Responsive Teaching: A Culturally Appropriate Approach   Multiculturalism in Early Childhood Programs
Andrew J. Stremmel
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, Virginia


Debate over appropriate educational goals and teaching methods has fueled controversy in the field of early childhood education between academically accelerated and child-centered forms of instruction (see Bereiter, 1986; Kagan and Zigler, 1987; Schweinhart, Weikart, and Larner, 1986). On one side of the debate, there are those who believe that young children do not need to be taught learning skills; rather, teachers should build on the inherent skills and interests that children bring to learning situations (e.g., Elkind, 1987).

Advocates of academic acceleration, on the other hand, argue that providing academic skills early will accelerate children's education and result in more learning (e.g. Doman, 1965; Engelmann and Engelmann, 1981).

While most early childhood educators in this country would agree that teaching must be developmentally appropriate and take into account the developmental characteristics and interests of the child, there is still uncertainty regarding the extent to which the values, goals, and teaching methods of other cultures should determine educational aims and developmentally appropriate practices. The aim of this paper is to begin to address the question, "Which teaching practices are appropriate for whom, and under what circumstances?"

Research suggests that early childhood curricula should provide opportunities for children to interact with peers, caregivers, and aspects of their environment, and to engage in active rather than passive activities (Katz, 1987). Caregivers must be continually responsive to the spontaneously expressed interests and intentions of children as they pursue informal activities (Elkind, 1976; Katz, 1987; Katz and Goffin, 1990; Lay-Dopyera and Dopyera, 1990). Moreover, to sufficiently meet the needs of children from diverse cultural backgrounds, teaching practices must be relevant to, and meaningful in, the sociocultural context of the systems in which children live and develop (Rogoff and Morelli, 1989).

Evidence from research suggests, however, that children from diverse backgrounds do not all interact in the same ways with adults in classroom activities (Ingham, 1982; Ogilvy et al., in press). For example, Ogilvy and associates found that nursery school teachers are less likely to be responsive to minority children, adopting a controlling style regardless of children's individual differences in ability.

In the following pages, the meaning of responsive teaching is discussed, along with ways to help early childhood teachers become more responsive in their interactions with children having various backgrounds and experiences. Responsive teaching occurs when caregivers offer sensitive guidance and assistance at points in "the zone of proximal development" at which children require assistance (Tharp and Gallimore, 1988).

Vygotsky's (1978) concept of the zone of proximal development refers to the range between what children can do on their own and what they can achieve with the assistance of others who are more skilled in a particular domain of knowledge. Working within this "zone," children gain skills that allow them to assume increasing responsibility for their own learning. They learn not only how to perform a given task, but also how to structure their learning and reasoning when they solve problems.

Responsive Teaching

Responsive teaching involves the construction and negotiation of shared meaning or perspective in conversational interaction (Stone, 1985). Intersubjectivity, the linguistic concept denoting a sharing of purpose or focus in the coordination of perspectives (Rommetveit, 1985; Trevarthan, 1980), is crucial in responsive teaching because it is important for collaborative partners to determine a common ground for communication and understanding. Within this context, children actively participate in the construction of knowledge, and as a result, gain an increasingly advanced understanding of the skills and perspectives of their culture (Rogoff, 1990).

Responsive teaching is predicated on the interactive patterns between adults and children observed in many cultures, and in joint activity settings where participants have different skills and skill levels. It differs from conventionally defined means of instruction in several ways.

First, responsive teaching should not be conceptualized as the simple transfer of knowledge and skills by those knowing more to those knowing less (Moll, 1990). Both adult and child collaborate in structuring the situations that provide the latter with opportunities to observe and participate in culturally valued activities, thereby enabling children to extend their skills and knowledge to a higher level of competence. Therefore, unlike conventional instructive practices, responsive teaching does not assist children in developing skills they do not already possess; rather, it "rouses to life" those functions and skills that are in the process of maturing (Vygotsky, 1978).

Second, traditional or teacher-directed forms of instruction involve making presuppositions about a task explicitly known prior to task engagement. This minimizes the child's active role in constructing understanding of the task, while maximizing the teacher's role. In responsive teaching, however, the teacher's role is to provide just enough guidance to enable the child, through his or her own efforts, to assume full control in performing a task.

Third, teacher-directed instruction typically employs a single teaching method. Katz (1987) has argued that a single teaching method (homogeneous treatment) is bound to produce heterogeneous outcomes in children from diverse backgrounds.

