Talk about a specific programme of research into Māori education began within a year of NZCER’s establishment in 1934. But it was not until the early 1970s that the money was found to set up a Māori research unit within the organisation.
It was headed by Dr Richard Benton and early in 1973 he was joined by other staff. Throughout its history it has generally had three to four permanent staff but often many others employed in temporary roles such as fieldworkers or research interns.
Over the years the unit has been know as Te Wāhanga Māori, or NZCER’s Māori Unit. More recently it was called Te Wāhanga Kaupapa Māori, which was often shortened to the initials TWKM. The name Te Wāhanga has now been reclaimed.
The early work of the unit involved basic research on language-related topics, and the collection and dissemination of information and ideas to people involved in Māori education. By 1974 the staff consisted of Dr Benton as senior research officer, research officer Peter Ranby and an administration assistant. Janet McCallum worked with the unit under a JR McKenzie Fellowship and conducted research on spoken English among Māori children. During this period, Dr Benton had a national role as a member of an advisory committee for research on Māori schooling, chaired by Mere Penfold and charged with advising the Director-General of Education on research and policy priorities.
Language use in Māori households
In 1973 the unit embarked on an extensive sociolinguistic census of language use in Māori households. By the end of September 1976, interviews had been completed in 3864 households, from Northland to the Tauranga region. The census interviews were carried out by more than 80 people, mostly bilingual teachers’ college and university students. More staff were brought in to assist with the coding and analysis of the material, including Nina Benton as a Fletcher Fellow. The unit secretary America Potiki became a fulltime research assistant. Fieldwork was completed in mid-1978, and the first general reports summarising data on knowledge of conversational Māori among the people of various age groups in the districts visited, appeared shortly afterwards.
The survey and the extensive analysis dominated the work of the unit for a number of years. The pressure was exacerbated in the early 1980s, when there began to be a strong demand on the unit from the emerging bilingual education movement. The unit also faced funding constraints, and as a result, Dr Benton made a decision to concentrate all efforts on getting the survey work completed.
By the end of 1983, the unit was able to report that “tremendous progress” had been made, “both in preparing the data for further study and in reporting the results of the survey to the participants, the scholarly community and the general public.”
In 1982 the council took on University of Waikato senior lecturer in Māori John Moorfield, as a consultant on curriculum development for bilingual schools in English-speaking communities. He completed a draft Māori language syllabus for bilingual education programmes.
The unit also established a network of bilingual schools, and schools interested in developing bilingual programmes. It distributed a newsletter and planned a series on teaching methods to be called nga toemi - little hand-nets in which bits of useful information have been caught.
An important strand of work for the unit was the training of young Māori researchers, a project begun with the recruitment of fieldworkers for the survey and the setting up of research internships. Seventeen internships were awarded between 1978 and 1986. It evolved into a post-graduate level programme, which provided students with aspects of research expertise and experience which the particular university courses they had taken were not able to provide.
Another theme throughout its history has been its efforts to build contacts with individuals and representatives of institutions in New Zealand and overseas whose research interests were similar to its own. It used letters, publications, presentations in its dissemination efforts, and staff had extensive informal contacts.