Monday, 13 February 2017

Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Responsiveness: Culture, Ethnicity and Diversity

"If we look at a child's colouring book, before it has any colour added to it, 
we think of the page as blank.  It's actually not blank, it's white.  
That white background is just 'there' and we don't think much about it ... "

Culture forms the base of our world views, beliefs, language, values and identity.  It acts as a filter that helps us to make sense of our world.  It consists of visible or tangible elements such as crafts, music, art and technology, and also the invisible or intangible elements such as our values, beliefs, feelings, opinions, perspectives and assumptions (Irvine, 2010).

When our students come into our classrooms, they bring with them all of their cultural experiences.  This provides a rich foundation for us as educators to build on their prior knowledge, acting as cultural translators to help make appropriate linkages between what the students know and what they need to understand.  However, research has shown Māori and Pasifika students are not doing so well at school due to a number of factors, including how the culture in the classroom is not reflective of the culture known to Māori and Pasifika students (Hunter & Hunter, 2016).

The dilemma lies in the incompatibility between the cultural filters educators use to send messages to students, which are being received through the student's own set of cultural filters.  If these do not match, then learning cannot be effective (Gay 2010).  As educators, we need to explore ways to adapt the sending mechanism, by critically identifying and exploring our own cultural filters. We need to know ourselves, where we come from, and who we are - turangawaewae, as well as the learners we engage with.  We must pull apart what culture is, and what our culture is, to ensure we do not complate it with ethnicity.  This requires some radical re-wiring in the minds of educators about their role and how they relate to their students.

It is important to recognise at this point that students are not mirror representatives of a cultural ethnic group.  Culture is not a trait on their membership in a particular community (Gutierrez, 2010).  They are individual students with their own strengths, interests and needs.  Their attachment/bonds to an ethnic group vary, are are influenced by how long they have been in the country, social class, experiences in the community and neighbourhood.  While there may be commonalities, the Ministry of Education's requirements that we identify, report and adapt specific teaching pedagogies based solely on student ethnicity does provide a dilemma here.

Diversity encompasses many characteristics including ethnicity, socio-economic background, home language, gender, special needs, disability, and giftedness. Teaching needs to be responsive to diversity within ethnic groups, for example, diversity within Pakeha, Māori, Pasifika and Asian students, however we also need to recognise the diversity within individual students influenced by intersections of gender, cultural heritage(s), socio-economic background, and talent (Alton-Lee, 2003). Evidence shows teaching that is responsive to student diversity can have very positive impacts on low and high achievers at the same time, an emphases the importance of quality teaching methods compatible to Maori and built on relational trust.  This is central to the classroom endeavour and should be the focus of quality teaching in Aotearoa, New Zealand, where our culturally diverse groups often struggle to find success in a largely Pakeha education System (Pihama, 2012).

I believe we have an fundamental obligation to ensure our schools reflect all of the cultural experiences of our students, at every level.  At our school we have recently reviewed our vision.  As a staff we shared a number of ideas, ranging from acrostic poems reflecting our school name, listing the key skills and values we believed to be important (similar to a graduate profile), through to ideas that reflected our schools logo and the meaning of Te Atatu: The dawn - such as 'Rising to Success'.  Armed with these ideas, we facilitated a community day where members of our SLT, selected student representatives from our Leadership Academy, whanau and our BOT were invited to come and share their thoughts.  It was a great day, but what impressed me the most was how the vision transformed after the different cultural lenses we each had were applied.  We emerged with a very different vision which I believe much better reflects our diverse community and shared aspirations for our students: 

Working Together - Mahi Tahi, 
Learning Together - Ako Tahi, 
Growing Together - Tupu Tahi.

This new, inspiring vision, is transforming the way that learning looks within our school.  It is such a dramatic move from our previous vision - 'Wisdom with Truth' that there is a sense among the staff that it has brought with it permission to transform how learning looks and how students work within our school.  The signage within our school is changing to reflect the cultural diversity represented in our school, and our PB4L resources have also been redesigned to reflect the different languages spoken within our school.  Our unit themes have also changed dramatically, from contexts such as 'Careers' and 'Flight' to Turangawaewae and Whanaungatanga.  This vision encourages teachers to research and explore culturally-based examples and contexts that reflect the lives of our students and inquire into practices that are underpinned by a strong awareness of indigenous cultural values, which is being supported through school-wide PLD.

In my own practice, I aspire to create to a place where:

  • Teachers are aware of the students different cultural identities.
  • Students cultural contexts are incorporated into teaching and learning environments and programmes.
  • Teachers provide practical opportunities for all students to be proud and share their languages and cultures through cultural groups, special events and school festivals that celebrate cultural difference.
  • Students experience learning contexts from multiple cultures.
  • There are clear expectations in schools' charters for celebration of diversity, stating the right for all children to feel culturally safe.
  • Staff are representative of many cultures and reflect the diversity of our student populations.

As a school, we are not there yet, but great things come from small beginnings.  I aspire for our school to become He wahi tutaki mo nga tamariki o te ao - A meeting place for the children of the world, where each student genuinely feels like they belong - Manakitanga, and are supported and accepted Whanaungatanga, for who they are, the experiences they bring and knowledge they are able to share.


  1. Hi Ellie,
    I love how your BOT, SLT,student representatives and whanau came together to form a vision. It represents a culturally responsive leadership and shows a commitment to building relations within the school and with the community, reaching out to all the different cultures.The idea of the PB4L resources being redesigned to reflect the different languages in your school is something that as a language teacher reading this, has made my day! New Zealand may have Te Reo and NZ Sign Language as the official languages (English is the de facto official language by virtue of its widespread use!) but there is still the 'Anglo-Bubble'.
    The NZC statement talks about schools, 'working towards offering a language' yet Auckland for instance, is very multi-cultural. It is great to hear that your school is looking at what you can do to be more culturally responsive and including things such as the review of the PB4L resources with these lens on, shows that you value the languages and cultures in your community. You might be interested in the Auckland Strategy This is their mission statement:
    The Auckland Languages Strategy, Ngā Reo o Tāmaki Makaurau, aims to develop a shared agenda for
    multilingualism and to enable alignment of policy and practice to support, promote and foster all the
    city’s diverse languages and cultures.

    1. Thanks for your comment Michelle - The Auckland Strategy looks fantastic - I'll be sure to pass this onto the rest of our SLT :)

  2. This is extremely important and relevant to the kind of diversity we have in NZ and maybe even especially Auckland! I have been challenged this year to get to know my students beyond what ethnicity is stated on their enrolment form or even by the way they talk or look. One students speaks with a South African accent, yet identifies as Malaysian, another has 'NZ European' on their learner profile yet attends ESOL and speaks Chinese, another still is from South Africa but identifies as Kiwi. It is far from cut and dried and requires, no, demands us to be attentive, engaged and relational with our students. Great blog post!

  3. I do like the way you have expressed the dilemma of cultural filters and MoE requirements. As +Emily Bagrie said one can be born into a culture but identify with another. An additional challenge is striking the balance between commitment to bicultural New Zealand and meeting the learning needs of all students regardles of their culture. I have found the Mauri evaluative model particularly useful as it can be used on the participants or on a unit of work being prepared, with a little creative reading. The full document can be found at Potahu, T. W. (2011). Mauri - Rethinking Human Wellbeing. MAI Review, 3, 1-12. Retrieved from