Our conception of teachers’ responsiveness for equity rests on a premise: The things that a “responsive” teacher does in the classroom engages and empowers disciplinary learning for students who have been historically marginalized in our schools—in particular students of color and those from linguistically and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities (Kang 2022). One can become a responsive teacher who promotes equity by continuously engaging in the following processes:
In our conception of responsiveness for equity, “action taking” is central because it makes an observable difference in students’ experiences in classrooms. In this article, we unpack these ideas using illustrative examples, sharing the deliberate efforts to help students connect themselves to science, to peers and the teacher in the classroom, and to the place (science classroom, school) at the stages of both planning and instruction. We provide a few key takeaways for educators who aspire to further increase their responsiveness for equity.
A responsive teacher who expands marginalized students’ opportunity to learn takes deliberate pedagogical actions at every stage, from planning to enacting the lesson. One way of sharpening one’s responsiveness for equity is being cognizant of when, how, and what to respond (see Table 1).
Teachers’ responsiveness for equity: When, what, and how to respond.
Timing of actions
Subject of response
Types of pedagogical actions
A teacher can take responsive actions that expand minoritized students’ learning opportunities at three different stages: When planning a unit, designing daily lessons, and during the in-the-moment interactions.
When planning a unit, a responsive teacher can use students’ interests, experiences, or concerns to modify the unit design, such as selecting the focal phenomenon. This unit-level responsiveness requires deep understanding of students’ identities, including racial and linguistic identities, considering life situations holistically in the racialized society. It also means working against dominant perceptions of what it means to do and be good at science, as well as rejecting deficit language toward marginalized students.
For example, in our project, one 10th-grade biology teacher worked with students mostly from immigrant, low-income Latinx families who had been tracked in lower-expectation science classes twice. She reported to us that she constantly encountered negative comments toward her students from both teachers (“The kids in life science class are the lowest [of] the low”) and students themselves (“Don’t worry. You don’t have to try. We know we’re failures”).
The fact that the students rarely experienced engaging in intellectually challenging tasks, such as designing their own lab in prior science classes, gave her additional challenges. Instead of following the prevalent traditional mode of science instruction (e.g., giving a multiple-choice question, doing a “cookbook lab”), she planned a unit where students actively designed and conducted their own experiments to explore the topic that students were interested in at the time.
For example, students were curious about the spread of the Zika virus during the 2016 Brazil Summer Olympics. She decided to use the example of the Zika virus in the upcoming unit on infectious disease with the driving question “How can we prevent the spread of Zika virus through the Olympics?” (SL.9-10.1, 2, 3, 6; L.9-10.1, 3, 6 and W.9-10.6; WHST.9–10.6) She designed and facilitated intellectually challenging tasks, such as identifying multiple variables and formulating and testing hypotheses to prevent the spread.
Throughout the unit, the instruction was driven by student questions, such as “What causes diseases? “What are viruses and bacteria?” and “How do you diagnose somebody with a disease?” During the interview, the teacher said, “There is no reason we can’t [do this kind of lab].” With this unit-level responsiveness, the students could engage in interesting and intellectually challenging activities in the unit focusing on understanding and addressing a problem that matters to them.
At the lesson level, a teacher can promote equity by responsively modifying their lesson design to address students’ challenges from a prior lesson on a daily basis. One powerful way of modifying the lesson design is leveraging students’ assets, including their cultural practices. In a lesson about cellular respiration, for example, one teacher brought a recipe for rolls for Thanksgiving, saying, “My little brother always complains that they’re not fluffy enough.” She asked students to help her modify the recipe to make the rolls fluffier. She originally planned to have a lab where students make dough with different recipes—different amounts of water and sugar and different temperatures—and measure how much the dough grows in a certain amount of time.
Using this “relatable, everyday phenomenon,” she intended to create a context for students to explore the reactant and products for cellular respiration while comparing aerobic vs. anaerobic respiration (HS-LS1-6 and HS-LS1-7, for the chemical reaction HS-ETS1-2). When she launched this task, however, she realized that many of her students, mostly from Latinx families, did not celebrate Thanksgiving like she did. In the following days, she modified her plan and added an activity to just share out students’ family traditions of making a type of “bread.” This allowed her to learn about students’ cultural practices at home. By leveraging this rich asset, she modified the bread project in a way that students use their “family secrets” to explore chemical reactions.
