Student voice: Being Pāsifika in NZ mathematics classrooms (post 4 of 4)

Professor Roberta Hunter, Dr Jodie Hunter, and Professor Glenda Anthony, Massey University

This is post 4 in a four-part series based on a symposium presented by the authors at the American Educational Research Association’s 2018 conference in New York. This symposium was supported by NZARE.

The other posts in this series are:

  • Post 1 – Joining the pieces of the tivaevae to enact strength-based mathematics learning for Pāsifika students in Aotearoa New Zealand
  • Post 2 – Teachers and teacher educators working together in professional learning
  • Post 3 – Challenging teacher perceptions of student capabilities

We need to listen to the voices of Pāsifika students if we are to ensure that they gain equitable outcomes in mathematics classrooms. In an earlier blog post in this series, we described the widening of the demographic gap between teachers and students, particularly in high poverty schools (which the majority of Pāsifika students attend). The cultural mismatches between these two groups too often lead to cross cultural misunderstandings and teacher-constructed deficit views of marginalised students.

Battey and Leyva (2016) outline how racial ideologies “shape the expectations, interactions and kinds of mathematics that students experience.” One way forward to counter the colour-blind racial ideologies and practices which have shaped the mathematical experiences of Pāsifika and other marginalised students is to listen to the voices of the learners. This post draws on students’ voices over one year to highlight the shifts in their identities and experiences as their schools participated in the DMIC professional learning. This data gives us a window into how a strength-based approach can help develop positive cultural identities and mathematical dispositions in Pāsifika students.

Baseline: Pāsifika student voice at the beginning of the project

In their initial interviews, many Pāsifika students described an ambivalent view towards mathematics. They believed that maths mostly involved learning number facts and operations, and that to be successful in maths, a person needed strong basic facts knowledge. Fixed ability mindsets were evident in student comments like:

“Some people are brainy and they always get the answers right.”

The students emphasised the importance of listening (rather than talking) as the main way of learning in maths – listening to others, listening to the teacher, staying on task, and not talking to others. It seemed that engaging in talking-based mathematical practices such as discussion, argumentation, explaining or asking questions often clashed with the Pāsifika students’ values and beliefs related to supporting others to maintain mana (face):

“I don’t do that because I don’t want to hurt their feelings.”

“[I feel] shy, scared because we’re [Pāsifika peoples] not used to it. We don’t usually get up and say stuff to people.”

“What I don’t like about math is about how like when you make a mistake people make a big joke out of it and then that can be really embarrassing.”

Teacher expectations of different cultural groups and the overall classroom culture seemed to make mathematics classrooms feel like ‘white spaces’:

“It feels like I’m a different person from a Samoan person … because whenever I’m learning maths I think I’m a Palagi (white) person … because whenever I’m doing maths I can’t remember I’m Samoan.”

“When I get up to the hard part [and] I can’t do it, I don’t feel like a white person any more, I feel like myself [Pāsifika] again and I’m nervous.”

“Sometimes teachers think that white people and Asian people will get the answer correct.”

Students also showed deficit views of the mathematical capacity of their own culture/s:

“Sometimes it makes me feel different because Tokelauans don’t do maths”

“Not that many people learn that much in the [Pacific] islands”

“I don’t think that our culture has anything to do with maths”

Pāsifika student voice 12 months later

After a year in a DMIC classroom, there were clear shifts in the Pāsifika students’ perceptions. Students now described mathematics as mostly involving participatory practices like working together, sharing ideas, and taking risks. They also showed growth mindsets toward success in mathematics:

“You don’t have to be brainy, it’s how you think and explain.”

“You’ll get it if you keep on going and focus.”

Most Pāsifika students now felt that being a good mathematics student aligned with values and beliefs from their own cultures such as effort, perseverance, trying your best, collaboration, and working effectively with others. For example, when asked about success in maths, students said:

“It’s not as hard as much as you think it would be. I’d say it’s fun because the way we learn, others will share and once we get the hang of it we’ll be determined to get another problem and solve it.”

“Someone who is focused, has made mistakes, confident, shy a little bit, a person who can stand up to what they think. Anyone can be good at maths – you just have to believe.”

The students now felt accountable both for their own learning and to the wider group. For example:

“Sometimes I feel like working with other people and sometimes by myself. When you work with other people, their thinking can help you, and when I go by myself it’s because I can get it … I can figure out what we have to do.”

