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Learning from each other: A framework from the field

Cherie Chu-Fuluifaga and Martyn Reynolds
Abstract: 

Parents of Pacific learners are clear about what they want their childrens’ teachers to know. Teachers can make good sense of such knowledge when it is gifted to them if they are well-supported. This article is a preliminary account of a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative project, Learning From Each Other. The article describes an appropriate learning framework to support teachers of Pacific learners which leverages the potential of parent–teacher relationships to be the beating heart of Pacific education. The argument, driven by data from two case studies, points to the significance of a number of features as framework elements when seeking sustained positive change in Pacific education. These are: a context in which teachers see, and are motivated by, a need for change; talanoa as supportive exploratory process; exposure to resources (Pacific parent voice, Pacific origin theory, navigators); sufficient opportunity to learn; and a growth mindset. By linking these elements into a framework, we seek to support the effectiveness of activities designed to help teachers serve their Pacific (and other) learners better.

Journal issue: 

Learning from each other

A framework from the field

CHERIE CHU-FULUIFAGA AND MARTYN REYNOLDS

Key points

Privileging local Pacific parents’ and communities’ voices in consultation can enhance Pacific education.

Talanoa can be a powerful relationship building and consultative approach.

Teachers who learn from Pacific communities can change their thinking and therefore their actions.

Deep change takes time and effort.

Parents of Pacific learners are clear about what they want their childrens’ teachers to know. Teachers can make good sense of such knowledge when it is gifted to them if they are well-supported. This article is a preliminary account of a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) project, Learning From Each Other. The article describes an appropriate learning framework to support teachers of Pacific learners which leverages the potential of parent–teacher relationships to be the beating heart of Pacific education. The argument, driven by data from two case studies, points to the significance of a number of features as framework elements when seeking sustained positive change in Pacific education. These are: a context in which teachers see, and are motivated by, a need for change; talanoa as supportive exploratory process; exposure to resources (Pacific parent voice, Pacific origin theory, navigators); sufficient opportunity to learn; and a growth mindset. By linking these elements into a framework, we seek to support the effectiveness of activities designed to help teachers serve their Pacific (and other) learners better.

Introduction

This article is a preliminary account of a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) project, Learning From Each Other, that aims to support educators to pursue new practice as a result of sustained professional learning and development (PLD). The narrative frames Pacific education as a relational space in which parent–educator relationships have the potential to be the beating heart. We have developed a framework capable of facilitating change in the contexts in which we have operated, to support others who also pursue developments to deliver long overdue “success as Pacific” in education to Pacific learners, their families and communities.

The framework points to the significance of a number of factors. These include: appreciating the context in which educators are embedded; the potential of talanoa as a supportive, exploratory process; the power of Pacific parental and community voice coupled with theory and supported by navigators; sufficient opportunities to learn; and a growth mindset. Through the framework, we aim to support educators to serve their Pacific (and other diverse) learners better as they enter into closer relationships with Pacific parents and communities, deliberately become teachers-as-learners, and understand the value of stepping beyond the habitual and comfortable.

The article begins with a consideration of Pacific education, paying particular attention to research that recognises Pacific parents’ expertise. Next, comes a discussion of the significance of relationships in Pacific education. This discussion is linked to a description of talanoa, the relational approach to research that we employed. We follow up with some results of the initiative. During the account, we step through the elements of the framework, touching on aspects of relationships, resources, space, and time. Those aspects, when well configured, can provide learning moments that lead to changes of the heart and mind, and can underpin enhanced practice in Pacific education.

FIGURE 1. THE FRAMEWORK

Background

Pacific voice in education

Pacific (or Pasifika) education—the education of diverse learners with links to one or more Pacific Islands, (Airini, Anae, et al., 2010)—is in need of change. Evidence that Pacific students have been poorly served by education (Naepi, 2019) can be found in achievement data (New Zealand Qualifications Authority, 2019), curriculum representation (Johansson, 2012; Siteine & Samu, 2011), and the experiences of students (Office of the Children’s Commissioner, 2018). Although the community-consulted resource for teachers, Tapasā (Ministry of Education, 2018) is in place, matched by a shift to an action plan (Ministry of Education, 2020) and supported by a suite of talanoa ako resources (Chu-Fulufaiga et al. 2022; Fairbairn-Dunlop 2022), there is little evidence of wholesale re-thinking in the education system (Matapo, 2019).

Historically, the voices and values of Pacific communities have not been well represented in education. Gorinski and Fraser (2006) highlight the negative effect of differences in values, beliefs, assumptions, and experiences between Pacific homes and schools when played out against the backdrop of a monocultural schooling model; and a general failure in education to consult Pacific parents. Similarly, Chu-Fulufaiga et al. (2013) identify continued discrimination, cultural discontinuity, and lack of consultation with Pacific parents as issues. Although recent literature (Chu-Fulufaiga et al., 2022; Ministry of Education, 2019) suggests little positive relational change between schools and Pacific peoples, Chu-Fulufaiga et al. (2022) note Pacific parental desire to contribute to their children’s progress, the value of Pacific parental voice to support teacher understanding, and the potential impact on practice when teachers comprehend Pacific parent and family aspirations. Building on these strengths, this initiative seeks to foster a relational space in which Pacific parent voice is at home, invested with power, and able to positively affect relationships in education.