During the in-the-moment interactions, a responsive teacher constantly takes actions to address students’ challenges in participating in the classroom learning community. The challenges are typically manifested by students through either verbal or nonverbal expressions or both. In our data set, we saw three kinds of challenges that marginalized students’ experience during the instruction: intellectual, relational, and linguistic challenges. We provide more details of these challenges and examples of teachers’ actions in the following section.
Here, we describe the three challenges—the subject of response (what to respond)—along with a few pedagogical actions taken by teachers to address the challenges (how to respond).
In our data set, the three most frequent pedagogical actions taken by the teachers were
In a chemistry lesson about acids and bases, for example, students measured the time when a “mysterious alien’s blood” (hydrochloric acid) ate through aluminum foil and started to fall into a beaker. When the teacher moved to one lab table, a group of students wondered when to stop their timer to take the “reaction time.” A student asked, “Are we supposed to record, like, right when it starts to go through?” During this short interaction, the teacher drew students’ attention to key information in the instructions (“It says in the instructions, eat through aluminum foil and starts to fall in the beaker, like drip, drip, drip, then that’s where you stop”) and also to the key observation (e.g., bubbling, steam) by asking, “What do you see? What kind of action? What’s the color?” These pedagogical actions were named as drawing students’ attention to key information or patterns.
In one event observed in a high school chemistry lesson, for example, one teacher noticed that a 10th grade girl, Alison (all student names are pseudonyms), was texting instead of listening to the teacher’s introduction of the day’s task. Using a cell phone during the instruction was a violation of the school policy, and students who violated the policy had to turn in their cell phones to the teacher. As students began to move to their lab groups after the teacher’s lesson introduction, the girl approached the teacher to explain that she was checking on her cousin whose son was diagnosed with cancer and was going through his first round of chemotherapy (see the details of the interactions in Figure 1).
The situation could be simply viewed as a student’s violation of the rule and policy. The teacher’s quick conversation with the student, however, led the teacher to see the situation in a different way. The girl had difficulty fully bringing herself into the classroom space and engaging in the academic task due to situations outside the classroom. The teacher expressed empathy with her body, eyes, face, and words to an adolescent girl who was worried about her cousin. The teacher’s pedagogical action, providing either material or emotional support to validate students’ wellness in the moment, contributed to improving the condition for Alison’s intellectual engagement by attending to and addressing relational challenges in the moment.
In a life science lesson about microbes, for example, a teacher paired Tien, who just moved to the United States a few weeks prior and spoke no English, with Hanh, a multilingual, Vietnamese girl who had improved her English significantly (see the details of the interactions in Figure 2).
In this interaction, the teacher recognized and validated Tien’s efforts (showing appreciation for her efforts) while affirming her good progress (encouraging/reassuring the good progress). These pedagogical actions addressed both linguistic and relational challenges that Tien showed by helping Tien see her presence in this classroom space despite her linguistic challenges.
Teacher responsiveness is a core feature of justice- and equity-centered instruction. Guiding questions for increasing teachers’ responsiveness that promotes equity could include
One can expand minoritized students’ opportunities to learn by attending to and addressing students’ intellectual, relational, and linguistic difficulties when designing a unit or a lesson or during in-the-moment interactions.
Hosun Kang (email@example.com) is associate professor in School of Education at the University of California–Irvine, Irvine, CA. Lindsay Fay is secondary science teacher on special assignment (TOSA) at Tustin Unified School District, Tustin, CA.
Kang, H. 2022. Teacher responsiveness that promotes equity in secondary science classrooms. Cognition and Instruction 40 (2): 206–232.
Biology Chemistry English Language Learners Equity Inclusion Life Science Multicultural New Science Teachers Pedagogy Phenomena Professional Learning Teaching Strategies
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