The education system and the not very good analogy of the farting elephant in the room

Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith, University of Waikato

This is the second post in a four-part series. The other posts are available here (post 1) here (post 3), and here (post 4).


In the previous blog I reflected on 30 years of Māori education. Here I attempt to make sense of the education system and ask some questions at the end about the accountability of the system for Māori.

Understanding a system of dynamic moving parts, why those parts and the system they support are working or not working for Māori and finding solutions is what interests me as a researcher. What happens and does not happen in educational contexts is, in my view, closely connected to what happens or does not happen for Māori in society.

Understanding NZ’s education system

Humans are born to learn, and education is simply the term for describing how all human societies go about exploring, making sense of the world and making a good home in the world. The education system is unique and powerful in that it has more opportunity, because it is compulsory, to transform the futures of every generation. That’s why education matters.

In 2018 we have a well-established education system that started with the 1867 Native Schools Act and the 1877 Education Act. We call some of this system by different terms, such as compulsory, public, private, as early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary. We call some of it private or integrated or special character. We have Government agencies that try to keep a handle on and fund this system; the MOE (Ministry of Education), NZQA (New Zealand Qualifications Authority), ERO (Education Review Office), TEC (Tertiary Education Commission), ITOs (Industry Training Organisations). All these agencies plus others were created under the policy called Tomorrow’s Schools.

We have institutions that implement this education; early childhood, Kōhanga Reo, primary and secondary schools, Kura Kaupapa Māori, Polytechnics, Wānanga, Private Training Establishments and Universities. They all have boards, administration structures and national bodies that represent their interests to government. We have multiple kinds of professionals who deliver this education with associated support systems and standards bodies. We have curricula, assessment and accreditation systems. We have professionals who educate professionals, who educate learners or who write policies that influence the processes that impacts on learners. We have researchers, like me, who research aspects of this system and other systems to understand and improve it.

And then, flowing through its veins we have very powerful ideas, morals and expectations about the purpose of education. In the past these ideas included needing schools to keep urchins and vagabonds off the streets, educating citizens as a fundamental part of democracy, educating to create a nation, educating to civilize, assimilate and integrate Māori, educating to ensure equality of opportunity and educating for economic wealth. None of these ideas ever seem to fully go away but co-exist in a contradictory alphabet soup.

To top it all off our education system has built a lot of knowledge about itself. We have more data and knowledge on our education system than has ever existed; much of it can be accessed online by the public. You can get loads of data however making sense of it in terms of the health of Māori education or system health is a challenge.

The farting elephant in the room

One way to break this all down is to think of an elephant … and then an elephant in the room … and then a farting elephant in the room. The system is the elephant with everyone trying to understand their part of the elephant without really seeing the whole. The system is as much about the elephant you see and the elephant you do not want to see, in other words, the elephant in a room.

The elephant in the room is not the things we don’t want to discuss, but what we often can’t discuss because they have become such common sense we don’t see them, such as the system logic, or the dissonances between what is claimed to work and social reality or the moral justifications for school suspensions or the discourses around success and failure and why individuals ‘deserve’ their success or failure.

The farting elephant in the room (my analogy) is about the visceral being of the elephant in context. The system is the whole context, not just the elephant. The elephant is alive and interacts with the room, with the environment, with society. Sometimes the elephant gets sick and can’t do what is expected.

Of course, the big problem with the elephant analogy is that we are on the outside of the system looking at it – as if we are not all implicated in it somehow.  However, don’t get hung up on the elephant. It could be a walrus, a whale or a zombie or behemoth. It’s simply an analogy. And, now that you can see the analogy, wipe it from your mind!

Questions to ponder

Some questions to think about in relation to Māori education and the system are:

  • How is this system held to account?
  • How is it that a small child can enter this very elegantly designed system primed to learn and come out of it illiterate, innumerate and with a ‘fuck you attitude’ to society and on a highway to prison?
  • How much is education accountable for the widening of inequalities in New Zealand?
  • Do we just blame the two groups of usual suspect’s teachers and/or parents or is the system more accountable?
  • What is the purpose of education in 2018 and what is the purpose of a Māori education pathway?
  • Do we have the system we need for the future?
  • Oh and why are New Zealanders really dumb about our history?
  • Are we training our professionals the best way as many of them are also appallingly dumb about our history?
  • Who has oversight of the Māori education components of the system?
  • How is this oversight person, group or entity governed and resourced to deliver excellence for Māori?

Now that I have started, the questions flow. I invite you to ask your own questions.

I could go on and … I will in the next two blogs.


This post was originally published at Te Puna Kōrero, a new blogging platform focused on Māori perspectives on issues past, present and future. The post is reproduced here by permission. 


linda-tuhiwai-smith.jpgLinda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Awa) is Professor of Education and Māori Development and Pro-Vice Chancellor Māori at the University of Waikato. She is a Fellow of the American Association for Research in Education and the Royal Society of New Zealand | Te Apārangi, and a life member of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education. Professor Smith was made a Companion of The New Zealand Order of Merit in 2013 for her services to Māori and education.

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