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Cultural Code Shifting; avoiding "Right Way"

Our school avoids presenting Western culture as the “right way” and seeks out opportunities in which Indigenous ways of being are valued and invited into classroom activities. Cultural code-shifting is when a student shifts between cultural expectations based on their surroundings. We help students think about when this might be helpful, yet also encourage them to think about when it can be enriching to share their Indigenous ways of being. 

Not Yet

Situations that require code shifting are presented such that students must learn the “right way” to do things.  When students do not naturally participate in the expected norms of the school culture, they are seen as deficient in skills.


No acknowledgement of the skill of code-shifting.  Little concerted effort to recognize Indigenous ways of knowing or doing or Indigenous ways are expected to be expressed outside of the classroom but not viewed as valuable in the academic setting. 

We Got This!

Teachers use the term cultural code-shifting as a recognition of a skill rather than present the requested western behavior as “correct”.  Opportunities are created in the classroom for students to share and present indigenous ways of doing within the classroom setting.



Code-shifting is commonly used to describe the practice of moving back and forth between two languages for bilingual people.  It can also be used to reference switching between cultural norms and expectations. Just like with language, cultural code shifting often requires a deeper understanding of subtleties and ways of thinking, not just a knowledge of words or actions.  In a school environment, students are often expected to take on the cultural norms of the school, typically white middle class, as the “right way” to do things with little or no acknowledgement of the value of other cultures.  It is sometimes important for students to learn these school expectations to help them in future environments yet presenting it as a code-switching skill that values both cultures invites students to carry with them a sense of cultural belonging even when the situation calls for a code switch.  When the school culture is presented as the “right way”, it may lead to students feeling they “do not belong” in future education settings. 

Wisdom & Experiences

Permission Pending

"When I graduated college and became a teacher, I felt like I needed to mimic Western presentation to be considered successful.  I wore what I thought a teacher is supposed to wear, heels and a skirt... I wore those things because I thought I had to...even I was assimilated."

As she progressed in her career, XXX learned that she could bring more of her authentic self to work.  She now teaches other educators how to recognize and value Indigenous ways of being and knowing in the classroom.

"My daughter, because she went to a Yup'ik Immersion school and has been taught that her culture belongs in the classroom, she has always worn a Qaspeq, she is less assimilated than I was."

Links & Resources

Great read!

Here is a great short account of how one African American woman describes code-shifting and her own recognition of code-shifting. 

Code-Switching Is Not Trying to Fit in to White Culture, It’s Surviving It  by Ida Harris (2019) Yes! Magazine


See full research list


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