Listening to culture

O tu, aganu’u, ma agaifanua a le tamaititi o le a le mafai ona ulufale atu I le potuaoga sei vagana ua fa’atauaina me faaulufaleina muamua I le loto ma le agaga o le faiaoga.
The culture of the child cannot enter the classroom until it has first entered the consciousness of the teacher.
Samoan proverb

This summer one of my former students, Keiko, returned to Aotearoa with her husband. We met at Mount Maunganui and climbed Mauao in the sunshine. Keiko is an English teacher in Japan. She told me that she had never considered teaching as a career option before spending time as a student here in Tauranga Moana and explained that she had developed a passion for nurturing understanding across cultures through language. Keiko talked about the value of her cross-curricular New Zealand Studies course for new English language learners as an opportunity for students to share their diverse world-views and build bridges of understanding. Studying Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves in our Year 11 NCEA English class was another highlight she recalled. In the film, a Civil War soldier develops a relationship with a group of Lakota Indians on the American frontier. I was somewhat surprised by Keiko’s detailed reminiscences. As teachers, we can have a long-lasting impact on our students. This is a special privilege and a responsibility.

My conversation with Keiko has prompted me to reflect on the term ‘culturally and linguistically responsive pedagogy’. This was inherent in the practice of teachers of English language learners long before the term became prominent in mainstream education in Aotearoa. It is explicit in ESOL teaching and learning principle #1 – Know your learner: their language background, their language proficiency and their experiential background – and in Talanoa Ako principle #1 for effective teaching of Pasifika students – Know your learner culturally and academically. Applied linguistics studies often refer to our personal ‘schema’ or preconceived ideas based on our past experiences which we use to make sense of new information. It is important that we acknowledge these diverse perspectives and world views in our classrooms.

This principle is reinforced in many other educational texts and contexts. The Te Kotahitanga ‘Effective Teacher Profile’ (2005) emphasises the need for teachers to create learning contexts which are responsive to the cultural experiences of Māori students. This means that students are able to bring their own ‘cultural toolkit’ (Bruner, 1996) or prior experiences to their classroom experience in order to make sense of their learning. Ka Hikitia reiterates this – ‘Students do better in education when what and how they learn reflects and positively reinforces where they come from, what they value and what they already know. Learning needs to connect with their existing knowledge’ (p.16). In ‘A Framework for Culturally Responsive Teaching’, Wlodkowski and Ginsberg (1995) explain that motivation is inseparable from culture. They assert that teaching which ignores cultural backgrounds and ‘norms of behaviour and communication provokes student resistance’ whereas culturally responsive teaching ‘prompts student involvement’ (p.17).

The need to learn about, acknowledge and validate the cultural identities of our students is strengthened by the increasingly diverse school population in Aotearoa. According to 2013 census data, 34% of our population is non-NZ European (Māori 14.9%, Asian 11.8% and Pacific Island 7.4%). Non-NZ European make up 48.4% of the Auckland population. It will be interesting to see the diversity data from this year’s census, especially for regions outside of Auckland. In one Te Waipounamu (South Island) school in which I am currently working there are over 50 different nationalities. Senior leadership and teachers have unanimously prioritised professional learning tailored to meeting the academic language and literacy needs of their English language learners, incorporating a ‘cultural wash’ across curriculum development and the use of culturally and linguistically responsive practices.

So what does culturally and linguistically responsive practice look like in practice?

Get to know your learners

There are the basics of manaakitanga, as described in Tātaiako cultural competencies, such as knowing something about the place from which each one of your students comes, including the iwi affiliation of Māori students and local tikanga, being able to pronounce given names correctly and greet students in their home language, as well as supporting the use of home languages in the classroom to strengthen learning. More than this though, we need to ‘listen to culture’, to take the time to develop our understanding of the cultural backgrounds and perspectives of our students. It is significant that the Te Kotahitanga ‘Effective Teacher Profile’ was based on the narratives of engaged and non-engaged Māori students and members of their whānau, as well as principals and teachers. This is ‘ako’ in action.

