Fall 2019

Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Importance of Assessment in Canadian Schools

The Changing Nature of Canadian Classrooms

Canadian classrooms are becoming more and more culturally diverse. Increases in international migration and the relative share of minority groups and indigenous school-aged populations in provincial education systems are on the rise. Such diversity adds immense wealth to our learning cultures. Indeed, approximately 30% of Canadian teenagers have an immigrant background with provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia possessing an even larger share of first- and second-generation immigrant students at 44% and 36%, respectively (Council of Ministers of Education Canada, 2015). Similarly, the most recent census data indicated that “Aboriginal” or more appropriately, Indigenous people – defined as those who are First Nations (North American Indian), Métis or Inuk (Inuit) and/or those who are Registered or Treaty Indians (that is, registered under the Indian Act of Canada), and/or those who have membership in a First Nation or Indian band – experienced a population growth of 42.5% since 2006 – which was more than four times the population growth of the non-Indigenous populations over the same period (Statistics Canada, 2017). Collectively, our increased cultural diversity underscores the importance of teaching and learning environments that reflect and support our pluralistic society. As a result, the classrooms of today in most Canadian schools are far more diverse than ever before.

The Challenge of Culturally Responsive Teaching

Teachers and school administrators have responsibilities to ensure learning and achievement is attainable and equitable for all students, regardless of culture, ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, language, gender, or religious background. As many Canadian educators know, one approach to meeting these responsibilities is to promote culturally responsive teaching (CRT) and to support teachers in continuing to develop their CRT skills through training and ongoing professional development. CRT, sometimes referred to as culturally relevant teaching, is generally considered pedagogy (teaching methods and practices) that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural (broadly defined) backgrounds and references in all aspects of learning (Ladson-Billings, 1995).

This pedagogical approach may seem straightforward in a multicultural country such as Canada, but the stark differences between the cultural characteristics of K-12 teachers and the students they teach suggest otherwise. In many schools throughout the country, the diversity of the student population far exceeds the diversity of the teaching population. For example, Canada’s largest province, Ontario, has a significant teacher diversity gap as evidenced by fairly recent demographic data that indicated racial minorities represent 26% of the population – yet comprise only 9% of the 117,905 elementary school and kindergarten teachers and 10% of the 70,520 secondary school teachers (New Canadian Media, 2014). Although CRT does not rely on equal representation alone, significant teacher diversity gaps do suggest many Canadian students may not always encounter educator role models who reflect diverse cultural backgrounds throughout their schooling experiences. Not only that, but teachers with diverse backgrounds affirm the experiences of minority students, champion solidarity causes, and tend to support relevant efforts within schools. Of course, these roles are not exclusively fulfilled by teachers of diverse backgrounds; however, decreasing the teacher diversity gap is one key strategy to promote CRT within schools.

Recruiting and Preparing CRT Teachers and School Leaders

In most countries, the typical person expecting a career in teaching is a female with no immigrant background (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2018). While previous statistics may be somewhat surprising, they must also be understood in relation to our global context in which student populations are increasingly becoming substantially more heterogenous than teacher populations. Recruiting a more diverse teaching and school leadership workforce begins in the K-12 system. How we talk to students from diverse backgrounds about teaching as a profession, change cultural views about teachers and their roles, and supporting pathways into the profession as well as leadership succession planning are all important. Targeted recruitment efforts across the diversity spectrum coupled with specialized teacher education programs and equity-based selection and promotion practices are key levers in changing the demographic profile of the teaching and school administration population.  

However, efforts to attract a more representative body of educators across provincial education systems must also be coupled with relevant training and professional development for pre-service and in-service teachers as well as school and district administrators (Volante, 2012). Such training needs to extend beyond traditional multicultural education approaches or what has been called a ‘tourist’ curriculum (Derman-Sparks, 1991), and instead must engage in a multi-dimensional approach to cultural awareness and teaching that involves: (a) content integration, (b) cultural knowledge construction, (c) prejudice reduction, (d) equity pedagogies, and (e) empowering a school culture that involves critically examining and leveraging cultural identity for learning (Banks, 2007).

