Zombification and Disappearance – a challenge for educational research in 21st century Aotearoa (or is it New Zealand?)

Dr Brian Tweed, Massey University

This post is made in the spirit of playful yet serious and respectful provocation. The metaphor of Zombification and Disappearance is meant to provoke some critical thinking about our work as education researchers. I am not claiming the metaphor has any connection to reality although it might. Rather, I use the metaphor to think with and to open up creative possibilities, which may or may not be logically connected with each other and with real contexts.

For the past few years, I have given a guest lecture in the Initial Teacher Education programme at Victoria University. The title of this lecture is some variation of Zombification and Disappearance: How to avoid becoming a mutant coloniser in the 21st century. The deliberately playful and provocative stance taken in this lecture is that education has become an engine for the redesign, possession, and consumption of others. By ‘others’ I mean anything that education decides is a legitimate object of study, that is, something to be learned. This could be anything, a social practice, a domain of knowledge, an idea, a language, an event, land, human bodies, an attitude, a value, a competency (and so on).

Here’s the metaphor as a diagram which I present to students who attend my lecture.

The original (other) becomes transformed into a zombie version, which eventually replaces the original. The metaphor is influenced by Basil Bernstein’s theorisation of recontextualisation and Jean Baudrillard’s last book entitled Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?. Recontexualisation is the process that forms the Zombie. Disappearance is what happens when Zombies become misrecognised for the original which/who is ignored and over time just fades away. Eventually, we inhabit a world full of zombies and have become zombies ourselves.

At the heart of this metaphor, I place power and its cousins normativity and privilege. Maybe racism, colonialism and capitalism are in there too. These things drive the process by setting up a power triad of people who already know, others which/who are to be known and people who are learning to become like those who already know. In education, this means teachers, curriculum and students. So, the other to be known becomes changed to make sense to teachers and a zombie is formed to be passed onto students who misrecognise it for the real thing. The zombie is now free in the world and is taught and retaught spreading virus-like through society. After a while, no one remembers or can find the original.

Aotearoa … or … New Zealand?

We can use the metaphor to think about many things in education. In my lecture one of these is the term Aotearoa/New Zealand. We have a unique situation involving entangled but hopeful relationships between Māori, Pākehā and other New Zealand citizens. Aotearoa and New Zealand, in my view, are certainly not the same countries yet we join them together as if they are interchangeable. In this joining, Aotearoa is made to be the same place as New Zealand – this creates it as a zombie which plants in people’s minds a particular notion which has all but replaced the real Aotearoa.  Aotearoa does still exist but how many of us can say we have been to Aotearoa? Where is it? Who lives there? Does it really exist?

Science and Mātauranga Māori

The recent letter to the Listener penned by a group of Auckland University senior academics provides another event we can think about using zombification and disappearance. Mātauranga Māori is portrayed here in a zombie form (it is just social/folk/cultural knowledge) to support the interests of science (real/powerful knowledge). Mātauranga must become part of science, it is claimed. We might think here that it’s not Mātauranga that is to be absorbed but the zombie version of it created by science. There is also a sense in which science itself is zombified too in this debate. Tina Ngata has written powerfully about this.

Mathematics education as a zombifier?

I have a special interest in mathematics education not just because of a desire to enhance the learning of mathematics, but also because it seems to be especially prone to the zombification and disappearance process. Mathematics education has a sort of superpower that allows it to format the world.  The discourse of mathematics education portrays mathematics in a variety of super-powerful ways (to name a few: the highest/purest form of human knowledge, the language of science especially Physics, the language of God, it explains the universe, and, of course, everyone needs it to survive). Let’s face it, you can’t be fully human without being mathematical.

As Paul Dowling explained more than 20 years ago, mathematics education gives itself permission to consume and possess other people’s knowledge and their lives, representing them as inherently mathematical. Paul calls this the myth of reference; mathematics education can, it seems, look at any domain and pronounce it mathematical whether or not the people involved do mathematics or even think about it. Mathematisation is zombification and redesigning life around mathematical models is disappearance?

Education policy and institutions

It seems quite fruitful to use the metaphor to think about education policy and institutions. Maia Hetaraka provides us with a kaupapa Māori critique of Tātaiako in which she explains how Māori concepts with deep, complex, culturally specific meanings are given much simpler meanings in Tātaiako and left to non-Māori teachers to interpret. This is an invitation to create zombies, versions of these concepts that make sense to non-Māori teachers, set them free in the education system, there to replace the original meanings eventually. Jenny Lee also points out this same problem in relation to the Māori concept of ako, which so easily trips off the tongue in its (zombie?) form: ‘reciprocal teaching and learning’. Anne Milne challenges the oft-heard phrase ‘Māori achieving educational success as Māori’, pointing out that the ‘as Māori’ part is usually omitted.  Carl Mika and Georgina Stewart  help us to see and understand how an encounter at a conference with a Pākehā researcher talking about Māori things (or rather the zombie versions of them) opens up a window into the issue of Translation (capital T intentional). Translation with a capital T happens between two worlds based on very different, sometimes incompatible commitments about how the world works.

Translation sounds a lot like the zombification and disappearance process. When one world, or an institution embedded in it, holds most of the power, it refashions the objects it finds in other people’s lives and worlds in its own terms, it Translates them. Then, these Translations gain currency and …

Is education research involved in zombification and disappearance?

In a typical research project, we collect data, analyse the data, create frameworks and then use the frameworks to construct something new to implement. This resembles the zombification and disappearance process (or am I creating a zombie of research?). I want to focus on the first part, collecting data. Data can never capture everything about the context being researched. The context itself remains unknowable and what we create from data is always in a tenuous relationship with the unknowable reality of the context. It seems that we might be in a bind – in attempting to know the unknowable we are bound to create zombies and when we design new pedagogies or policies based on them, we get disappearance.

If we want to avoid zombification and disappearance in education research, kill zombies before they are released, then we have to attend to the unknowability of research contexts. If we accept that we can never know a research context then our research findings must always be presented explicitly for what they are – zombies. If we do this, their power to cause disappearance is shut off. In other words, research findings should never be used to make frameworks and models, which are then applied somewhere.  (Gert Biesta has something to say about this here and here).

In developing an ethical relation with the unknowability that lies at the heart of all of our research projects, we should become much more circumspect about our claims, accepting that we will always have a degree of ignorance about what we research. Georgina Stewart describes a ‘passion for ignorance’, which, if we want to deal with zombies, seems necessary. Ignorance is not only inevitable, but also good and needs to be cherished and placed centre stage.

So, what about educational research in Aotearoa …er…New Zealand? Is it complicit in zombification and disappearance? Is it a mutant coloniser?


Dr Brian Tweed has a background in mathematics education in both English and Māori-medium contexts and is currently a Senior Lecturer in Educational Studies, Te Kura o te Mātauranga/Institute of Education, Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa/Massey University.

2 comments

  1. Really interesting, a refreshing read. Liberating really, to acknowledge that part of one’s research will always be unknowable. Makes you think again that what you think is, actually, might not be. Thanks for the reflection!

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  2. Kia ora Brian, Thank you for your thought-provoking article, so much to consider – much of which results from our limitations as humans – we cannot know all, and we should not make out that we do. The balance (or failure?) is in ALWAYS acknowledging, as best we can, the limitations/contexts of our interpretations as we try to make sense of the world around us…. ngā mihi

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