“I feel confident. There’s people around me and they’re my friends and I’m not shy to say it because I already know those people and I know how to explain. I’ve done it for a long time”

Noticing the tivaevae model values

Through the students’ comments, we saw evidence of the five Cook Island values in Maua-Hodges’s (2000) tivaevae model. For example, the students indicated that collective reasoning emerged through aokotai (collaboration) and uriuri kite (reciprocity).

“I feel like it’s a family because we’re doing it together. I feel excited.”

“They used to have the people who were more advanced [together] and the people who weren’t advanced [together] and it was easier for the advanced group to come with answers, but it was kind of hard for the other group. So now that it’s mixed, it’s easier for everyone to work together and so that everyone can understand everything.”

“It’s better when we share our ideas together because we get more ideas.”

The students also identified the need for akangateitei (respect) as exemplified through humility toward yourself and other learners. Individualistic notions of ‘being the best’ were viewed negatively in the context of the collective and communal values held by the Pāsifika students:

“Be humble. Because, I mean, if you are good at something and you just boast about it like ‘Oh, I’m so good’ and you’re too full of it, it’s like you’re not helping, ’cause all you’re doing is telling people you’re good. So don’t do that, ’cause it won’t get you anywhere.”

“Don’t show off with your learning too much.”

“Respect is a big part of our culture and our maths learning. It’s being able to respect the person who is explaining their ideas.”

Within the collective and communal values and beliefs held by the students, the development of akairi kite (shared vision) was evident:

“When the maths is about us and our culture, it makes me feel normal and my culture is normal.”

“I feel like it’s a family because we’re doing it together. I feel excited.”

The students also described how they had grown towards using a range of mathematical practices such as asking questions, disagreeing or explaining. Clearly, tu inangaro (relationships) and a sense of uriuri kite (reciprocity) were key to Pāsifika students feeling able to engage in these types of mathematical practices:

“People don’t judge [in maths], they just ask questions like why we chose this.”

“I feel confident asking questions. I ask when I don’t get it or when I want to help them.”

“[If I don’t speak up,] they might get something wrong and not know it.”

“I feel okay [disagreeing with other students] because I might have another answer to them and you don’t know which one is right, so you can just agree and disagree.”

“If you disagree, it means you’re working hard and trying.”

Given that at the beginning of the year these same students exhibited fixed-ability mindsets and felt that mathematics did not align with their cultural values, that Pāsifika cultures did not involve mathematics, that their mathematics classrooms felt like white spaces and that success in mathematics mostly involved being quiet and listening, these are remarkable and powerful shifts.

Final reflection

Our intention across this series of blog posts and our symposium at the AERA conference was to use the voices of teacher educators, teachers, and students to illustrate what can happen when mathematics is taught in ways that promote equity for Pāsifika students in Aotearoa New Zealand. We have shown how the beliefs, experiences and actions of both teachers and students have been transformed as a result of a powerful professional development model. Drawing on the tivaevae model has provided us with an additional layer of insight into how, in the DMIC project, Pāsifika values underpin culturally responsive and culturally sustaining teaching practices, shifts in teachers’ beliefs about who can learn mathematics, and new alignment between students’ cultural and mathematical identities.

E patu i te ‘are vānanga ki runga i te tūranga ngāueue kore.
Build your future on solid foundations.
(Cook Island proverb)

Other posts in this 4-part series:

  • Post 1 – Joining the pieces of the tivaevae to enact strength-based mathematics learning for Pāsifika students in Aotearoa New Zealand
  • Post 2 – Teachers and teacher educators working together in professional learning
  • Post 3 – Challenging teacher perceptions of student capabilities

BobbieRoberta Hunter is a Professor in the Institute of Education at Massey University. She developed her love of maths through watching her Cook Islands mother measuring and making geometric patterns for intricate tivaevae (fabric art) patterns. She originally developed the pedagogical approaches used in the Developing Mathematics Inquiry Communities (DMIC) project for her PhD and since then has overseen implementation of DMIC in low-decile schools across NZ. 

JodieJodie Hunter is a senior lecturer in the Institute of Education at Massey University and teaches papers in the area of Mathematics Education and Pāsifika education. She has previously worked in the area of mathematics education at Plymouth University, UK, and worked in the US as a Fulbright New Zealand Scholar. Jodie’s current research interests include effective mathematics teaching and culturally responsive teaching for Pasifika learners, including within the DMIC project.

Glenda picture 2Glenda Anthony is the co-director of the Massey University Centre for Research in Mathematics Education. Her research interests include effective mathematics teaching and professional learning. Glenda’s current focus on equity of access and participation for students involves research in the Developing Mathematics Inquiry Communities project led by Roberta and Jodie Hunter.


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