Monday, 24 October 2016

Cultural Responsiveness - Not Just A Tick Box

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(This post is for a Connected Educator 2016 Edbooknz project on education buzz words, facilitated by Sonya Vanshaijik.)

“Cultural responsiveness” is one of those terms: if you gathered a whole pile of current Ministry of Education documents and put them through the word cloud mincer, “cultural responsiveness” would stick out of the group like a neon billboard.

Captain Cook - portrait in public domain
I’ve just processed the Education Review Office’s School Evaluation Indicators (July 2016) and naturally, it’s right up there like today’s special. And it needs to be. We only have to look at the news apps to see the conflicts world wide, even in this enlightened age, which are about cultural conflict. Aotearoa New Zealand too. We are still working through issues in New Zealand that began when Captain Cook and his crew landed in New Zealand and a party was slaughtered in a cove in the Marlborough Sounds because their actions were insulting to the host people.

The problem is, that our need to identify with a group is, if not innate, then certainly nurtured in our early experiences of life. We look for similarities, and for the most part, we do our best to be accepted by a group of humans who speak, act and think along the same lines. Even the non-conformists are conforming to the group of other non-conformists.

The problem we are finding though, is that the group known as “New Zealand education” has been recognised as being too based in Western European culture. An effect of this is seen to be underachievement in New Zealand’s indigenous Māori people because they don’t recognise their own culture in the content and pedagogy of the classrooms they attend.

I’ll mention - but not spend much time on - the issues New Zealand educators also see as having an effect: the effects of poverty. Yes, it is a vicious cycle leading to more disadvantaged Māori; we know that we can’t engage students who are more worried about Maslow’s pyramid than Bloom’s.

The deficit thinking that has been blamed for Māori underachievement is documented in archives quoted in a parliamentary paper from the Auditor General’s office (2012). Older Māori have anecdotes of being disciplined for using their own language at school; indeed, a national policy discouraged its use. Even earlier, the missionaries saw the “anglicising” of Māori children and their communities as a way of becoming less like heathens and therefore closer to God.

A report from 1862 has a school inspector reflecting the belief at the time that:
"a refined education or high mental culture" would be inappropriate for Māori because "they are better calculated by nature to get their living by manual than by mental labour" (Auditor General’s paper).

In 1915, it is noted that Māori were discouraged from entering “learned professions” and  even as late as 1960, the Hunn Report saw integration into the Western system as the key, leading to a huge reduction in Māori speakers.  This attitude to original culture was engaged by all non-English immigrants of the time; as a child of the sixties with a Dutch parent and extended family who emigrated to New Zealand, I know none of my ancestors’ language. It was more important to be accepted by the dominant white New Zealand, English speaking culture.

Only three years later, the Currie Report highlighted Māori underachievement. From that point on, researchers and education initiatives have battled to reverse a well embedded deficit model of education that has hampered many Māori students.

So back to 2016.  The mistakes of two preceding centuries continue. The attitudes, though we hate to admit to it, continue. I live in Rotorua, a city regarded by many, to be the heartland of Māori culture. Daily I hear the mispronunciation of Māori language, even by educators I work with, who have the best intentions. Take the word “whānau.” I remember a Māori colleague in the late 1980s, at another school in a town not far from here, who stood up and chastised our principal for not only mispronouncing the school’s name, but for saying “far-now” when the word is “far-know”. I cringe when I listen to a principal in a Ministry video talking about the work his school has done to link with their “far-now”.

Other people are quite blatant in their determination to use English vowel sounds; I continually have to explain myself and stand up for the Māori vowels, even with members of my own family. And they should know better. My name, originating from European ancestors, has a pronounced “e” in the middle that should result in four syllables but is often given three and a hyphen. I empathise completely with those Māori who think others are either not listening or don’t care enough to remember.

Then there is the principal who just wanted to rename me Heidi, as that was easier. How many of our Asian students have changed their names for similar reasons? My name is my identity. I was named after two people: my paternal grandmother and a Swiss caregiver my mother had as a child, who she was very fond of. My name reminds me of my heritage.

Language is identity. That’s why it is so important that Māori learners see and use it. And that schools embrace it. But the danger is in thinking that having a bit of Māori language on the whiteboard is enough.

Culture goes deeper.  Language is a key but in order to be responsive to culture we need to do a lot more.  The second thing is to take heed of the that other key competency, “relating to others.”  As Hipkins et al remind us, relating to others is much more than paying lip service to another group, it’s about delving deeply into the understandings, attitudes, values and beliefs, in order that we can walk alongside this group and not judge them according to our own cultural lens.

