working). Moreover, the participants indicated that they would not be disciplined at school for displaying classroom behaviors reflective of mainstream cultural values. These students did, however, indicate that they would get in trouble for displaying mainstream cultural values at home (Tyler, Boy-kin, Miller, & Hurley, 2006). Together, these and other works corroborate the claim that cultural discontinuity is part of the classroom learning experiences of many ethnically and culturally diverse students, particularly African American students (Gay, 2000; Nieto, 2001; Rogoff, 2003)


Although the specific effects of cultural bias and cultural discontinuity on student outcomes have not been studied empirically, the literature is replete with examples of ways to reduce cultural bias and cultural discontinuity. To begin, a reduction of cultural bias and cultural discontinuity requires teachers to establish and maintain classroom environments in which the emotional, social, cognitive and cultural needs of all students are met (Brown, 2004). The term culturally responsive teaching is commonly used by researchers to describe an environment in which teachers respond appropriately to the diverse learning experiences and culturally situated behavioral preferences of learners in their classroom (Brown, 2004).

One of the major factors emphasized in achieving a culturally responsive classroom is that teachers and administrators examine their own biases regarding what is and is not appropriate classroom behavior. Prior to acknowledging and using the cultural values and belief systems of ethnically and culturally diverse students, teachers may profitably engage in self-reflection in order to gain understanding of their own cultural biases in teaching (APA, 2003). Also integral to this reflective process is the teachers' understanding of how these biases towards mainstream culture may impact the type of instruction they engage in, the classroom learning activities they sanction, and the evaluation of their students.

For many, reducing cultural bias in teaching requires teachers to become more aware of themselves as cultural beings (APA, 2003). Teachers must be more cognizant of their own biases towards specific cultural values before they begin to acknowledge and use the cultural values of others. Such self-reflection aids in the development of positive attitudes towards the cultural values and learning styles of ethnically and culturally diverse students. These positive attitudes, then, become the precursor to aligning curricula and classroom activities with the cultural values and behaviors of ethnically and culturally diverse students. For example, Phuntsog (2001) found that teacher attitudes toward cultural value diversity were important factors in their willingness to create culturally responsive classrooms. Indeed, self-reflection of the culturally based teaching practices and beliefs is considered an essential first step toward establishing a culturally responsive learning environment and reducing cultural bias in teaching (Gay, 2000).


In addition to self-reflection as a way to reduce cultural bias in teaching, some researchers have suggested more interactive practices that can help teachers respond more appropriately to culturally and ethnically diverse students. One such practice is teacher caring, a term that refers to a set of teacher-initiated practices that promote strong interpersonal bonds between teachers and their students (Rogers & Webb, 1991). Research has shown that students' reports of teacher caring contribute to perceptions of teacher effectiveness, academic effort, and academic success (Perez, 2000; Ware, 2006). In a study of classroom management strategies and culturally responsive teaching, Brown (2004) identified a caring attitude as a major teacher-centered characteristic that facilitated the interaction with ethnically and culturally diverse students. For many, a teacher who cares about students will not display biases against the students' distinct cultural values. Instead, the teacher finds ways to use these cultural values throughout classroom practice (APA, 2003; Gay, 2000; Nieto, 2001; Rogoff, 2003).

One way that teacher caring is demonstrated with ethnically and culturally diverse students is through the adoption of warm demander pedagogical styles. A teacher who is a warm demander maintains a classroom environment in which students feel respected and are respectful of the instructor's directions and rules. That is, the teacher cares about the students and does so in a manner that maintains the teacher's position in the classroom as the authority figure (Ware, 2006). Warm demander characteristics displayed in the classroom have been shown to enhance the social and academic experiences of ethnically and culturally diverse students, particularly low-income African American students (Gay, 2000). These characteristics also reflect the typical caretaker-child dynamic many ethnically and culturally diverse students are exposed to during their out-of-school socialization (Brown, 2004). Regarding African American students, promoting warm demander pedagogy has been shown to enhance their schooling experiences, particularly by reducing their exposure to classroom-based cultural discontinuity practices (Ware, 2006).

In addition to teacher-based characteristics and activities that can reduce cultural bias and cultural discontinuity at school, some research has shown that incorporating aspects of ethnically and culturally diverse students' cultural values into academic tasks and lessons actually facilitates their performance (Serpell, Boykin, Madhere, & Nasim, 2006). Other works have shown that utilizing these cultural values can foster greater communication in the classroom, greater task engagement, increased responsiveness to teacher expectations and instruction, and enhanced academic performance (Gay, 2000; Nieto, 2001; Rogoff, 2003).

In all, these studies provide practical suggestions that teachers can use to reduce cultural bias and cultural discontinuity in their classrooms. For instance, constructing classroom lessons and activities that build upon the cultural values of ethnically and culturally diverse students reduces cultural discontinuity as students are no longer asked to forego their culturally aligned learning practices and preferences. Many of the cited research studies have indicated that these culturally aligned practices enhance student performance outcomes. Thus, classroom teachers can use these in an effort to reduce cultural discontinuity and promote optimal performance among ethnically and culturally diverse students.

Moreover, the demonstrated effectiveness of these culturally situated practices aids in the reduction of cultural bias in teaching. Specifically, classroom teachers using culturally responsive pedagogical practices are exposed to instructional practices and learning activities that do not solely reflect a mainstream cultural value system. Rather, many of these practices reflect the cultural values and customs of many ethnically and culturally diverse students. The fact that these practices and activities have proven to be beneficial to these students gives teachers alternative instructional practices to consider in class. Using them can result in the broadening of classroom teachers' understanding of what works best for this student population. Considering alternative instructional practices and knowledge sources also reduces cultural bias in teaching.


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