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Inclusive Education in BC, Canada


All children regardless of challenges are welcome to attend local public schools in the neighborhood in British Columbia. Inclusive education in BC has a diversity model which embraces the idea that special needs extend beyond disabilities. Canada is also a home to many immigrants. Students who speak languages other than English at home attend public schools. Additionally, the BC curriculum recognizes the importance of students’ choices and teachers are given flexibility on how to teach, based on the idea that there should be various entry and exit points in learning. However, implementing an inclusive environment where multi-grade students exist, with students of various learning difficulties or disabilities in one classroom with one classroom teacher, is not an easy task. This report will discuss the inclusive education in BC, highlighting some examples of inclusiveness for English Language Learners and students’ choices as well as differences between BC, Canada and Japan.


Inclusive education, diversity, English Language Learners, student choice

We live in British Columbia, Canada, and our daughter attends a public elementary school. The principle of inclusive education in BC has shifted from a segregation style of categorizing and dividing students based on differences such as students with special needs, English language learners or gender, into accepting students in diversity of all aspects. This contrasts with what Japan regards as inclusion at school. Inclusive education in BC may have gained wide acceptance due to the following two features of social background.

First, the idea of multiculturalism established in 1971 means the country is accepting an increasing number of immigrants. The majority of people living in this country have a variety of linguistic and cultural differences.

Second, the reform of the BC curriculum has been gradually occurring since 2015, and teachers are "provided with great flexibility in creating learning environments." Flexibility is also given "to inspire the personalization of learning and addresses the diverse needs and interests of BC students."*1

Each year Canada is accepting more immigrants, and their number currently accounts for a quarter of the national population.*2 This means that there are many people whose first languages are not English, and students attending schools use different languages in their households. The BC curriculum also values student's choice in their learning methods and the flexibility of lesson contents at schools.*3 This comes from the idea that each student has their own pace and way of learning, and there should be various entry and exit points in lessons. Although there are many split classes (i.e., Grades 1 and 2 or 3 and 4 together in one classroom), the practice of inclusive education where all students are included regardless of individual needs in the same classroom is not an easy task. Described below is BC's inclusive education especially focusing on examples of English Language Learners (ELL) teaching and students' choices, and my insights derived from the topic.

1. Creating an inclusive classroom to accommodate English Language Learners (ELL)

When I was an international student for a year in a Canadian high school, there was an ESL (English as a Second Language) class where non-native English speaker students were separated outside the regular classroom. The term ESL has now changed to EAL(English as an Additional Language), and those students whose mother tongue language is not English are now called ELL (English Language Learners) .*4 The approach to support ELL students has shifted from the segregation style. The ELL support teacher comes into a classroom where students with language assistant needs are immersed in the regular classroom lessons, or temporarily pulls out one or a few from the mainstream classroom to support them. The so-called "reasonable accommodation" in the inclusive education practice where ELL students are integrated is beneficial for them and for everyone.

Making instructions visual

Visual instruction is helpful for ELL students who may take time to understand spoken instructions. For instance, when explaining a writing task procedure such as choosing a topic, drawing a picture, describing in words, coloring the picture, giving peer feedback, and then putting it in your binder, can be long and complicated. The teacher can write numbers accompanying pictures to create a visual flowchart on the board which allows not only ELL students but also students with learning disabilities such as ADHD or autism or LD to understand the instruction better. It also gives them independence to resolve instructional issues during their learning process. This is beneficial for teachers as well, saving them from explaining multiple times or being frustrated.

Increase group work

Group work is also an approach practiced in many classrooms, benefitting not only ELL students but all. This collaboration skill is said to be one of the needed competencies for children in the 21st century. The accuracy and speed that were once critical are now managed by computers, and the focus is shifting to nurturing critical thinking and problem solving along with collaboration skills.*5 For ELL, it is also their opportunity to practice language with peers. By implementing groupwork, there are more chances of increased attention and support from extra adults such as a resource or ELL teacher sitting at the table, which benefits various students.

2. Student Choice
There are no individual sets of desks and chairs.

We rarely see individual sets of desks and chairs in public elementary schools. Instead, there are tables with chairs placed around. Students often do not face the front of the classroom where blackboard and teachers traditionally once were situated. "Carpet Learning" is a style which is becoming more popular. A large carpet lays on the floor in an area of the classroom where students gather to sit and participate in interactive teacher-students and/or peer learning. This is perhaps related to the role of the teacher moving from instructing to facilitating here in BC.

Encourage numerous ways of learning and output.

One example of this is a writing activity called "story workshop" for primary students. Students choose loose materials based on themes such as the beach, Arctic, unicorn, etc. and create stories using them. While writing stories in words is the recommended learning outcome, constructing narrative is the competency goal, and students are given choices from expressing their stories in a written form to drawing pictures or verbally telling their stories.

Another example is math task cards that are used in the upper elementary classroom (4th and 5th grades). These cards reflect various levels of math proficiency. For instance, division tasks range from challenging ones such as dividing 4 digits by 2 digits, to simpler ones such as 2 digits by 1 digit without remainders. Students are given choices to choose which card they want to try to solve. (There may be an instruction to at least try two cards). Students can work on the math problems independently or with a group of peers at the table, and are allowed to seek the teacher's help as well.

The BC curriculum allows both teachers and students considerable flexibility in the content and methods of learning. Students are given the choice and responsibility for their own learning in order to achieve their learning goals. The emphasis is on competencies such as problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration skills, or the findings in their learning paths, instead of mastering subject contents. In addition, teacher training programs also highlight student agency, universal design and differentiation, and this is reflected in the classrooms.*6*7 In Japan, classrooms are still textbook-oriented; memorization is essential in mastering Chinese characters; and there are entrance examinations to enter junior and senior high schools as well as colleges/universities. As long as teachers are aiming to teach contents through uniform instruction, it seems that inclusive education may be possible only in a limited way.

However, neither can I say that the inclusive education in BC is perfect. While there are no entrance exams, grades in high schools are important to determine university admission. The university courses are similar to that of high schools in Japan: assessment is based on exam scores and it is often regarded as severe. Many point out that it is easy to get into university in BC but graduating from it is challenging. Overall, memorization and content mastery are regarded as important and they are reflected in the grades here as well.

While it is ideal for students to have their own choices, it also comes with significant responsibility. The freedom allows time not being used for learning to increase. If students are given choices for the level of what they learn, they may tend to select tasks that are easy, potentially leading them not to choose anything challenging enough, therefore halting their academic growth. In addition, the burden on a single classroom teacher is immense in such a system. In order to implement inclusive education, the ratio of one adult per twenty to thirty students is not realistic. On this matter, too, BC also faces a lack of teachers, and some who become teachers quit their profession within a few years, just as in Japan.

It is a wonderful idea for children to have choices, understand their responsibilities, and ensure that there are various entry and exit points for learning available to everyone in an inclusive environment. However, there may be a gap of understanding between the reality of implementing inclusiveness at schools by classroom teachers, and the political framework of the government. Japan and BC seem to share this common aspect.



Wakana Takai-MacLean

Born in Gunma prefecture, she has lived half her life in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. She traveled to and lived in Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, biking and hiking. She has taught both English and Japanese languages at universities before moving to Victoria in 2012, then to the Okanagan in 2018. Currently working as a BC certified translator (a certified member of the Society of Translators and Interpreters of British Columbia), she also embraces the joys and challenges of raising her daughter bilingually and biculturally.