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Matauranga Maori: Why acquiring knowledge is not enough

“All behaviour is a form of a communication.” These were wise words spoken to me by my partner early on in our teaching career. At the time, I was quick to challenge her, stating, “Look! Maybe sometimes behaviour is just behaviour”. Over time, I have learnt to take this on as my own challenge, to constantly remind myself that what is on top or in front is almost always informed by what lies beneath or behind a child.

It is a process of reframing a mindset and expectations informed by my own experiences. As a process, reframing our mindset, our way of thinking and ultimately our way of being, takes both time and exposure to new forms of understanding.

With the recent NZQA roll out of Mana orite mo te matauranga Maori for secondary schools across the country, comes the question “how do we reframe the way we think about knowledge?”

It is this Whakataukī (proverb) that has sat with me in recent weeks.

He aha te kai a te rangatira? He korero, he korero, he korero. What is the sustenance of the leader? It is knowledge. It is communication.

When we began a recent professional development session with this whakatauki, I was surprised by the translation. Korero, a word I had understood to mean conversation, had been translated as both knowledge and communication. I was reminded of the beauty of language. Linguistic practice is associated with our cultural values and social institutions and as such we have words in one language that capture understandings we may not have in another. If, as Wittgenstein puts it “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”, then it stands to reason that our language defines our world, and our world defines the way we view language; the process is iterative. This whakatauki challenged my Eurocentric view of knowledge as something stored solely in one’s mind, with notion of shared wisdom, viewing knowledge as a communal practice, rather than an individual pursuit.

I have become impassioned by the idea that we need to shift away from the traditional epistemology of knowledge, that students learn content and acquire knowledge, to a new way of doing and being. The idea that we must embrace a more complex view of knowledge, that moves beyond merely knowing, to doing and being is supported by future-focused education literature. In the Knowledge Age, we view knowledge as being a verb rather than a noun, more energy-like than matter-like, something that you act upon. (Bolstad et al, 2012). This will involve a reframing of our ideas and of our learning systems, shifting to the creation and use of new knowledge to solve problems and find solutions to challenges. We will need students that are both critical consumers and impassioned creators.

Where the 21st century learning literature misses the mark, is that it does not consider that cultural epistemologies and ways of learning are already doing this. Ancient cultural practices that hold the answers to our future problems. I have written previously about the value of traditional Pacific practices, such as Talanoa, in modern teaching and learning. But what of a Maori approach to knowledge?

Indigenous activist Haylee Koroi in the book Climate Aotearoa (2021) discusses the relationship between Tangata Tiriti (treaty partners) and Tangata Whenua (Maori) as Tuakana-teina. Tuakana-teina is a teaching and learning approach drawn from Te Ao Maori. It refers to the relationship between an older person (tuakana) and a younger person (teina). The meaning is literally “older sibling-younger sibling”. New Zealand history documents clearly the way in which the Pakeha education system was imposed on Maori. If we treat Maori as Tuakana, then we begin to realise that Tangata Whenua had the answers all along and we as the younger obstinate siblings (teina) wrongly believed that our way of doing things was more ‘productive’. The answers were there long before we came around. Take restorative justice as an example, relatively new to legal systems in a modern context and yet can be found dating back to indigenous cultures around the world. Indigenous practices should be what ground concepts such as 21st century pedagogy and future focused learning.

So, what does it look like in a classroom?

If knowledge is not individual but rather communal, not merely acquired but rather shared and created together, then the way in which we attain and generate knowledge exists through conversation. He korero, he korero, he korero. This involves more than just a shift in thinking, it involves a shift in the way we operate. Answers to the question of what reframing knowledge looks like for us will differ from classroom to classroom. What I will leave you with is a series of reflective questions:

Reflective questions about practice:

Who holds the body of knowledge in your classroom?

How do I encourage students to challenge the status quo?

Where are opportunities for connecting learning to real life experiences?

How can I encourage students to have agency over their learning?

How can I promote deeper level critical thinking?

How can I design tasks that require the creation of new knowledge, as opposed to merely “finding the right answer”?

We are at a crossroads. With the roll out of Mana orite mo te matauranga Maori across schools, we are seeking to reify Maori knowledge in our education system. However, if we continue to teach in a way that treats knowledge as something acquired, we are not shifting our practice to one that is ground in matauranga Maori but rather merely incorporates Maori. In doing so, we face the very real danger of recolonisation.

Understanding starts with humility. To understand is to ‘stand under’ whatever is in consideration (Cody, 2004). We must begin by first sitting as teina (younger sibling) and listening to the stories, ideas and practices of those who come before us. Only then do we have a hope of correcting the mistakes already made.


R Bolstad & J Gilbert with S McDowall, A Bull, S Boyd & R Hipkins. (2012). Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching: A New Zealand perspective. New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Cody, P. (2004). Seeds of the word; Nga kakano o te kupu. Wellington, New Zealand: Steele Roberts.

Koroi, H. (2021) in Climate Aotearoa: What’s happening & what we can do about it. Allen & Unwin, Auckland, New Zealand.

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