Professional Development

Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education: Instruction

1 hour

This module is part of a 4-part seminar. The four modules in this seminar are based on the original version of our Critical Practices publication, published in 2014. Learning for Justice released the new edition of Critical Practices for Social Justice Education in 2023. The new edition is informed by the current social and political landscape, and it acknowledges the ways educators have been challenged by increased political scrutiny, censorship and debate about what can be taught in schools. Please stay tuned for updated professional development resources around this publication.

This professional development can be done in a small group setting or individually. Many of the exercises will assume you are working independently, but participants working in small groups can adapt the work for collaborative practice use as well. The complete Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education is available for download here.

You need:

  • ability to access audio and video on your device;
  • pen and paper;
  • your lesson plan book for reference throughout;
  • and about one hour. 

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

This professional development is designed to help teachers take action and create the conditions that bring the seven main components of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy to life:

  • building and drawing upon intergroup awareness, understanding and skills
  • creating classroom environments that reflect diversity, equity and justice
  • engaging families and communities in ways that are meaningful and culturally competent
  • encouraging students to speak out against bias and injustice
  • making the implementation of anti-bias curriculum part of larger individual, school and community action
  • supporting students’ identities and making it safe for them to fully be themselves
  • using instructional strategies that support diverse learning styles and allow for the development of critical thinking skills.

We offer here a set of critical practices to help teachers work effectively with the four anti-bias domains: Identity, Diversity, Justice and Action. These practices are organized into four categories: instruction, classroom culture, family and community engagement and teacher leadership. Each section includes five carefully chosen approaches that we believe are crucial to anti-bias/social justice education. For each of these you will find a brief description and specific examples of implementation strategies.

The word culture refers to a wide range of identity groups and communities. Culturally responsive pedagogy deals with identity issues in all groups and communities such as gender, ability/disability, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status as well as race, ethnicity, language and nationality.

Considering all that culture encompasses, think about the following: How do you incorporate culture in your classroom?

In looking more directly at instruction, we must keep in mind that culturally responsive pedagogy:

  • engages learners in student-centered learning that values their lives and what they bring to their own learning
  • teaches students to critically engage with meaningful social issues and to build bridges across difference (within and outside of school)
  • addresses a range of learning styles and multiple intelligences
  • is supported by authentic, holistic evaluation that is consistent with anti-bias and social justice values

In this professional development, learners will:

  • define critical engagement with material;
  • explore differentiated instruction methods;
  • identify key components of cooperative and collaborative learning;
  • explore methods for making real-world connections to instruction; and
  • evaluate grading procedures to look at more value-based assessments and evaluations.


List 10 words or phrases that you associate with what instruction looks like in a culturally responsive classroom.

Critical Engagement with Material

Let’s begin by looking specifically at identifying critical engagement with material. Students need to analyze what they are studying and be active participants in their own learning. One component of being an active participant is thinking critically and asking higher-order questions. Let’s explore a classroom example. While watching the clip, think about what Amber Makaiau, a recipient of the 2012 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching, does to establish a means for students to be critically engaged. Identify how students are engaged.

Go Deeper:

Critical engagement means that the teacher doesn’t hold all the knowledge. Instead, it rests on a foundation of mutual dialogue, in which students’ ideas as well as teachers’ are given deep respect and value. Critical engagement facilitates simultaneous participation of all students.

How do each of the following activity examples from Amber Makaiau’s classroom demonstrate tasks that require students to critically engage?

  • Building on intergroup awareness
  • Engaging families and communities in ways that are meaningful and culturally competent
  • Creating a classroom environment that reflects diversity, equity and justice
  • Supporting students’ identities and making it safe for them to fully be themselves
  • Using instructional strategies that support diverse learning styles
  • Allowing time for deep exploration of anti-bias themes


Think about your classroom. Assessing whether an activity is teacher-led vs. student-led and whether it is whole-group, small-group or independent work can help you determine the level of critical engagement required.

In the first column, name five instructional activities you have used this week. Then fill in the other two columns for each activity.

Critical engagement with material should involve a mix of media, whole group vs. small group vs. individual and a large percentage of time should include student-led learning activities.

In what ways do your classroom lessons showcase student-led activities?

In what ways might you do more to encourage critical engagement?

Working in a cohort? Share your responses with a partner.


Differentiated Instruction

The next piece will look specifically at differentiated instruction. 

