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What Is Cultural Competence In Education? Why It’s Important

Cultural competence in education is more than just a trend. It’s a valuable opportunity to transform pedagogy, institutional goals and procedures, and student-teacher relationships to create more inclusive classrooms.

Culturally competent education has proven benefits for students, institutions, and society as a whole. This blog covers what cultural competence is, the value of teaching cultural competence to educators at all levels of education, and specific strategies for implementing cultural competence in the classroom. 

head silhouettes by the planet earth representing different cultures of our world

Cultural competence and community are two of Unity Environmental University’s core values.

What Is Cultural Competence In Education?

Culture is the set of beliefs and customs shared by a group of people based on their geographical location and/or ethnic background. The U.S. is and always has been a country of many different cultures. Students and professors carry their cultural differences into the classroom with them. These differences can affect how people learn, how information is presented, how students interact with the professor and their peers, and more. 

There are many examples of how cultural differences manifest in education:

  • In some cultures, prolonged eye contact with someone in authority like a teacher is considered rude. 
  • In other cultures, not making eye contact with the teacher is considered disrespectful or a sign of being unfocused.
  • These are two completely contradictory beliefs about how to show respect in the classroom. This can create confusion or conflict for people with different cultural beliefs about eye contact. 

Because cultural differences, big and small, affect learners and teachers in the classroom, cultural competence in education is key to fostering an inclusive learning environment. Cultural competence is more than sharing food and language. It’s an ongoing process of learning, understanding, and respecting cultural differences. 

Benefits Of Cultivating Cultural Competence In The Classroom

Cultural awareness in education is helpful to both students and educators. The benefits of culturally competent teaching students include but are not limited to:

  • Enhanced mutual respect
  • Improved communication
  • A more supportive learning environment
  • Increased critical thinking and innovation

Teaching cultural competence can help make institutions and classrooms more welcoming and accessible to all types of students. This is especially beneficial to marginalized groups of people who may not always feel welcome in institutions that were historically discriminatory. Higher education is proven to have a positive impact on social mobility, so cultural competence in educational systems can potentially improve social mobility for marginalized groups.

kids in the woods learning about cultural competence

The positive effects of education reverberate throughout society and the natural environment. 

Strategies For Teaching And Implementing Cultural Competence

Culturally competent teaching first requires educators to look inward at their own cultural identity, including any biases and privileges they may have. Awareness in the classroom can lead to deconstructing previously held beliefs and creating new, more inclusive ones. This can then lead to challenging any biases or exclusionary beliefs that others hold. Therefore, it’s important for educators to be lifelong learners themselves and practice introspection. 

Consider going to graduate school to expand your perspectives and gain up-to-date knowledge and skills. Many universities, including Unity Environmental University, have adopted inclusive pedagogies that recognize and respect the diverse cultural backgrounds of all students. 

Integrating Multicultural Curriculum And Resources

Educators can incorporate a diverse range of cultural perspectives into their curriculum. Be intentional about selecting resources that represent a variety of cultures, histories, and contributions to foster a more comprehensive understanding of the world. This includes institutional materials, wall decorations for the classroom, and language used when interacting with students.

With curriculum, try to be as inclusive as possible without sacrificing the quality of education. Strategic instructional design can help schools create highly effective materials that are relevant and engaging to modern students. Incorporating experiential learning can also help students connect what they are learning in the classroom with how it relates to their own lives outside of school. 

Professional Development For Educators

All educators should have an understanding of what cultural competence is and how cultural differences affect learning. Professional development training is vital for new and veteran teachers in K-12 and higher education institutions. Workshops, seminars, and collaborative projects focused on cultural competence can build understanding and accountability for the effective implementation of culturally competent practices and materials. 

Trainings can even be specific to certain areas based on the populations they serve. For example, a school with a large percentage of students from Somalia can make sure that teachers and staff have at least a basic understanding of Somali culture, including any cultural values around education. This can help teachers get to know students better and build more authentic relationships.

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Unity Environmental University Is Committed To Integrating Cultural Competence In Our Education

Unity Environmental University values diversity and equity, and providing culturally competent education is one of the ways those core values guide our work as a higher learning institution. We also believe in the power of an educated society to address the social, political, and environmental challenges that face our planet. This is articulated in the Unity Environmental University vision statement of being “a multifaceted organization recognized as the thought leader in global ecological, economic, and societal solutions.” 

Cultural awareness in education will only become increasingly important as our society becomes more diverse and globally connected, and you can find Unity Environmental University at the forefront. We actively seek work from underrepresented demographics for learning materials in our courses. In subjects traditionally associated with the humanities, like communications, languages, media, and art, we often explicitly address cultural competence. Unity tries to avoid the trappings of diversity – without substance – by hiring Subject Matter Experts from diverse backgrounds to develop and iterate our courses.

Example Of Cultural Competence In The Classroom At Unity Environmental University

Zachary Falcon, Esq. is a Professor of Conservation Law and Policy at Unity Environmental University. During the 2024 January term, he taught the American Government: Foundations in Environmental Law class. There were concerns about discussions turning toxic and unmanageable during this time of increasing political polarization and the 2024 election year. He discovered that his students’ cultural competence was high.

Professor Falcon remarked, “Though the students came from all walks of life, of different ages, backgrounds, and political affiliations, they showed each other boundless care and respect. In the very first discussion, a student explained that he had made the choice not to vote at all. As [one] might imagine, other students had a range of opinions about that stance, but each one made a point of demonstrating their respect for his choice and the integrity of his motives. Prior to the class, I was prepared to offer guidance on the need for civil discourse. Not only was my guidance unneeded, but the students demonstrated skills and competencies I wish more of us shared.”