A growing body of research tells us that creating opportunities for Māori students to engage regularly with Māori cultural practices, knowledges and language supports academic achievement, rather than hinders it, writes Dr Melinda Webber.

Last year’s news from UNICEF that New Zealand is one of the most unequal education systems in the world will have shocked many.

However, it will have come as no surprise to anyone involved in the education of Māori students, particularly those who have seen students disengage from, and fall behind in, a system that makes little room for their language, culture and identity.

Even in contemporary times, Māori scientific knowledge has little uptake in schools responsible for teaching our children, despite persistent calls by Māori (and some non-Māori) for comprehensive change.

So, rather than facilitating a liberating and empowering educational experience, Māori ways of knowing continue to be ignored and erased in some schools and many Māori students leave school rather than subject themselves to an educational experience that implicitly or explicitly denigrates who they are.

Schools have been powerful institutions of colonisation and have routinely dismissed Māori knowledge and ways of being as irrelevant to Māori students’ educational success.

However, there is a current political appetite for educational change and that could mean good news if Associate Education Minister Kelvin Davis, a former school teacher and principal, sticks to his commitment of: “building stronger and more meaningful relationships between teachers, students and whānau; and valuing language and cultural capital”.

Done properly, fulfilling this commitment presents us with a prime opportunity to integrate Māori scientific knowledge in the education of Māori students.

This approach would be an important step towards undoing the racism entrenched on our schooling system and help remedy the shameful chasm between Māori and non-Māori engagement and achievement in schooling.

A good place to start this new strategy would be to challenge the persistent rhetoric relating to Māori underachievement and deficit.

Instead, we should teach all students the many ways Māori have survived, and indeed thrived, despite the systematic devaluing, minimisation, and misrepresentation of Māori identity, culture, and knowledge systems throughout history.

Māori students need to know they descend from greatness. They need to know they can be successful because they are Māori, not despite being Māori. 

Strengths-based whakapapa narratives (stories about ancestors and history) might be an important starting point because they tell us about the continuing competencies of Māori under imposed, trying circumstances.

Many of these narratives are inherently stories of survivance (survival in the face of oppression, adversity). They are about regaining ways of being that allow Māori students to be culturally proud and secure in their knowledge that their whakapapa (genealogy, history, and connectedness to all things in the universe) is comprised of narratives filled with persistence, aspiration, and accomplishment. 

When Māori students have opportunities to hear stories about themselves, or find themselves positively portrayed in stories, they can learn about the ‘truth’ of who they are and can be.

A growing body of research evidence tells us that creating opportunities for Māori students to engage regularly with Māori cultural practices, knowledges and language supports academic achievement, rather than hinders it.

Māori communities throughout Aotearoa have experienced a resurgence in interest in traditional knowledge and practices that are associated with educational success, health, and well-being.

We know that Māori knowledge systems hold powerful learnings about the past, present, and future – promoting worldviews, teachings, and technologies developed and sustained by generations of Māori ancestors. It would serve as a solid foundation for transformational learning, positive identity development, academic motivation, innovation, and intellectual and social development.

Māori educational outcomes suggest that our programmes of learning, indeed our approach to curriculum design, needs to be redesigned to raise the cultural efficacy and the academic expectations Māori students have of themselves. The statistics bear this out.

What have we got to lose?

Associate Professor Melinda Webber is from the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland.

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