Differentiated instruction is based on the idea that, rather than bringing a one-size-fits-all mentality to curriculum and learning, teachers should vary and adapt their instructional strategies to fit the different needs, backgrounds, skill levels, talents and learning profiles of individual students.

Listen as Amber discusses differentiated instruction in her practice.

Along with addressing access and support issues, differentiated instruction offers a natural way to normalize these and other differences—and to highlight diversity as a common (and positive) part of the learning process for students. In the context of anti-bias and social justice education, a few key areas of student experience provide especially important opportunities for differentiation. These include:

  • language background and proficiency
  • cultural styles and forms of expression
  • learning differences, IEPs and other special needs

In the interview, how are each of the following areas explicitly addressed?

  • cultural background
  • forms of expression
  • learning differences
  • learning styles
  • special needs

Go Deeper:

Instructional strategies need to be varied to meet the needs of all learners on many levels (e.g., cultural styles, language background/proficiency, and learning differences/IEPs). One component of differentiation is incorporating multiple modalities. 

Let’s revisit what Amber says about learning styles. (11:53-13:40)

While watching the clip a second time, focus on how Amber incorporates culture, forms of expression, learning differences and special needs to meet her students’ needs. 

 Working in a cohort? Share your thoughts with the group.


Take a minute to review the types of modalities, keeping in mind that learning modalities involve the senses:

  • visual (seeing)
  • auditory (hearing)
  • kinesthetic (moving)
  • tactile (touching)

Think about your instructional activities, then categorize, according to modality, activities for each day within your lesson plan. Keep note of how many times in each day a modality was targeted.

Given the data that you entered on the table above, how is the variety of learning modalities in your weekly plans providing access to students with a range of learning styles, cultural backgrounds and learning needs?

How can you ensure your classroom is equitable in meeting varying student needs?

 Working in a cohort? Share your thoughts with a partner.

Cooperative and Collaborative Learning

In the next section, we will look specifically at cooperative learning. Cooperative learning involves small groups of students with a common task that prioritizes student-driven inquiry and peer conversation.

Although cooperative learning is done in groups, it is important to note that not all group projects and team activities necessarily promote deep respect and meaningful intergroup interaction. True cooperative learning has several key features:

  • shared goals that promote interdependence and require meaningful participation from all students
  • explicit value for and incorporation of multiple perspectives, intelligences and ways of approaching tasks
  • thoughtful grouping of students that brings together different demographics, skills and needs within a clear context of respect for diversity
  • individual and group accountability for what is learned and created
  • strong attention to group process, including the explicit teaching of communication, decision making, trust building, facilitation, conflict management, compromise and other collaborative and cross-cultural skills
  • proactive strategies to ensure equal participation and status within teams so that group work does not reinforce existing racial, gender, socioeconomic, linguistic, academic or other divisions. Examples of proactive strategies include:
    • assigning roles to different team members in accordance with their strengths
    • planning projects that require a broad range of skills, including some that do not necessarily correlate with academic achievement (e.g., artistic, theatrical, interpersonal, bilingual or community awareness skills)
    • requiring groups to solicit and synthesize or compare/contrast the perspectives of diverse team members

Go Deeper:

Consider these key features and identify how cooperation is used in this video.

Which of the following examples of cooperative strategies demonstrated in the video do you use in your practice? Which will you add to your practice? What additional structures do you have in place to support collaborative and cooperative work?

Let’s look closely at cooperative practices. In the chart below, notice how effective collaboration looks different from group work in the classroom.

Not all group projects and team activities count as cooperative strategies. Not all promote deep respect and meaningful intergroup interaction. Implementing effective instructional practices helps create equitable access and broad participation by simultaneously engaging all students.

Real-world Connections

Let’s now look at implementing real-world connections into our practice. Real-world connections help students relate what they are learning to their lives and to the world around them. One way of making real-world connections is through the use of personal-reflection prompts. Consider the example classroom activity in this video. 

How do the activities in the video connect students to the real world?

 Working in a cohort? Share your thoughts with the group.

Pick one from the following suggested strategies to implement in your classroom in the coming semester.

• Personal-reflection prompts: Guided reflection is one way for students to connect classroom material with their own lives. This can be done in writing, artwork, one-on-one conversation, small groups or whole-class discussion. Questions may revolve around: how the piece they are reading connects with their own personal experiences, what inspires or upsets them about the text, what questions it raises for them, how they see the issues from what they’ve read playing out in their schools and neighborhoods, or what they think needs to be changed as a result of reading the text in question.

