“Hey, I Know About This! Now, This Makes Sense!”

Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., Ph.D. and Cara Riggs

 (#5 in a series of blogs focused on Equity, Excellence in E-learning)

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One of the most exhilarating moments in teaching occurs when a student exclaims, “Oh, now I get it! Hey, I know about this! Now, this makes sense!” This seemingly magical moment occurs when a student connects a concept that he or she perceived as foreign, distant, or ambiguous with something that is part of their background or experience. The “aha moment” represents the priceless transition from confusion to understanding, from being a disengaged bystander to becoming an active participant in learning.

In high-performing schools, teachers are constantly trying to help students make connections with new, challenging content. Teachers find, construct, or illuminate bridges that help their students connect their backgrounds, prior knowledge, culture, and experiences with new concepts, ideas, and skills. 

Teaching Practices from America's Best Urban Schools Second Edition Book Cover

In contrast, in struggling schools, teachers tend to assume their students will use textbooks, worksheets, or lecture notes to construct their own routes to understanding, even when those teaching tools offer students little that connects with their cultures, backgrounds, or experiences.

Ladson-Billings (2009), Gay (2010), Hammond (2015) and others have emphasized the importance of teaching to and through students’ personal and cultural strengths, accomplishments, and experiences. In particular, Hammond (2015) explained, “The brain uses cultural information to turn everyday happenings into meaningful events” (p.22). In order for e-learning experiences to be meaningful to students, teachers should plan to provide culturally, socially, and personally responsive teaching.

To maximize the likelihood of “aha moments” teachers should acknowledge that many curricular materials offer little connection to the backgrounds and experiences of millions of public school students. In order to provide culturally responsive lessons, teachers must first, get to know their students, and second, plan lessons that are more likely to resonate with their students. Instead of making negative assumptions about student ability, teachers should assume that their students can learn even the most challenging concepts, when they find ways to help students relate the concepts to their backgrounds, interests, and experiences (Johnson, Uline, & Perez, 2019). The following chart provides some examples of how teachers ensure culturally, socially, and personally responsive teaching. 

Ensuring Culturally, Socially, and Personally Responsive Teaching



Getting to know one’s students. Taking time to learn about their cultures, backgrounds, interests, and experiences. Remembering that each student’s experiences are likely to be unique.

Assuming that you know your students simply because you know their names and demographic characteristics.

Assuming that every student can master challenging academic standards if we “build bridges” to connect with their prior knowledge and experiences.

“Watering down” tough standards or avoiding them altogether.

Regularly planning lessons with colleagues to identify approaches, examples, and connections that are likely to resonate with students.

Exclusively utilizing the “lessons” suggested by teacher guides, textbooks, or worksheets.

Checking with students to ensure that the examples/strategies provided helped students understand key concepts.

Assuming that each attempt to provide a culturally responsive example results in student understanding.

In typical e-learning situations, it is difficult to ensure that students are engaging in lessons and drawing connections between their backgrounds and experiences and key lesson concepts. As educators in high-performing schools pursue e-learning strategies, we find them utilizing a variety of e-learning strategies to promote a high level of understanding. For example, we find teachers:

  • Teaching challenging literacy skills by engaging students in reading literature that resonates positively with their backgrounds.
  • Using time before e-lessons officially begin or after lessons end to engage students in informal conversations about their backgrounds, interests, and cultures.
  • Using online teacher collaboration meetings to brainstorm ideas for teaching challenging objectives by helping students relate popular television programs, movies, games, sports, or personalities to key lesson concepts/skills.
  • In online teacher collaboration meetings, utilizing data from previous assessments to identify possible student misconceptions and planning online instruction to avoid those misconceptions by helping students draw connections to their backgrounds, languages/dialects, or other elements of their cultures.
  • Helping students perceive the potential relevance of academic objectives by introducing mini-biographies of individuals who represent the students’ race/ethnicity, language background, or culture and who achieved successes by mastering the objective or related objectives.
  • Engaging students in “electronic breakout rooms” where they are asked to create real-world problems (related to the lesson objective) that reflect situations that might be familiar to themselves or their classmates.
  • Engaging students in small groups to re-write problems in ways that are more likely to reflect their interests and experiences.

E-learning can present great opportunities to enhance culturally responsive teaching. This is a perfect time to work with colleagues to create strategies for helping students experience “aha moments” and realize, “Hey, I know about this!”


Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). New York, Teachers College Press.

Hamond, Z. L. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Johnson, J.F., Uline, C.L., & Perez, L.G. (2019). Teaching practices from America’s best urban schools: A guide for school and classroom leaders. New York, NY: Routledge.

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

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