At uLearn17 this week, I was a panel member in a discussion about “Learning in Communities,” which quickly morphed into “Communities of Learning” and I felt I had to state my opposition up front.
I am all for collaboration, with one stipulation—if it isn’t going to benefit Māori learners then I’m not going to do it. I have no more patience with the idea that further generations of Māori children are going to be failed by us, while we mess around collaborating over their perceived deficits. As I said in my uLearn17 Keynote, we have given our problem, which is that we fail our Māori learners, way too much time already, trying to get better at doing the same things, then wondering why we don’t get different results! Someone called this insanity. Whoever it was, is right! Enough already!
I had decided that this year at uLearn my big question was going to be WHY? I have been working with the “Warrior-Researchers” at Kia Aroha College, preparing for a symposium they will present at next month’s NZARE Conference at the University of Waikato. The group has been investigating Communities of Learning from the perspective of how they benefit Māori and Pasifika learners. One student has analysed the 77 Endorsed Achievement Challenges on the MOE website to find that, while 99% of these target Māori boys’ writing, only 18% mention Māori learning “as Māori” (the vision of our official Māori education strategy) and less than a third consider culturally responsive pedagogy. His question was, “You would think they would ask WHY they are achieving these results – or do they think it’s our fault?” I was going to keep asking WHY, on his behalf!
So I was saddened to hear on the panel, yet again—because this has been explained to me many times already—the dilemma that COL face when writing achievement challenges to ensure they will be “endorsed” by the Ministry of Education in order to access the funding. WHY, I asked? I’ve asked that question so often, I know how the answer goes, and it’s always a version of, well, we'd be crazy to miss out on the resourcing, or we will just jump through the hoops, or we will not be victims – we are going to be the ones in control, and then, voila, once the achievement challenges are accepted and we have the money, then we’ll change our targets. I am still waiting to see real evidence of this actually happening and, as I said, I’m over waiting, and while we wait, it’s our Māori kids who are the real victims!
So, what’s so bad about just saying in your challenge statements that you want to target Māori boys’ writing, even if that's not what you mean? We know it’s what the Ministry want to hear, because that makes them feel that we are working on our national “problem.” They really, really, need to feel better because our official focus on literacy and numeracy, for over two decades, has made little difference—and we all know this. I can never understand why, year after year, we pretend to be surprised by the data, when we could have filled in those percentages at the start of the year with complete accuracy.
My good friend Dr Jeff Duncan-Andrade explains this best – check out his video here, and other videos about Roses in Concrete, the school he founded in East Oakland, and the partner school or Ukukura to Kia Aroha College. As Jeff says, it’s a rigged game, but we keep playing it, and the problem is, our Maori kids don’t know about the game, so they blame themselves. The bigger problem is—we blame them as well! WHY? Every single time we write our challenge to focus on Māori boys’ writing (reading, maths, Māori girls’ writing, reading, maths, Pasifika boys, girls…), we reinforce for them that they are the problem. Too late to try to pretty that up later. The damage is done.
I used to say to teachers who wrote comments in their reports to parents like, “Johnny wastes time in class” or “Sally gets distracted by her friends and isn’t engaged in the task”—you know the sorts of comments I mean—that these say more about your poor teaching or your boring programme than they say about the children. The same applies to “Māori boys’ writing.” It speaks volumes about our practice, but because that’s too hard to take, it surely can’t be US, we just keep on hammering this myth of meritocracy—if you try harder, work harder, read more… that “success” comes from greater effort, we are all equal, all have the same opportunities, when we know the playing field is far from level, and we negate the very long list of inequities that we are complicit in perpetuating, that are the reality for many of our children: poverty, loss of identity, land, language, culture, history, racism, assimilation, just for starters.
WHY not White boys’ writing then?
Do we think White boys have an additional writing or reading gene that our Maori kids missed out on? Or do we think they had better parenting perhaps – you know, bedtime stories, books in the home, and all that? Or, here’s a thought, could it be that the whole system, the way we set up and structure schools, our teacher training, our obsession with copying failed policy from other countries which also marginalise their indigenous learners, the knowledge we value—and measure—is also White and it, therefore, benefits the children whose values match, and whose values are embedded in and reproduced by our schools? This is not to overlook the fact that some boys struggle with literacy, regardless of their ethnicity. It means the reasons, and the solutions, are different.
Our Māori children have no reason to trust we know what we are doing, when we prove with our outcomes each year that we clearly don’t and, worse still, when we tolerate this as “normal.” We need to learn to read the world of our Māori children and craft our pedagogy around that world. That’s critical literacy. It’s not Māori boys' literacy that needs fixing. It’s ours, and that's the gap in our understanding that our PLD needs to target.