Give learners opportunities to connect with you

Students can be given opportunities to communicate through writing as well as ongoing conversations. As a teacher of secondary English language learners I found learner journals invaluable for getting to know my students and empathising with the acculturation, language and learning challenges they were facing in an English-medium environment. These journals were a form of private correspondence between me and the students, a vehicle for relationship building, as well as developing writing fluency. They became a treasured record of the students’ first years in Aotearoa, transitioning to function effectively in two worlds, to ‘have in their arms both ways’. These journals could also take the form of a series of video blogs, using a tool such as flip grid, for learners to enhance speaking skills. Indeed, this may be culturally preferred by some Māori and Pasifika learners because of their oral language tradition.

Listen to the voices of your learners

Listening to the voices of Pasifika students was the catalyst for initiating positive changes for culturally and linguistically responsive practice in one Bay of Plenty school in which I recently worked as a professional learning and development facilitator. It started with teaching as inquiry at an individual teacher level. Focusing on improving response to text writing, which was a barrier to Pasifika success in high-stakes NCEA external assessment, the Head of the English faculty undertook talanoa conversations with her Pacific Island students. They were very forthcoming about what worked well for them in terms of classroom English teaching. They valued teachers taking time to explain unfamiliar vocabulary and to scaffold response to text writing by using memorable acronyms. They expressed their desire to read more texts related to their own Pacific Island cultures and to maintain and develop their cultural traditions and languages. As one student said, ‘We could like learn our language... Like how they have French classes, we could do Samoan...Cos it’s like kinda fading cos I don’t go to Auckland as much and only speak it to family friends’. Another student commented, ‘I’m afraid that I might lose my tradition. I would like… an island-like class when all the islands get together to learn our traditions...’.

In response to these voices and cognisant of disparity between the achievement of Pasifika relative to other groups, the school later introduced a senior Pacific Studies course and Virtual Conferencing Network classes in Gagana Samoa and Lea Faka Tonga. These and other systemic changes, including the setting up of an aiga group to nurture and support senior Pacific Island students, were instrumental in significant shifts in Pasifika NCEA achievement. We found the guidance and ‘recipe for success’ in the Ministry’s 2013 publication for Boards of Trustees, Supporting Pasifika Success, helpful in informing these changes. You can read more about this school’s culturally and linguistically responsive journey here.

At classroom level, focus group conversations with Pasifika students and their teachers led Spiller (2012) to express concerns about teachers’ perceptions and beliefs about Pasifika ways of learning. She emphasises the need to ‘really listen’ to students ‘when their actions are telling teachers how they learn. When Pasifika voices are heard and acted upon, Pasifika learning has a better chance’ (p.65). When Reymer (2012) used talanoa approaches with her Year 13 Pasifika students studying history, she found that listening to students enabled her to develop her pedagogy: ‘The conversations I have had with Pasifika students have led to the realisation that they experience history through unique cultural lenses, which allows them to understand the constructed and personal nature of historical knowledge’ (p.58)’.

Encourage learners to make connections between what they know and what they’re learning

One of the case studies in the Effective Pedagogy in Social Sciences: Tikanga ā Iwi Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (2008) records how a Classical Studies teacher enhanced understanding and improved the examination achievement of Year 13 Pasifika students simply by encouraging them to engage in purposeful discussion about the similarities and differences between classical Roman and contemporary Samoan religions with ‘a significant other’ at home. These conversations facilitated the integration of new learning with what the students already understood, thereby creating optimal conditions for learning. You can read more about this here (pp.258-295).

In conclusion, I recommend that you listen to the voices of two eloquent young women of Pacific and Māori heritage - Victoria Tagicakibau (‘Who I am’) and Arizona Ledger (‘Introducing Culture’). Each speaker powerfully affirms the importance of her own culture and her need to have it affirmed and acknowledged by others too.


Julie has drawn on her extensive knowledge of ESOL and mainstream teaching for this blog. She has read widely about the topic and can supply a full list of reference documents. Contact her for further information.


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