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An inquirED Blog

Culturally Responsive Instruction in Social Studies

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) is the educational movement of the moment. A quick internet search finds CRE everywhere: tagged onto existing curricula and professional development programs, broadcasted on websites and marketing materials, and shared in op-eds and social media posts.

No matter where you encounter CRE, it's important to emphasize that though we may want a one-stop resource or magic-wand answer to the question, "How do I practice Culturally Responsive Education?" — the reality is much more complex.

Click here to view the webinar recording with inquirED on the importance of Culturally Responsive Education in Social Studies.


Culturally Responsive Education is a Dynamic Practice

There is not a single definition of CRE - or even a single term that is used when referring to its practice. One reason for this complexity is the rich history of CRE. From theorists and thinkers like Gloria Ladson-Billings and Geneva Gay to more recent scholarship by Django Paris, Zaretta Hammond, and Gholdy Muhammad - the intellectual and practical foundations of CRE are ever-evolving and developing.

But don't let this complexity be a barrier! The terminology may be different but these approaches share essential concepts and practices – with much more in common than they have in conflict with one another. With this in mind, it might be helpful to highlight common elements that describe both what CRE is - and what it is not.

It feels strange to develop understanding by defining what something isn't — but often when there are so many misconceptions out there — it makes sense to address those directly. Let's break down the image above.

  • CRE is not an add on or supplement. This means there is no siloed "CRE time" or special "workbook for CRE." Instead, CRE is integrated across all subject areas. CRE is the core teaching practice that is used at all times.

  • CRE is not easy or watered-down instruction. The strategies and practices of CRE promote rigorous investigation, deep knowledge building, and productive struggle.

  • CRE is not a curriculum. When inquirED talks about Inquiry Journeys, our elementary social studies curriculum, we are careful to say that it "supports culturally responsive instruction" not that it is, in fact, culturally responsive. That's an important distinction. The practices, resources, and tools we've created can help teachers - but CRE is about teachers using these resources to meet the needs of their students.

  • CRE is not only diversity, inclusion, or multiculturalism. CRE is more about the HOW of instruction - the practices teachers use every day to build the knowledge and intellective capacity of their culturally and linguistically diverse students. Diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism tend to focus more specifically on the content that is being presented. It's not that CRE doesn't include approaches that relate to content, it's just that even then it is also addressing how that content is being used. How is diverse content being integrated across a curriculum - avoiding "heroes-and-holidays-tokenism"? How is multicultural content pushing back on dominant narratives about people of color? How is content selected in response to the students in the classroom and their unique needs?

  • CRE is not a single program within a restricted time frame. There is not a single workshop, webinar, or training for teachers sufficient to support CRE, just as there is no special month or unit for students that is culturally responsive.

  • CRE is not only for culturally and linguistically diverse students. All students benefit from the rigorous investigation, deep knowledge building, and productive struggle supported by CRE.


Are you reviewing social studies curriculum based on support for CRE and inquiry? Download inquirED's Curriculum Review Guide to receive five powerful rubrics to help you as you review.


The Unique Opportunities of Social Studies

Since CRE is rooted in practice, it can be applied across subject areas - from math, world languages, science, and — of course— social studies. But social studies provides unique opportunities for implementing and deepening the practice of CRE.

Just as the terms science, mathematics, and language arts are used to group together related subjects into fields, social studies connects disciplines focusing on the study of human relationships. These disciplines can provide rich, authentic context to deepen the practice of CRE.

Civics examines our relationship with others within a group, whether it’s a classroom, community, or country. History teaches us to analyze the past to inform our actions in the present and the future. Economics asks us to investigate how we meet our wants and needs and balance them in relation to others. Geography prompts us to consider how we affect our environment and how it affects us.

The list above is not exhaustive. Add in psychology, anthropology, archaeology, philosophy, religion, and sociology, and you have nearly the whole spectrum of human experience as your area of study. In this sense, social studies teachers have the unique opportunity to use CRE to help culturally and linguistically diverse students investigate themselves and their world.

Social studies' emphasis on inquiry also provides unique opportunities to move toward CRE. Inquiry-based practice, with its focus on student-centered questioning, sustained investigation, and informed action deepens responsive practice and connects with core CRE practices:

  • Questioning routines in inquiry allow culturally and linguistically diverse students to take ownership of information processing

  • Deep and sustained knowledge building improves reading skills in culturally and linguistically diverse students

  • Evaluating sources and evidence challenges single stories and dominant narratives and helps to develop a critical lens for analyzing systems.

  • Informed Action projects connect instruction to students' homes, neighborhoods, communities, and cultures.

Culturally Responsive Education in Social Studies Starts Where You Are

A common barrier to undertaking any new practice is a feeling of inadequacy. "I'm not ready" or "it's too big of shift" are mantras that defeat us before we begin. Instead, when thinking about CRE, try flipping the script to "I'll start where I am."

The reality is that you are already using responsive practices in your classroom. Starting from what you are doing right - instead of what is wrong with your practice - allows you to move forward on your journey. CRE is a process of layering. There's always an existing layer to build on. And given time, material, and action those layers build upon each other to create something of substance. Also, the process of layering never stops - it continues to grow — becoming more complex and meaningful. Part of that process is finding resources to support you. View those resources below to get started!

Resources To Support You On Your Journey

Books and Articles about Culturally Responsive Education

Organizations and Communities

Webinar: Why Culturally Responsive Practice Matters in Social Studies

Join inquirED and NCSS as we explore the importance of Culturally Responsive Education in social studies with Evan Gutierrez (VP for Curriculum & Instruction, Newsela) and Shanti Elangovan (Founder and CEO of inquirED).


About inquirED

inquirED has moved beyond the textbook, with Inquiry Journeys, our core elementary social studies curriculum. Inquiry Journeys promotes inquiry-based teaching and learning and supports Culturally Responsive Instruction. Learn More


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