For example, Māori themselves, do not regard themselves as one group called “Māori.” In Rotorua, mistakes were made even recently, by well meaning folk, who dealt with the wrong haukāinga or sub-tribe; there are many such groups even in our city, and their particular stories, links and ties to the land must be acknowledged. The third thing to acknowledge is that it is important to listen to the voice of that haukāinga. Our haukāinga, Te Roro o Te Rangi is having a greater voice and agency, in our school: sitting on the Board of Trustees, and in appointing teachers, in the creation and in the gifting of a school pepeha, our cultural umbilical cord to our place. One of our haukāinga talked about our tamariki (children) as the tamafreakies, who need to know they are connected and that they belong in our school. I love the analogy of that cultural umbilical cord, a strong image in much of our indigenous culture.

I’ve talked about the deficit model that has injured Māori student achievement from the mid nineteenth century. Our propensity is to generalise cultural beliefs into a formulaic interpretation of all members of that culture. While we do have a need to identify with a group, we also, as humans, enjoy being identified as individuals. We don’t want to be seen as all the same. “Love me for being me!” we cry on social media. “Culture is not merely a question of ethnicity, but also beliefs, spirituality, age, gender, and sexual orientation.” (Shaw, White & Deed, 2013, p. 6-7)  I love the Ted Talk by Taiye Selasi who asks not to be identified by her perceived ethnic origins. Macfarlane, Bishop, Durie, Hattie and others point to the need for relationship building to improve educational outcomes. Best practice continually points out the need for us as teachers to know how our students tick so that we can guide them with not only what they need, but in what they want to learn, and utilising the ways they best learn. Rita Pierson famously reminded us that students don’t learn from people they don’t like.

What I’m questioning are three things:

Can we in fact be culturally responsive when our lens is so coloured by our own upbringing? New Zealanders who can’t pronounce vowels correctly and use English pronunciation, and judge manners on their own often English tradition?

Are we being responsive to the individual needs of students or paying lip service to what we see as an ethno-cultural generalisation?

Vision of the New Zealand Curriculum
The third, which I’ll suggest now, is can we be culturally responsive when we haven’t got a mandate to change the educational landscape in New Zealand? The ERO School Evaluation indicators suggest that the path to achievement is for students to be self regulating learners. Many teachers battle with that when National Standards have focused our teaching on a narrow set of skills which have been predetermined for all to mean “achiever” or “non-achiever.”  Michael Fullan reminds us that we must
“...ensure that you’re not obsessing with targets and assessment in order to make room for the things that really matter in educational transformation."

This post is about how jargonistic the term “cultural responsiveness” is - but let’s be fair. If schools are making an attempt to be culturally responsive, let’s acknowledge that they are making an effort.

The New Zealand Practising Teacher Criteria begin with overarching statements assert the rights of all students to have equitable learning outcomes and the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi. Criteria 3 and 10 point to the importance of our bicultural partnership and criterium 9 highlights the need to respond to our diverse learners (ākonga).

The question I leave you is one that was posed to me and my senior leadership team by another principal: What is it about your classroom that makes a Māori child - any child - feel welcome? How have you adapted the contexts and pedagogy of the programme and environment of your learning space to make it theirs?

He iti hoki te mokoroa nāna i kakati te kahikatea.
The mokoroa (grub) may be small, but it cuts through the Kahikatea (whitepine).


Thank you to my critical friends, Ximena Aitken,  Philippa Antipas and Sonya Van Shaijik for your thoughtul critique.

More opinion on cultural responsiveness:

By me - Cleaning Our Cultural Lenses June 2016

Gully, Nicole. (October 2016). Engaging Māori students and whānau in future focused education - review of Janelle Riki Ulearn 16 keynote.  Retrieved from


Bishop, R, Berryman, M., Cavanagh, T. & Teddy, L. (2009). Te Kotahitanga: Addressing educational disparities facing Māori students in New Zealand. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25(5)734–742.

Controller and Auditor General. (August 2012) Education for Māori: context for our proposed audit work until 2017.  Retreived from

Education Review Office. (July 2016). School evaluation indicators: effective practice for improvement and learner success. Wellington: Crown.

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2),106-116.

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Hipkins, R., Bolstad, R., Boyd, S., & McDowall, S. (2014). Key competencies for the future. New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) Press.

Hunn, J. K. (1961). Report on department of Māori affairs with statistical supplement. RE Owen: Government Printer.

Macfarlane, A., Glynn, T., Cavanagh, T., & Bateman, S. (2007). Creating culturally-safe schools for Māori students. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 36, 65-76.

Ministry of Education. (2011). Tataiako: cultural competencies for teachers of Maori learner. Wellington: Crown.

Robinson, V, Hōhepa, M, and Lloyd, C (2009), School leadership and student outcomes: identifying what works and why – best evidence synthesis iteration, Wellington, page 16. Retrieved from

Shaw, S., White, W. & Deed, B. (2013) (Ed.). Health, wellbeing and environment in Aotearoa New Zealand.South Melbourne, Australia:Oxford University Press.

Sweeney, Rebbecca. (October 2016). Michael Fullan Keynote: Early lessons from implementing new pedagogies for deep learning. Review. Retrieved from

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