Collectively, our experiences working with school administrators, teachers, and teacher educators across Canada and many parts of the world such as Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, Great Britain, and the United States have reaffirmed many of the findings noted in the research literature. Namely, that providing educators with purposeful learning opportunities that build cultural competence, establishing a positive learning environment, and organizing field experiences with a focus on diversity are critical elements for promoting student success in culturally diverse societies (DeLuca, 2012; Ellerbrock, Cruz, Vasquez, & Howes, 2016). Perhaps most importantly, we contend that teachers and school administrators must be open to recognizing and promoting the unique strengths of Canada’s diverse school-aged population in a manner that affirms their cultural background in both instructional and assessment approaches. This recognition must be more than a passing celebration or acknowledgment to include ongoing efforts to appreciate and incorporate multiple perspectives, where appropriate, that highlight the value of such perspectives to support both teaching and learning. 

Assessment as a Second Challenge

Our academic backgrounds also draw our attention to an area that has been somewhat neglected in this broader discussion of CRT – namely, the assessment and evaluation strategies that are traditionally used within school systems. Most educators now accept that assessment should occur throughout instruction from the beginning (diagnostic) to the end (summative). And that assessment can be a powerful support of learning when used throughout learning to provide meaningful feedback to students (i.e., assessment for learning or formative assessment). That is, teachers need to carefully consider assessment and evaluation before they begin a lesson or unit of study and need to use assessments while they teach to monitor students’ learning. Teachers’ competency to effectively use assessment to support student learning and to accurately report on that learning is referred to as assessment literacy (e.g., Deluca & LaPointe-McEwan, 2017: https://www.edcan.ca/articles/boost-your-assessment-fluency/) and our research suggests it can be enhanced through effective professional development (Klinger, Volante, & DeLuca, 2012; Volante, 2012). Cross-national research suggests professional development is high quality when it provides opportunities for active learning (i.e., not only listening to a lecturer); is offered over an extended time period; includes a group of colleagues from the same school or subject group; and provides collective learning activities or research with other educators (OECD, 2017/2016).

We still need such professional development given that in spite of the research and knowledge supporting formative assessment, assessment practices often continue to operate in more traditional ways in our schools, for example as measures of students’ final learning in courses (i.e., final unit tests or examinations) or through large-scale testing programs (e.g., provincial, state, or national testing systems). These traditional fixtures of assessment continue to proliferate throughout the world and have unfortunately not always been responsive to cultural factors that may differentially impact students. We argue that if we are going to make strides towards CRT in our schools and classrooms then we must not neglect assessment – as assessment is a pervasive aspect of Canadian teaching and learning. Given our commitment to CRT, we must ensure assessments are equally culturally responsive – culturally-responsive assessment (CRA). The need for CRA stems from the challenge already highlighted in large-scale measures, often used for accountability purposes, which are not always fair and can be biased against particular cultural groups (Volante, 2008). At the classroom level, assessments need to be equally responsive to the diversity of learners, with teachers highly attentive to this dimension of their assessment practice. That said, greater efforts to support teachers via professional development – in-service and pre-service – to ensure that CRA are used consistently in classrooms throughout Canada is key. In supporting teachers in their CRT practice, we acknowledge the need to combine the dual movements of CRT with greater levels of assessment-informed teaching to ensure assessments are also culturally responsive. Given the connection between teaching and assessment, and the pervasive use of assessments in schools today, we argue that efforts to promote CRT in pre-service and in-service teachers will have limited success in the absence of assessment literacy development and appropriate instructional leadership within schools. Further, ongoing professional development in assessment needs to expand beyond the broad of domains of formative assessment to more deeply explore the interrelationships and interactions amongst teaching, learning, and assessment for our diverse classrooms and students. Explicit attempts to promote culturally responsive teaching need to adopt a broad notion of pedagogy that gives equal attention to instructional and assessment approaches. Overall, teachers’ assessment literacy requires the inclusion of culturally responsive frameworks in order to develop fair practices that provide accurate information about students’ learning, regardless of their cultural background.

Acknowledgements: This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Louis Volante (PhD) is a Professor at the Faculty of Education, Brock University, is a Professorial Fellow at UNU-MERIT / Graduate School of Governance and is President-Elect, of the Canadian Educational Researchers Association.

Christopher DeLuca, is an associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University.

Don A. Klinger, is Pro Vice-Chancellor, at the Division of Education, University of Waikato in New Zealand.
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