While the goal of education should not be to produce children who have the same talents and abilities, many outcomes with respect to knowledge, skills, and dispositions should be the same for all children. For example, we want all children to develop social and communicative competence and the disposition to read. In responsive teaching, the assumption of a single or "best" way to teach gives way to the planned utilization of a variety of teaching strategies, including modeling, questioning, giving descriptive feedback, coaching, and prompting. Responsive teaching, therefore, involves the systematic use of a repertoire of alternative strategies that are more likely to be suitable to children having diverse needs and learning styles.

For the reasons cited above, responsive teaching methods should not be confused with accelerated attempts to teach academic skills to preschool children. As Sigel (1987) has pointed out, the major factor that differentiates academic acceleration from intellectual enhancement is the way in which teachers engage children and the degree of control children have in their activities.

In sum, responsive teaching helps children to (1) build bridges between what they already know and what they are capable of knowing; (2) structure and support their efforts in interesting and meaningful activities; and (3) assume increasing responsibility for task performance and management (Rogoff, 1990; Tharp and Gallimore, 1988). Children increase their understanding by relating what they are learning to what they already know (Carey, 1986). This bridging between the known and the new in communicative interaction presumes intersubjectivity. Thus, in dealing with culturally diverse children, initial differences in perspective must be modified in order to reach a common ground for communication (and thus understanding).

Examples of Responsive Teaching

In developmentally appropriate, responsive teaching, adults observe and build on children's understanding, interests, and intentions in helping them pursue an activity, problem, or task. This requires the adult to possess some prior knowledge of each child's current level of functioning, and a sense of when to intervene and when to hold back. It allows children to make self-discoveries when they are able, but also provides the necessary cues when children are in need of assistance with a task or activity. Children, meanwhile, must be intrinsically motivated and interested in a meaningful activity that will allow for varying degrees of challenge.

Employing the zone of proximal development perspective in the teaching-learning context, an early childhood teacher presents an activity or play setting that provides multiple options for challenge and involvement. Because many activities (for example, building with Legos or blocks) do not require a "correct" way of approaching and engaging in them, the teacher must effectively identify the child's intention in relation to the activity in order to achieve a measure of intersubjectivity that will enable the teacher to assist the child in extending his or her play more fully. The teacher may simply provide reminders or suggestions, or give hints or ask questions. But it may be necessary at times for the teacher to demonstrate to the child exactly what to do. Furthermore, the teacher must be ready and able to capitalize on the spontaneously expressed interests of children as they emerge from the children's participation in ongoing events in the classroom. Some examples are helpful.

Consider a situation in which a three-year-old child has approached a collage activity which has been planned for the art area in a preschool classroom. Art is an activity engaged in by people all over the world to represent historical and cultural events, as well as personal experiences (Ramsey, 1987). Thus, like adults in their society, children use various tools and materials to represent their experiences and express their feelings through art activities. The collage activity discussed here is an example of a semistructured, creative activity that is fairly common in preschool education.

Even before interaction with the child, the teacher has responsively selected and arranged the tools and materials that are appropriate for a child of this age. For a nature collage, for example, leaves of various sizes, colors, and shapes, and paper and glue may be provided in addition to twigs, seeds, and other items that children may have gathered outdoors. The teacher's goal may be to have the child glue the various items onto the paper. However, this may not be the child's intention. The sensitive adult must accurately tailor his or her assistance to the child by being responsive to the child's understanding of the activity. If the child has a limited understanding of what to do, the teacher may offer a suggestion or ask a question (for example, "What could you do with these?") to help the child get started. The child may proceed by gluing items together (for example, seeds onto leaves), as opposed to gluing them onto the paper.

As the interaction continues, different ideas about how to use the materials may emerge as the teacher and child work together toward achieving increasing intersubjectivity. When some mutual conception of an appropriate way to do the task has been acquired through dialogue, the child should be allowed to work creatively and unassisted within acceptable and mutually understood parameters (for example, the child may not glue items onto another's paper or onto the table). At this point, descriptive feedback about the process, such as, "You are using leaves of different colors," or questions designed to extend the activity, such as, "Is there anything else you would like to add to your collage?" are appropriate.

When done appropriately, the art activity described above requires less adult responsibility or control than activities that are likely to need careful adult supervision, such as cooking. Like art, cooking or preparing food is an activity observable in many cultures and in home settings.

