Starting a long journey: Decolonising literacy teacher education using Tapasā as a compass 

Dr Jessica Rubin (University of Waikato) and Dr David Fa’avae (University of Auckland)

Tapasā: Cultural Competencies Framework for Teachers of Pacific Learners was released in 2018 by the Ministry of Education, a complement to (not replacement for) Tātaiako: Cultural Competencies for Teachers of Māori Learners, published in 2011. Tapasā is part of the Pasifika Education Plan, aimed at supporting Pasifika learners to “enjoy educational success as Pasifika”. In Gagana Samoa (Samoan language), the word tapasā is connected in meaning with the word “compass” in English. The metaphoric compass of Tapasā is a well-intentioned tool for navigating some of the complexities of supporting teachers to build cultural relationships for responsive pedagogy, a priority for each of us authors in our work as researchers and teacher educators.

But how do we – and other teachers, teacher educators, and researchers – actually live out the aspirations of Tapasā? In particular, how can we (the authors) support the pre-service teachers we work with on their journey of understanding the importance and practice of cultural responsiveness? And how might our journey support the learning and practice of others? 

As co-authors of a chapter in the recently published book Global Meaning Making: Disrupting and Interrogating International Language and Literacy Research and Teaching, we saw a chance to bring our own cultural backgrounds, experiences as teachers and teacher educators, and research methodologies into generative and authentic conversation around Tapasā. David is a Pacific researcher, born in Niue and raised in Aotearoa and with ancestry in Tonga and Samoa. Jessica is a relatively recent arrival to the Pacific. We both came to academia after long careers in teaching, Jessica in the United States and David in Aotearoa New Zealand, and we are both non-Māori scholars who wish to write and teach in ways that show our solidarity with tangata whenua whose knowledge and ways of knowing have been marginalised in schools

In this blog post, we share some insights from our learning journey, guided by two tenets of the Global Meaning Making framework: interrupting existing frames and decolonising spaces. Interrupting existing frames means disrupting the normative and challenging the “colonised status quo.” We are reminded that interrupting frames means “going beyond simply rearranging content.” Pursuing decolonising spaces means that the knowledge and ways of knowing of various meaning makers are respected. We end with some possible ways forward as we all continue to navigate these complex journeys, using Tapasā as a compass to guide our paths. 

Talanoa vā and the research process

Our process for doing this research included talanoa vā engagements over several months. As a methodology, talanoa vā is a way of explaining how connections and relationships are made sense by Pasifika/Pacific people. It emphasises the relational nature of being and knowing, building new understandings with each other in shared time-space. With open minds and hearts, we met for respectful and free-flowing dialogue so that we could engage in meaning making and reach a shared understanding. Rather than reducing complexity to sameness, we found that talanoa vā methodology guarded space for our differences in background, nationality, ethnicity, cultural location and life experiences to produce meaningful textures of understanding. 

Through our processes of meaning making, we found deeper understandings of how Tapasā supports cultural understanding and curriculum change and how teacher education classes and programmes might better support the reflection and change necessary for beginning teachers in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Highlights from Tapasā

Two ideas that kept resurfacing in our talanoa were the framing of the competencies (Ngā Turu) clarified in Tapasā as foundationally underpinned by:

  • commitments to transformation of educational practice, and 
  • the need for all teachers (and teacher educators) to understand the significance of culture and cultural locatedness. 

Within the Tapasā policy, the significance of understanding our own and others’ cultural locatedness is foundational. Teachers must understand culture as something that encompasses more than just ethnicity and race, and must realise that “culture is not just the domain of others or minority groups as [the teachers] themselves also have culture” (Tapasā, p. 6). For this to happen, teachers must confront any deficit assumptions about the practices of culture and culturally diverse families, and develop an awareness of their own cultural lenses and how these lenses affect their practice with minority students. When teachers prioritise this kind of critical awareness and development, they are more likely to care for and nourish relational vā in ways that bridge the gap with generating an appreciative affinity to worldviews outside of their own. We appreciated the significance of reminding members of the dominant cultural group (to which most teachers, still, belong) that their culture is not a neutral/default/natural way of existing but is also historically embedded and learned. 

The call for change stood out to us, too. Tapasā is clear about this at the start: the document aims to “support teachers and leaders to engage, challenge, shift, and transform their way of thinking and practice”; and “in order to address educational inequality, a change in thinking and practice is required” (p. 6). We must change– transform– how we think and what we do. Recognising the non-neutrality of the dominant culture and its impact on the structures of schooling is intertwined with the belief that those structures can change. And, as Tapasā emphasises, if we want experiences and outcomes for students to be different, both thinking and practices must change. 

