Global Faculty Development The University of Tokyo


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Shifting Paradigms: Empowering Students through Culturally Responsive Pedagogy in Higher Education

On July 3rd, 2023, GFD hosted an online seminar with Yilin Sun, Emeritus Professor of Continuing Education at Seattle Colleges. In addition to her impressive scholarly and professional accomplishments, her dedication to helping students learn and grow came through during her inspiring seminar on empowering students through a culturally responsive pedagogy. 

While Yilin offered us many insights, two of them stood out. The first insight pertains to shifting our own mindsets as educators from “deficit-based” to “asset-based,” that is, to re-conceive the cultural differences that students bring to the classroom (e.g., along the dimensions of socioeconomic background, gender, race/ethnicity, learning style) as resources for enriching collective learning experience. Importantly, this shift in our mindsets requires us to reflect on our implicit biases regarding students and their cultures and practice “de-biasing” our minds reflexively.

Yilin’s second insight complements her first: shifting from the “deficit-based” mindset to the “asset-based” one is coterminous with shifting from the “traditional” approach to the “transformed” one that enables students to exercise a greater degree of agency in their learning. Through this transformed approach, educators become “facilitators” — rather than “teachers” — who encourage and motivate students to deeply learn about themselves vis-a-vis the world through dialogues and collaborations across cultural boundaries. 

In short, this powerfully transformative pedagogy operates as a process, i.e., a feedback loop between “identifying assets,” “activating assets,” and “cultivating assets.” Given its fundamentally iterative nature, the asset-based culturally responsive pedagogy enables students to make the best of their cultural differences as evolving resources for learning over the course of the semester. To successfully implement such a pedagogy, we educators must first practice and embody respect for cultural differences among our students and the skills to mobilize these differences as resources for learning and growth.

At first glance, this pedagogy may look demanding for many professors busy with research. But, in the context of contemporary Japan, where we have an increasing number of international students vis-a-vis Japanese students who care about diversity and inclusion, it is crucial to promote the asset-based, culturally responsive pedagogy that Yilin advocates. Especially at the University of Tokyo, this pedagogy is doubly critical: while it goes without saying that Japanese faculty members will do well by being culturally responsive to international students, international faculty members will do well, too, by being culturally responsive to Japanese students by avoiding the “deficit-based” mindset to label them as “shy,” “passive,” etc. In this regard, we were very fortunate to host Yilin’s online seminar, and we look forward to learning more from her in the future.