In other cultures, children take part in the preparation of food through the process of guided participation, in which opportunities to observe through modeling are common in everyday experience (Rogoff, 1986, 1990). This kind of collaborative activity typically requires the adult to take greater responsibility because of its importance to survival. However, the child actively participates at points where his or her skill level is congruent with the task demands. In preschool settings, children may take part in stirring, cutting, and serving, while the teacher demonstrates certain procedures or describes what is happening as ingredients are mixed, measured, and cooked. Such opportunities for mutual involvement in culturally meaningful activity provide an important teaching-learning context.

The value of mutually directed activity is also evident in the project approach to early childhood education as advocated by Katz and Chard (1989). A project is a group undertaking that enables children of many different ability levels and backgrounds to collaborate on a theme or topic that extends over a period of days or weeks, depending on the children's ages and interests. In project work, the adult has an important role in guiding the work undertaken; however, the work evolves from ideas, discussion, and matters that are interesting and familiar to children.

It is critical to note that, for responsive teaching to be developmentally appropriate, it must not rely on too much demonstration or make excessive demands. For example, questioning, a crucial strategy in teaching, must lead to meaningful and reciprocal interchange. Problems may result when a child is unable to benefit from adult questioning because it is unnatural, or does not sustain meaningful dialogue. For instance, when children are asked questions repeatedly, they have little chance to contribute to a task or initiate their own ideas. In over-questioning a child, the adult assumes too much control for the learning. The responsive teacher must be able to recognize the child's inability to understand, and know how to manage the task situation when the child fails to respond, or gives a "wrong" or unrelated response. It is the "wrong" response that often produces the most useful information about how to tailor instruction to the zone of proximal development (Blank, 1973; Tharp and Gallimore, 1988). When used appropriately, questions can serve as useful barometers of mental performance, enabling the teacher to assess the level appropriate to the next stage of learning.

Teaching that is child-sensitive and responsive involves the mutual negotiation of activity and joint construction of meaning in social, communicative contexts. It is this form of teaching that may provide the best means for early childhood teachers to be responsive to individual differences in educability (Belmont, 1989; Wood, 1988).

Implications for Teacher Education

How can we best prepare prospective early childhood teachers to be responsive to the needs of diverse children? In this paper, it has been argued that sensitive adult assistance enables children to proceed through the zone of proximal development. Unfortunately, few teachers know how to provide the appropriate type of sensitive assistance. Not only must teachers be equipped with the pedagogical skills considered important to teaching young children (and there is no consensus on these), but they must also be trained to use the skills essential to teaching in the zone of proximal development.

Among other things, these skills include the ability to assess the needs, abilities, and interests of a diverse group of children, and to know how to meet and respond to these once they are discovered, and to do so by drawing from a repertoire of teaching strategies. Even in early childhood classrooms where individualized learning is enhanced through activity centers that provide multiple options and challenges for child involvement, considerable time, knowledge, and skills on the part of the teacher are necessary. Tharp and Gallimore (1988) have suggested that to develop such skills, teachers must be provided with opportunities (1) to observe competent practitioners of responsive teaching; (2) to practice newly acquired skills; (3) to receive audio- and videotaped feedback about their instruction; and (4) to be assisted by a skilled mentor while they are teaching.

Critical to responsive teaching practice is the ability of teachers to be reflective during their interactions with children. Early childhood teachers, according to Lay-Dopyera and Dopyera (1987), appear to rely on what Donald Schon (1983) terms "knowing-in-action" rather than "reflection-in-action." That is, they use actions that are carried out almost automatically with little deliberation before or during teaching interactions. However, responsive teaching is never entirely automatic; it involves reflectivity and active decision making (Tharp and Gallimore, 1988). Teachers who teach responsively need to reflect on what they are doing in the midst of their activity, evaluate how well it is working, and, as a result, make changes in their teaching practices.

Self-reflection has been recognized as a useful technique for connecting personal experience to that of others (for example, see Bowman, 1989). I believe that teachers' thoughtful and careful examination of their prior experiences as a teacher and learner, and their intuitive understandings are necessary for achieving intersubjectivity in responsive teaching.

In this way of thinking, a teacher cannot begin to understand the perspective of the learner without first considering his or her own system of values and attitudes about teaching and children's learning. Teacher education programs must encourage prospective teachers to use self-reflection to help them get in touch with their personal experiences and the ways in which these experiences may influence their teaching practices. Once teachers have done this, they can examine their teaching practices against the experiences, values, and beliefs of others, especially those from diverse backgrounds.


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