Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Exploring the Use of Culture in Singapore’s Low Progress Classrooms

Project Number
OER 16/15 LTW

Project Duration
January 2016 - September 2018


Over the past two decades, the notion of culturally relevant pedagogy has gained attention as a student-centered approach to helping low progress learners achieve academic success. First articulated in the US by Ladson-Billings in her 1994 study of exceptional teachers of African American students, culturally relevant pedagogy identifies students’ unique cultural backgrounds as strengths and these are nurtured to promote academic achievement. The central idea is that by having teachers draw upon students’ “cultural reference points”, schools can create bridges between students’ home and classroom experiences, while still maintaining the high expectations of state/national curricular mandates Much of the studies on culture and, specifically, what informs culturally relevant pedagogy has so far been in the US and has focused predominantly on race/class; culture is inextricably intertwined with, and subsumed under racial/social class categories. It thus becomes important to trace out the relevance of this body of scholarship for improvements in teaching and learning in Singapore classrooms. Indeed, situated in a very different ideological and geographical landscape and since its political independence (in 1965) confounded with a very different set of socio-political exigencies, in Singapore, Western notions of culture stand in need of problematization. In addition to the above categories of race and class, then, we would expect that accounts of culture in Singapore explore the interplay between, among others, i) postcolonial legacies, ii) the state and its discourses of multiculturalism, iii) language use and their associated variants and dialects, iv) consumerism, media and popular culture. More concretely, in order to improve the work of schools, we need to understand the place of culture in our low progress classrooms, the forms it takes and its points of reference, and perhaps most importantly, how teachers can leverage upon these to better connect students’ home/school experiences to provide for more engaged and meaningful learning. The proposed research project seeks to explore the use(s) of culture in teaching and pedagogy in Singapore’s low progress classrooms. It will do so through developing qualitative case studies of six teachers of low progress learners who espouse the principles of culturally relevant pedagogy in their daily teaching. The research is guided by three purposes: 1. To identify what constitutes culturally relevant pedagogy in the classrooms of our low progress learners. Given that, for culturally relevant pedagogy to take place what we need is an understanding of culture that is embedded in particular contexts. The key here is to identify the unique cultural reference points of our low progress learners. 2. To describe and document how teachers in low progress classrooms are engaging in these pedagogies and how students are responding to it. While there are many studies of teachers of low progress learners and observations of the pedagogic interaction that takes place in low progress classrooms in Singapore, none of these foregrounds the dimension of culture, and seek to understand how this may be drawn upon to better engage and motivate students. Our intention is to develop deep descriptive case studies – or “portraitures” – of six teachers who identify with the principles of culturally relevant pedagogy in order to better understand why they teach in the way they do and how this impacts students. 3. Drawing from the above insights, to identify opportunities for the improvement of pedagogic practices in low progress classrooms through informing the design of teacher education and professional development.

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