• Connecting to current events: Teachers and students may wish to deepen the conversation by bringing in relevant statistics or news stories to discuss. For historical documents, students can compare and contrast the text with current realities or trace the long-term impact of policies, attitudes, challenges or movements. Having students consider why these connections matter and/or having them consider how the dynamics in question have shaped the experiences of their own families and communities can further enhance relevance.

• Service learning and action projects: Projects can be done individually, in small groups or as a whole class and may be planned by the teacher or developed by the students.

Added plan for success: Name a colleague who can be your ally as you implement one of the above. Solicit his or her support.

Values-based Assessment, Evaluation and Grading

In the next section, we will look specifically at values-based assessment, evaluation and grading. 

We wish to offer a few guiding principles and questions to use in evaluating the work students and teachers do. Assessments need to promote high-quality work without encouraging competition. We hope to provide a means for establishing a way to honor issues of diversity and justice—not just in relation to choosing content, but also in assessing what students have learned and developing thoughtful systems for assigning grades.

Begin by asking yourself:

  • How can we be sure our systems of evaluation promote high-quality work and success for all students, rather than fostering competition, putting students in boxes, or pitting individuals against each other to get the best grades? In other words, how can I make sure that, if everyone learns the material being presented, then everyone can do well?
  • How can assessment tools and grading policies be used to encourage collaboration and to build skills for working across differences, instead of simply supporting individual achievement? Often, in school situations, working together is considered cheating and the only effort that really counts is what students can do on their own. Are there ways to shift this dynamic?
  • How can evaluation and grading practices support authentic, critical engagement with material?
  • What would it look like to assess learning in a way that models deep respect for multiple perspectives and opinions?
  • How can evaluation, assessment and grading policies avoid compounding existing academic differences, particularly those based on social characteristics such as home language, immigrant experience, race, culture, socioeconomic status or disability?

Take a few moments to reread these questions.

Go Deeper:

What does values-based assessment look like? One thoughtful system for assigning grades is student-created portfolios. 

For example, portfolios avoid compounding existing academic differences by allowing students the opportunity to overcome language concerns by showing concepts in English or native language. Many times, students are graded on their communication skills in English rather than their mastery of content. By using student portfolios, we separate language proficiency from content knowledge.

Listen to what Darnell Fine, a recipient of the 2012 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching, says about using portfolios as assessment.

As you watch, answer the following:

  1. How could you implement student-driven portfolios in your classroom?
  2. What are the key components of portfolios? List three ways students could demonstrate mastery of a concept in a portfolio (e.g., creating a picture, a graph, or a table).

 Working in a cohort? Share your thoughts with a partner.

Let’s now take a minute to think about formative and summative assessment practices.

Anna Baldwin, a recipient of the 2012 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching, talks about formative assessment.

As you watch, list examples of formative and summative assessment.

Formative Assessment could include informal questions, daily journal writing and exit slips. Summative Assessment could include end of unit projects, essays and a writing portfolio.

Do your current assessment practices allow everyone to do well?

 Working in a cohort? Share your thoughts with a partner.

Let’s review our objectives. 

  • Define critical engagement with material.
  • Explore differentiated instruction methods.
  • Identify key components of cooperative and collaborative learning.
  • Explore methods for making real-world connections to instruction.
  • Evaluate grading procedures to look at more value-based assessments and evaluations.

Take a minute to remind yourself of the key features of each practice.

Include an action item that you can/will use in your classroom to implement the practice.

Include reflection for each, if necessary.

Let’s extend this implementation exercise. 

What can you change tomorrow in your teaching to incorporate one of the critical practices for instruction into your classroom? Keep in mind that this should be something that takes very little (or no) money and/or outside resources. 

What do you need to make this happen? What steps will you take to accomplish it? Remember to include in your plans the ally you recruited while exploring real-world connections.

 Working in a cohort? Share your thoughts with the group.

At the beginning of this professional development, you listed 10 words or phrases that you associate with culturally responsive classroom instruction. Return to that list now and cross out words or phrases you no longer think apply. Add new words and phrases based on your learning here.

For continued reflection purposes, consider starting a “connections” journal in which you jot down your thoughts and ideas as you progress through implementing Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education. Remember that this work is not in addition to what you already do; rather, you should see it as a way to frame what you are currently doing, so you can be more inclusive in your work with students.


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