Participatory action research and Pacific methodology

Joseph Houghton, PhD Candidate, University of Canterbury
Shirley Boys High School Director of Māori and Pasifika Achievement

How my research began

Why did I do a PhD?  I am a busy secondary school teacher, involved in a range of community activities, including being a member of my children’s school board and a member of the Ministry of Education NCEA Review Pacific People’s Panel. I had already completed my postgraduate diploma so I had already ticked the post-graduate qualification box. The answer is that I wanted to dive in deeper to find solutions to problems that our young Pasifika people face in education.

The question I quickly came up against was the ‘how’.  How was I going to go about finding the answers to the questions I had about the ways in which Pasifika students and parents experience education? What would be my methodology? And how would I stay true to myself as a Pasifika (Cook Island/Tahitian) researcher and my diverse Pacific community?

Participatory Action Research

After many discussions with my supervisor, Dr Richard Manning, and people in the wider Pasifika education community, I decided that my research would use a qualitative, community-based Participatory Action Research (PAR) design. Alongside this, I wanted to explore the ‘Tivaevae’ (Cook Islands) and ‘Talanoa’ (Samoa, Fiji, Tonga) models as qualitative data collection methods and links to my theoretical framework. Reason and Bradbury (2008) in their working definition of action research state that it

“seeks to bring together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people”

PAR “aims to produce knowledge and action directly useful to people, and also to empower people through the process of constructing and using their own knowledge” (Miller & Brewer, 2003). These words jumped out at me – it was exactly what I was after and I knew it would be a methodology that would be suitable for the community with whom I would be doing the research.

Christchurch secondary school setting

Looking at the literature and analysis of data concerning Pasifika student and family engagement nationally is one thing, but within a Christchurch secondary school setting, the research becomes limited. While on a national level, there have been significant calls for academic, social and pathway improvement (see here, here and here), a lot of this is focused in the northern regions of the country. We wanted something based in our community, for our community. This led me to conclude that the “pursuit of practical solutions” in education for Pasifika communities in Christchurch/Canterbury, with its growing Pacific community, was something that is of pressing concern.

The research problem I identified was a distinct lack of Pasifika student and parent voice within our secondary school system in Christchurch. With action research, “the inquiry deliberately starts from a specific practical or applied problem or question. Its whole purpose is to enable action to solve that practical problem or answer that practical question” (Punch & Oancea, 2009), and so my PhD journey got underway. Now I needed to look at how I would ensure that my methodology engaged with Pasifika theory and models.

Engaging my methodology with Pasifika theories

The Tivaevae Model

The Tivaevae research model and theoretical framework is an indigenous research model based on the unique, artistic quilting process in the Cook Islands, and has been slowly emerging over the last two decades as a Pacific research methodology (Te Ava & Page, 2018). Based primarily on the work of Maua-Hodges (2000; 2003) and further developed by several Cook Island academics, including Te Ava (2011; 2018) and Hunter and Hunter (2018), the Tivaevae model has a clear process and a specific set of values attached to it, which align with other indigenous Pacific research methods, including the Talanoa model. These models and methods seek to connect with Pacific ways of life and cultural aspects and as Sanga and Reynolds (2017) state, “theorisation as an activity is seldom an isolated pursuit and genealogy need not develop within only one model appropriate for one locale, but also between models serving diverse communities” (p. 200).

The three dimensions of the Tivaevae model are reflective of the Tivaevae construction process, and are outlined by Maua-Hodges as follows:

  • Koikoi – gathering of patterns and ideas to inform the creation
  • Tuitui – the sewing of the pattern onto the canvas – the physical making of the Tivaevae within the community of expertise
  • Akairianga – reflection on the creation and offering of the Tivaevae to others as a gift

These three dimensions reflect the process undertaken by the researcher in order to develop a powerful ‘creation’ so to speak. The koikoi reflects the initial co-construction of the research objectives and questions, which emerge from the community and the discourse, as opposed to merely the researcher. The tuitui reflects the collaborative data collection that occurs and the data analysis which forms the concrete product of the research work. Lastly, the akairianga is the co-assessment or evaluation of the final product, which will be ‘gifted’ or given to the recipients – in this case the Pasifika community within which the research is conducted, for their use and benefit.

As stated above, the Tivaevae model is in an emergent phase and the inclusion of it in my research design is an appropriate way to acknowledge and develop where I am coming from as a researcher of Cook Island heritage, and as a model to compliment the more popular Talanoa method.

The Talanoa research method

I chose to also utilize the Talanoa research method and methodology (Vaioleti, 2006) from the initial development of my research, through to the actual collection of data. The Talanoa method is “an existing cultural practice of the Pacific” (Fa’avae, 2016), and relies on the development of strong relationships between the researcher and the participant. I wanted to give a sense of legitimacy to the research conducted. Talanoa is a phenomenological research method which focuses on understanding the participants experience in relation to certain events, and being derived from Pasifika philosophy, values and cultural traditions, it is “orientated towards defining and acknowledging Pacific aspirations while developing and implementing Pacific theoretical and methodological preferences for research” (Vaioleti, 2006).

Allowing authentic voices to emerge

One of the core aims of this research is to break down the barriers that often exist between traditional schooling methods in New Zealand and equitable experiences in education for Pasifika students, and to allow the authentic voices of Pasifika families and students to emerge. This is no easy task, as the judgement of what is ‘authentic’ or not can be hotly debated and contested.  I am hopeful that the use of the Talanoa and Tivaevae models alongside Participatory Action Research will help break down those barriers. The participants and I are looking to conclude the data collection for this research at the start of 2021, and I am planning for the PhD to be completed in late 2022. I am working towards producing a body of work that will support and encourage other educators to listen carefully to the voices of their Pasifika community, no matter the size.


Joseph Houghton has worked in education for the last 13 years with a passion for enabling success for young people, especially those from Māori and Pasifika communities. He holds a BA, a Grad Dip Tchg & Lng from the University of Canterbury, and a Postgrad DipEd from Massey University. He is an Across School Lead for the Ōtākaro Kāhui Ako in East Christchurch, and is based at Shirley Boys’ High School. Working part-time on his PhD at the University of Canterbury, he sometimes manages to find time to spend with his amazing wife and five children.

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