The importance of cultural competency

By Laura Stutz on May 24, 2023 in Cultural capability

This blog explores the meaning of cultural competency in education and its impact on creating inclusive learning spaces for all ākonga.

When we talk about cultural competency, what do we mean? What do we think about with this term? And how does this look in our practice? One way to think of cultural competency is the acceptance and respect for difference, including a continuous self-assessment of culture and the dynamics of difference. Where there is the ongoing development of cultural knowledge and the resources and flexibility within service models to meet the needs of minority populations.

Young Māori and Pacific peoples are far more likely to report discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity. This comes more so from adults than from their peers, with unfair teacher behaviour being the most frequently reported issue. At least 23% of all learners are ākonga Māori. The latest statistics on teacher numbers show that 73% of the teaching workforce is pakeha. We know our society is becoming more diverse. More than ever, our educators must be culturally competent.

Culturally competent educators serve the needs of the ākonga in front of them. Being culturally competent requires us to have strong pedagogy. We need to be responsive and relational. You don't need to be an expert to know everything about all the cultures in your space. You do need to know how to relate, respect, and respond to the needs of all your learners.

There are many documents, initiatives and strategies to support teachers with cultural competency. One key document is Our Code, Our Standards. Cultural competency is woven throughout the standards. Let's take design for learning. It is more than designing a task for ākonga to learn and have equitable outcomes. Teachers also need to harness the rich cultural capital that learners bring. This needs to be in a context that responds to and engages teachers and leaders to be culturally competent. An example of this is when we are designing an assessment task, we are not assuming that learners are coming with a specific cultural capital in order to respond to the task. Rather that when we design a task it is open and robust enough that their cultural capital is valued and supports them to respond successfully.

Consider the contexts you select as a vehicle for learning. How responsive is the context chosen and how were we informed? Asking some of the following questions can support the development of appropriate contexts:

  • Who will or will not be familiar with this context? How do I know this?

  • What prior experiences will ākonga have needed to access this context? How will I find out what connections ākonga are able to make to this context?

  • What vocabulary will be needed to access this context?

  • How can I collect voice from ākonga and whānau to make sure a relevant context is chosen?

  • How can I check that the contexts used in learning work the way it is intended?

Being culturally competent not only allows for the diversity of ākonga to be realised. It supports teachers to enhance and improve their practice and offers leaders an opportunity to support this journey. It can look like school leaders supporting teachers with a coherent and robust local curriculum. It can look like kura and Kāhui Ako engaging with professional learning programmes such as Niho Taniwha. It can look like collecting ākonga and whānau voice to make sure that our intentions have the impact we desire.

Teachers of Aotearoa New Zealand need to be open, honest and vulnerable about their own capability to be culturally competent. We have a moral and professional obligation to be critical of our practice and pedagogy, including how we meet the needs of all ākonga. Be proactive. Deepen our learning and understanding of how to be culturally competent. All ākonga need to have their cultural capital valued, most importantly those who are in the minority.



  1. Andrew W., & Alexandra M. (2019). He Whakaaro: What do we know about discrimination in schools? New Zealand: Ministry of Education.

  2. He Pikorua. (2001). Building and growing cultural competence.

  3. Stats NZ. (2020). Ethnic group summaries reveal New Zealand's multicultural make-up.

  4. Education Counts. (n.d.). Teacher numbers.

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