The next section presents an example of how we sought to take our Tapasā-informed thinking and use it to help transform aspects of our practice.

An example from our professional practice: Literacy teacher education, cultural locatedness, and transformation of thinking and practice

Our understandings of Tapasā and the opportunities it implies formed the lens through which we re-read published paper outlines for an undergraduate literacy teacher education paper. We were especially curious about any changes that it might have undergone since the publication of Tapasā in 2018. We chose to focus on paper outlines as a stable overview of the content of the paper and as important symbolic texts that convey direct and indirect meaning in the context of university learning. 

While there were updates and shifts made to the paper over time, we did not see evidence of the deep change in thinking and practice that Tapasā suggested were required. Further, when read through the lens of Tapasā and the engagement of our talanoa, we saw that the paper outlines reflected persistent loyalty to approaches of teaching and assessment that were in line with colonial traditions of meaning making. We suspected there was an underlying (and problematic) assumption that student teachers would be members of the dominant cultural group and thus were invited to consider themselves culturally neutral. There was no evidence that student teachers would be required to critically investigate their own cultural locatedness, and no suggestion that they would be supported to consider how culture might contribute to positioning their, and their students’, literacy learning in certain ways. While some mentions of “culture” were included, cultural considerations were described exclusively as something the student teachers would direct toward their students. 

Deliberately bringing a Tapasā lens to this concrete example of our professional practice helped us see specific steps that could be taken to improve the cultural responsiveness of the design of this particular class. However, we see this example as emblematic of many learning contexts that might benefit from closer examination. While we both actively pursue critical reflection and opportunities to expand our thinking in our own teaching practices, there is a need for collective and systematic action as well. As a Ministry-authored publication that all teachers, schools, and universities have access to and a responsibility to engage with, Tapasā is immediately available as a support for our critical thinking and transformed practice in a wide range of areas.

Looking forward

Like many societies, Aotearoa New Zealand is undergoing a long and complex process of reckoning with the influences and impacts of settler colonialism. We cannot decolonise education spaces without meaningful interruption of the frames we have inherited. Tapasā recognises the need for transformation of thinking and practice, which will require acknowledgement and critical consideration of the hierarchical colonial structures and traditions in schools and in teacher education. In terms of our practical example with the literacy paper outline, simply mentioning that student teachers should be sensitive to culture is not an interruption of an existing frame. We have also noticed that there is a hesitation in policy writing and in person to discuss whiteness as a sociocultural construct and force in schooling. Scholarship recognises that whiteness is often entangled with coloniality and colonialism and that its influence needs to be named, located across places in society including education, and interrogated as well. We might ask questions like:

  • How does the Pākehā identity complicate understandings of whiteness in Aotearoa New Zealand? 
  • How is whiteness privileged in schools across Aotearoa New Zealand? 
  • How can teachers confront structures and systems that privilege whiteness?
  • What is the role of Critical Whiteness studies in education research?

As early career academics, we each arrived with aspirations to support beginning teachers to read the world through a critical lens and to sustain complexity in their thinking. We believe in the capability of teachers to understand, among other things, the complexities of culture and their own cultural locatedness. As teacher educators, we have a responsibility to support our students to resist the unexamined reproduction of persistent patterns of authority and privilege in schools. 

Dr Jessica Rubin is a senior lecturer in literacy education at the University of Waikato. Her work as a teacher educator and education researcher builds from ten years experience teaching secondary English language arts. She thinks about literacies broadly and inclusively, and uses conceptual frameworks that inspire and require critical reflection of ourselves, educational institutions and other systems.

Dr David Fa’avae is Tongan, born in Niue, raised in Aotearoa New Zealand, and has heritage links to Samoa. He has worked at both the University of Auckland and the University of Waikato. He previously served as a fellow in leadership and research at the Institute of Education, University of the South Pacific. David values intergenerational storying, storytelling, and methodologies within Critical Pacific Studies and Pacific Education.

One comment

  1. Faafetai tele lava Malo aupito kōrua Nga mihi nui
    I strongly recommend we add linguistic to as “linguistic and cultural “ as western peoples and agencies have historically only wanted to talk about “cultural responsiveness “ and yet language and literacy especially Biliteracy is almost always left out of that discussion I believe discourse analysis shows this is not just a western blindness but a deliberate attempt to exclude have to respond to students and fanau aiga language and it central role in belonging identity well being self concept empowerment and the need for strong active empowering bilingual/biliteracy educational and society wide responses
    He aha o kōrua whakaaro ?
    John McCaffery UoA TPW Waka Aotearoa Education


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