Talking Teaching

May 1, 2015

a learning experiment, and a pleasant surprise.

On Wednesday we ran our first whanau tutorial with the first-year students – a class for those students who identify as Māori. The driver for this was the observation that a disproportionate number of the Māori students in my first-year class didn’t do well in our first test, & as a result I asked Kevin, our Faculty’s senior tutor responsible for supporting Māori & Pacific Island students, to see if he could help me by setting up a whanau tutorial.

So he contacted all the Māori students in the class, sorted out a time & day that worked for them, and booked a room, & both of us organised some food and drink. Kev welcomed everyone & one of the students said a karakia (prayer) before we started. Brydget, the senior tutor who runs our first-year bio labs, came along, and so did one of the tutors from Student Learning – who took on the role of asking the ‘silly questions’, to show the students that asking questions really is a good thing & one that’s encouraged. Which gave me the chance to steal one of Brydget’s lines: that the only silly question is the one you didn’t ask :)

There was a test coming up and so the students wanted to work through questions from previous tests, plus they wanted to know how to learn (& remember) things like the characteristics of some animal phyla. I did a bit of talking but for much of the time we had the students working together in groups after a bit of an explanation from me. It was great seeing the energy levels, the engagement, and the fun in the classroom. Brydget & I both try for that when we’re teaching, but this was a whole new level. It was quite a salutory eye-opener for me, as I’ve liked to think I’m an ‘inclusive’ teacher, but I’d never had this level of engagement from this particular cohort before, and I’ve learned now that I still have a long way to go..

We ended up going way over time and the students were buzzing when they left. Kevin always does a survey for his group work and I was really looking forward to the results: there’s a lot of evidence available on the effect of supporting Māori students’ learning styles, but I wanted to see how our own students had perceived the session. Fourteen of the 16 attendees completed the survey, & it turned out that

  • all 14 agreed that they could understand the presenter.
  • they loved the learning environment, commenting that it was easier to ask questions; they liked the interactions and group work & the opportunity to work out the answers; felt that I’d explained things clearly & liked it that I made sure they understood before we went on to a new topic; the sheer informality & friendly environment went down well.
  • they’d all recommend it to their friends (yay!) & rated it as either very good or excellent
  • and felt it was a great way to revise.

As I said, a salutory learning experience for me. I’ve always tried to make classes inclusive, interactive & so on, but it was obvious that the set-up of this particular workshop – with its focus on a specific cohort – provided the spark that was missing.

Even better, next morning a lot of the whanau participants came along to a standard tut with a lot of other students there, as they usually do – but this time things were different. They were much more active in the class, spoke up more and asked more questions than before; their confidence was at a whole new level. They were the only ones to point out to me that I’d made a mistake with labelling a diagram :) (And I said thank you, & that I appreciated it, & it showed they really understood that particular topic.) And afterwards some came up to say how much they’d enjoyed the whanau tut, and a couple followed me back to my office to ask more questions – also a first. And after the test last night I heard that they felt they were much better prepared, this time round. (I haven’t started the marking yet, but I am sooo hoping that this translates into improved grades!)

So yes, we’ll continue this for the rest of the semester, and on into the next half of the year. There’s nothing novel in what we did, & I certainly can’t claim any credit (there’s a lot in the literature on how best to help Māori students in tertiary classrooms eg here, here, here, & here). I’m just mentally kicking myself, and wishing we’d done it much sooner.

And I’m thinking: the Tertiary Education Commission has identified Maori and Pacific Island students as groups that TEC would like to see increasingly more involved with tertiary education. And to do that, and to maximise their learning success, we do need to reorganise our classrooms: eg do more flipping; get used to a higher level of chatter as students work together to solve problems; reduce the formality inherent in a ‘normal’ teacher-driven lecture class & sometimes become learners alongside our students. And that requires recognition that students’ needs have changed since those of my generation were on the learners’ side of the lectern, and that learning styles can and do differ & can be accommodated by using a range of teaching techniques. In other words, a classroom culture shift – one that sees educators recognising that they, too, can be learners when it comes to meeting the needs of a changing student demographic.

And of course, the evidence is already there that making these changes benefits all students.


  1. Fascinating stuff, Alison. And I totally agree with your closing comment that what benefits Maori students benefits all. This came through clearly in a project that I helped to evaluate for the Ministry of Education. The Te Kauhua project sought to help teachers of Maori students in mainstream classes to better meet the strengths and needs of their students through a variety of interventions, including ‘disaggregating’ achievement data so teachers could see how well (or otherwise) they were teaching this particular cohort of students. The interventions proved to raise the achievement of MANY of the students in class, not just the Maori ones.
    And you’re probably aware of the Ministry’s strategy of ‘helping Maori students to achieve as Maori’ which is a distinct change from previous rhetoric of a couple of decades past, of ‘closing the gaps’, the emphasis of which was to ‘bring Maori students up to the level of others’ without taking sufficient cognisance of how they best preferred to learn. That’s what I think you’ve hit on here. I remember, in the course of doing a literature review at one stage on success factors for Pacifika students in classrooms, a paper by Camille Nakhid that referred to students seeing themselves in class, as though in a photo where you automatically look for yourself:
    “The ‘identifying process’ is best understood through an analogy of a ‘class photo’… No matter how often we look at these pictures, the first person we look for is our self. If we are not there, we notice our absence. It is the same with our experiences of school. We know by looking beyond the superficial displays of culture whether or not we are represented within a school culture” (Nakhid, 2002, p. 6).
    It was a powerful metaphor in which she pointed out the absolute need for students to see that ‘they’ have a recognised place in education, that they’re not just part of an amorphous herd but that their teachers have actually striven to identify what works for them, and to acknowledge their specific cultural ways of being in teaching practices and in classrooms more generally. This CAN be token (as in having Pacifica pictures in the room) but can also be embedded in curricula, such as using Pacifila examples in case studies, assessment questions etc. I know a lot of our teachers do this anyway, but perhaps it’s never occurred to others.

    It was great to read how effective this whanau tutorial has been in letting your students see they ARE in the picture, and hence growing confidence to speak out in other contexts. Kia kaha!

    Comment by docpipnz — June 10, 2015 @ 8:25 pm

    • Thanks for your very useful comments, Pip! And apologies for the delay in approving them; I’ve been away from the office (& from blogging) on a lovely long holiday :)

      Comment by alison — August 12, 2015 @ 11:47 am

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