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Supporting students through culturally responsive teaching & learning materials: Lessons from Afghanistan, Liberia, and Morocco

Wed, March 25, 11:45am to 1:15pm, Hyatt Regency Miami, Floor: 3rd, President's Room

Group Submission Type: Formal Panel Session (English)


Over the past ten years, awareness of the global learning crisis has increased exponentially (see World Bank, 2019). Civil society assessments, conducted in Asia, Africa, and Latin America by hundreds of thousands of volunteers, have shown parents, teachers, and communities around the world that sending children to school does not guarantee learning. Assessments funded by governments and development partners have raised awareness among policy experts and development practitioners in almost every country and development agency. For the first time, learning is highlighted in the development goals promoted by the United Nations, as part of Sustainable Development Goal 4 (see

One result of this increased attention to student learning has been the advent of programs focused on improving the foundational skill of reading, many of them funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). As with many international development projects (Fuller and Clarke, 1994), the majority of these reading programs have been led by expatriate researchers and practitioners who may not be fully aware of the cultural contexts in which they are working (Anderson-Levitt, 2004). In most, practitioners have attempted to use approaches to reading instruction that are based on research in the United States and other “developed” countries, which are not always congruent with existing approaches to reading instruction in the Global South (ibid). Some of the “first generation” programs, most started around 2011 when USAID issued an Education Strategy that included a goal of improving student reading, use imported teaching and learning materials in their original forms and languages, and some of them use translated imported materials. These materials were seen as high quality, low cost, and rapidly available, but they were limited in their responsiveness to local educational practice or culture.

More recently, second and third generation reading programs have had the time and opportunity to refine their approaches to instruction. With results of first generation programs less promising than initially anticipated, these reflections have resulted in programming shifts towards contextualization and sustainability. Funders and implementing partners have become aware that the leadership of national governments and the development of country-specific approaches are critical for scale and sustainability. Feedback from teachers, students, and community members has stressed the importance of culturally responsive learning materials to increase student engagement and motivation, both of which are key for reading success (Wigfield et al, 2016).

The increasing number of students living in conflict-affected areas has also increased calls to incorporate social and emotional learning (SEL) in curricular materials. SEL was specifically mentioned in the SDGs as well, as Goal 4.7. The recent publication of the NISSEM (Networking to Integrate SDG Target 4.7 and Social and Emotional Learning into Educational Materials) Global Briefs, a collection of more than forty papers by more than 60 contributors examining the importance of social and emotional learning and approaches to integrating it in instruction, has reinforced the urgency of creating contextualized instructional materials.

“Culturally responsive” instruction is defined by Ladson-Billings (2009) as “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” In the Global South, many countries have education systems that were initially designed by colonial regimes with particular, often political, goals in mind. Shifting these education systems to ones that better serve their students and communities requires a culturally responsive pedagogy that includes the use of languages that students speak and understand, teaching approaches that are built on traditional approaches used outside the school, materials and content that respects local culture, and development processes that involve teachers, parents, and community members.

This panel will focus on the key role that the content and development of education materials plays in strengthening education systems and anchoring schools in their communities. As mentioned above, most instructional programs with a focus on improving student reading outcomes have had to develop new materials, both to respond to a general scarcity of textbooks and supplementary reading materials (World Bank, 2015) and to improve the content and pedagogical approaches in existing books. The programs featured in this panel have made explicit efforts to develop culturally responsive materials through a process that has involved teachers, parents, students, and community members, in hopes that teachers will be more likely to use materials that respond to teachers’ needs and to the needs of the students who are in their classrooms.

This panel will bring together a diverse group of presenters, working in Liberia, Afghanistan, and Morocco; very different contexts with very different educational histories. The panelists will explain the theoretical groundings of their programs, discuss the history of the education context in the countries where they’re working and how it has influenced the roles of education professionals and community members in their programs, and then explain implementation approaches, and results to date. The panelists will end their presentations with reflections on lessons learned to date that will influence program development going forward and work in other settings. Following the presentation, the discussant and chair will engage the panelists and audience in a discussion around deepening connections between classrooms and society to strengthen communities and support student learning.

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