The Case for Culturally-Responsive Education

In 2015, the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada noted that, in the past, Canadian education systems were used as a tool for assimilation of our Indigenous people. That same report also noted that, today, education can be used as a tool for reconciliation. Its subsequent Calls to Action, all 94 of which have been adopted by our federal government, and supported by all Canadian provinces, noted that educators have important responsibilities and opportunities to work with Indigenous communities in order to ensure success of their students in the 21st century.

There is broad consensus among members of educational communities across Canada that they share a responsibility to ensure that their campuses and programs demonstrate cultural sensitivity as a way to ensure success for all members of our diverse and multicultural student and workforce populations. Culturally sensitive education seeks to close the achievement gap for students and workers.

With a goal to close that gap, the Accord on Indigenous Education (ACED), developed and adopted by the Association of Canadian Deans of Education in 2010, provides a framework for preparing culturally sensitive teachers, as well as providing direction in establishing culturally sensitive education systems. In order to achieve these important Canadian societal goals, the ACDE envisions that "Indigenous identities, cultures, languages, values, ways of knowing, and knowledge systems will flourish in all Canadian learning settings" (p13). Among the goals of the Association of Canadian Deans of Education are that all educational institutions in Canada will develop "culturally responsive pedagogies," and "culturally responsive assessment."

The view of the Association of Canadian Deans of Education was supported by the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education, which stated in its 2012 Key Policy Statement that standardized tests "can be subject to cultural bias and therefore provide an inaccurate measure of achievement in Aboriginal students. Cultural bias can appear in tests in the form of questions that depend on vocabulary, social experiences, or culture that are unfamiliar to some Aboriginal students and can also include attitudes toward the testing experience itself" (p29). This report continues that "standardized tests can also be used in ways that undermine the goals of testing." The recommendation in this report was that "Jurisdictions should therefore undertake, in collaboration with their Aboriginal partners, to develop and administer appropriate instruments for assessing academic progress" (p29).

This view is supported in the 2010 report summarizing the environmental scan of colleges serving Aboriginal learners and communities conducted by the Association of Canadian Community Colleges (CICAN). The report on the environmental scan noted that the majority of respondent colleges stressed the need for culturally-appropriate assessment approaches and tools to more effectively address the needs of Aboriginal students. The report further noted specifically that these assessment approaches and tools should be "holistic in nature to take into account Aboriginal learners' history, educational challenges, and high school and work experience" (p33). The CICAN report continued that there is "increasing discussion about adopting more inclusive approaches for program content and delivery by embedding Aboriginal culture, tradition and world views in the curriculum" (p38).

In Alberta, the 2008 Policy Statement of Alberta Education noted among its goals to "provide First Nations, Metis and Inuit learners with access to culturally relevant learning opportunities and quality support services." Among its listed strategies in this report are included: a commitment to incorporate Aboriginal knowledge and learning systems into the provincial curriculum; improve mechanisms to measure First Nation, Metis, and Inuit learner success; increase the linkages between education and employment for First Nations, Metis and Inuit learners; identify and reduce barriers to First Nations, Metis and Inuit learner success (p10-13).

Since 2008, the government of Alberta has re-stated its policy and devoted resources to ensuring that all learning systems in the province reflect a commitment to the de-colonization of education. In Alberta's Expression of Reconciliation for the Legacy of the Indian Residential School System, issued in 2014, the government of Alberta committed to incorporate the diverse perspectives of First Nations, Metis and Inuit people living in Alberta into the education curriculum.

In a broader perspective on the success of our Indigenous learners, Dr. Marie Battiste argues that we should not view Indigenous people as under-privileged or disadvantaged, but rather that we should view them as historically distinct and socio-political people. If we are to do that, then formal education and job skills training programs, with the mandate to help every student in Canada attain long-term and meaningful employment, should recognize the distinct cultures of our Indigenous peoples.

While Indigenous communities across Canada are culturally diverse, they share a commonality as oral societies with a learning system that incorporates a holistic approach to learning that is grounded in both theory and method - learn how to be and learn how to do through the 3 L's of learning: looking, listening and learning. This knowledge translation system does not always correspond well with standardized written testing formats designed by Western educational theory.

Increasingly, education providers across Canada are recognizing that standardized testing often presents barriers to Indigenous learners. Learning institutions and job skills providers are responding by incorporating alternative training and testing tools as a way to ensure that all students have equal opportunity to succeed and to obtain long-term meaningful employment.


Alberta Education. (2008). First Nations, Metis and Inuit Education Policy Framework: Progress Report.

Archibald, J. Lundy, J. Reynolds, C & L Williams. (2010). Accord on Indigenous Education. Retrieved from CSEE:

Association of Canadian Community Colleges. (2010). Colleges Serving Aboriginal Learners and Communities, 2010 Environmental Scan: Trends, Programs, Services, Partnerships, Challenges and Lessons Learned.

Battiste, M.A. (2013). Decolonizing education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit. Saskatoon, Sask: Purich Publishing Ltd.

Friesen, Jane and Brian Krauth. (2012). Key Policy Issues in Aboriginal Education: An Evidence-Based Approach. Council of Ministers of Education.

Government of Albeta. (2014). Expression of Reconciliation for the Legacy of the Indian Residential School System.

Phipott, D., Nesbitt, W.C., Cahill, M., & Jeffery.G. (2004). "Educational Assessment of First Nations Students: A Review of the Literature." in W.D. Nesbit (ed.), Cultural Diversity and Education: Interface Issues (pp 77-102). T. John's, NL: Memorial University.

Thompson Community Circle. (2015). Voice Pathways to Success: Cultural Proficiency Success Pathway. Ninikopiw pisim.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Calls to Action.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future, Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.