T1.1 Develop sociocultural awareness

Highlander Institute Spotlight Series


Sociocultural awareness recognizes that “a person’s worldview is not universal but is profoundly influenced by life experiences, as mediated by a variety of factors, including race, ethnicity, gender, and social class” (Villegas & Lucas, 2002). Our experiences in the world are shaped by the degree to which both our unique characteristics and group identities are known and valued. The tension for educators is to ensure that all students are empowered to fulfill their greatest potential within a system that seeks to uphold dominant cultural narratives and norms. Therefore, sociocultural awareness requires us to learn about individual students as well as understand how schools may perpetuate systemic inequity.


  • Teachers without affirming views of diversity often hold a deficit mindset for students who are different from themselves (Nieto, 1996). They are more likely to have low academic expectations for these students, use rote-learning activities at the expense of more challenging work, and are less likely to call on these students in class (Villegas & Lucas, 2002, p. 5).
  • Black students often have learning characteristics outside the dominant White frame, with tendencies towards being “concrete learners, social learners, field-dependent learners, and learners who value constructive responses to their work” (Ford et al., 2002). When we understand the ways in which students’ backgrounds inform their learning, we can avoid perpetuating dominant norms.
  • Sociocultural awareness helps educators see how their students experience social inequalities (Ladson-Billings, 2009). Educators who understand how power and privilege are tied to identity are more likely to empathize with students from nondominant groups; otherwise, educators will continue to see racism as an individual act, rather than a system predicated on favoring certain characteristics and behaviors. (Gregory & Fergus 2017, pp. 129-130).


  • Gather information about the students in front of you, while taking care not to generalize or make assumptions based on what is learned from individual students. Invite students to fill out this survey designed by Malika Ali (Highlander Institute) to learn about their deep culture as it pertains to the classroom environment.
  • Sociocultural awareness starts with the self. Teacher reflection is a powerful tool to build understanding of how institutionalized concepts of race, class, and gender influence perspectives. Try these monthly reflections from “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction”.
  • Many students come from collectivist cultures that favor collaborative, relational learning environments. Try these 3 strategies to support all learners: gamify, storify, and make learning social. 
  • Each of us has biases that influence how we relate to students and colleagues. Teachers must be intentional about identifying bias and creating a culturally responsive classroom climate. Research suggests six strategies that support an environment in which all children have equitable opportunities to learn (Morrison et al., 2008).


Ford, D.Y., Harris III, J.J.H., Tyson, C.A., & Trotman, M.F. (2002). Beyond deficit thinking: Providing access for gifted African American students. Roeper Review, 24(2), 52-58. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02783190209554129

Gregory, A. & Fergus, E. (2017). Social and emotional learning and equity in school discipline. Future of Children, 27(1), 117-136. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1144814.pdf

Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Morrison, K. A., Robbins, H. H., & Rose, D. G. (2008). Operationalizing culturally relevant pedagogy: A synthesis of classroom-based research. Equity & Excellence in Education, 41(4), 433–452.

Nieto, S. (1996). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Villegas, A.M., & Lucas, T. (2002). The culturally responsive teacher. Educational Leadership, 64(6), 28–33. https://pdo.ascd.org/lmscourses/PD13OC002/media/Module6_CulturallyResponsiveTeacher.pdf