Pacific education as relational space

The centrality of relationships in Pacific education is evident in the literature (Airini, Anae, et al., 2010; Reynolds, 2017; Rimoni, 2016). Indeed, relational thinking is reflected in the turu (supports) of Tapasā (Ministry of Education, 2018), a guide offered to practitioners to improve Pacific education. However, the way relationships are understood is not universal. Va, a relational concept found in Samoa, Tonga, and elsewhere in the region is a helpful understanding of relationships for educators engaged in Pacific education.

Va (Samoan) or vā (Tongan) denotes relational space, and centres the self not as individual but as relational (Vaai & Nabobo-Baba, 2017)—we are who we are through our relationships rather than as isolated entities who happen to interact with others. Relationships traverse relational space, “the space between, the betweenness, not empty space, not space that separates but space that relates” (Wendt, 1999, p. 402). This conceptualisation contrasts with Western ideas of space as empty or open (Ka’ili, 2005). The va is an “imagined space that we ‘feel’ as opposed to, see” (Mila-Schaaf, 2006, p. 11), through which all things, human and non-human, are connected. Every classroom is a relational space, and every relationship in the classroom has a va. Pacific education can be thought of heuristically at a macro-level as a relational space, a va between Pacific learners, parents and communities, and (largely European-origin) (Education Counts, 2021) educators. Through va, relationships in Pacific education can be understood as multidimensional so that the physical, social, and spiritual are interlinked.

There are ethical obligations to care for va. The Samoan reference for this ethical caring is teu le va (Airini, Anae, et al., 2010; Anae, 2010) and the Tongan, tauhi vā (Koloto, 2017). To teu le va involves valuing, nurturing, and tidying the va if need be (Anae, 2010) which might not be straightforward. Poorly configured relationships in the va of Pacific education can lead to judgements that hold one expression of culture as superior to another, resulting in deficit theorising, minoritisation (Bishop et al., 2012) and belittlement, often the experience of Pacific people (Hau’ofa, 1994), including Pacific learners (Mayeda et al., 2014).

When the va of Pacific education is well tended, Pacific students flourish, find success on their own (and their families’) terms, and also follow paths towards achievement (Airini, Brown, et al., 2010; Alkema, 2014; Reynolds, 2017, 2021). What matters in the relational space of Pacific education is not the replacement of student-based deficit thinking with teacher-based deficits, but appreciation through well-configured relationships of the strengths of all involved: educators, students, and parents/community members.

1. The schools: Motivatation for change

Two sets of schools or kāhui ako (KA) were invited through existing relationships to take part in Learning From Each Other, one faith based, the other geographically constituted. One KA is located in an urban context in the North Island / Te Ika a Māui; one in a major centre in the South Island / Te Wai Pounamu. Within each KA, a group of six to eight educators came forwards as participants.

By their own introductory accounts, participants were motivated to learn about improving their school as a site of learning for Pacific (and other) students, and in Pacific education research as a learning opportunity. However, a more detailed examination reveals diversity in motivation for joining the research. For example, one teacher was building on unsettling cultural experiences stemming from time teaching in Indigenous communities in Australia; another had been teaching Pacific students in New Zealand for some time but was aware of a need to understand more fully Pacific students’ and parents’ experiences and aspirations. Every educational va has its own characteristics and requires appropriate care. There is value in appreciating the experiential knowledge of educators.

In addition to recognising ethnic diversity under the Pacific umbrella (Samu, 2006), Pacific voice derived in context has particular value in expressing the local concerns of engaged communities. Listening to the voices of communities that a school is trying to serve is likely to support sustained and relevant learning for educators. As one participant put it:

Hearing these things from Auckland ... is interesting. But hearing from our own Pacific parents is powerful. We fit it immediately into our setting. We think ‘Oh, what can we do about that?’ ... it helps us imagine what it’s like here.

Privileging local Pacific parents’ and communities’ voices in consultative research involves communication that can enhance Pacific education. Authentic partnership requires power sharing based on mutual appreciation of the knowledge and expertise of all involved (Cooper & Hedges, 2014). The presence of Pacific voice in the va of Pacific education does not guarantee partnership. Tuitama (2020) warns that shallowness can characterise home–school relationships, and Taleni et al. (2018) report that uninformed approaches to school–community engagement can lead to unintended paternalistic barriers. They advocate for deep understanding of Pacific students’ world views and the recognition of the potential of community knowledge to steer Pacific education. Consequently, we sought Pacific-orientated spaces through which Pacific voice and culture could be centred and acted upon in partnership through power sharing.

2. Talanoa

Host schools anchoring Learning From Each Other asked groups of Pacific “cultural brokers” to partner in initiating the research in their setting. As a result, community research fono (consultative meetings) were organised and conducted. One way Learning From Each Other sought to care for the relational spaces between Pacific parents and communities, educators, and researchers was through talanoa.

Talanoa has been described as method (Farrelly & Nabobo-Baba, 2014), methodology, philosophy (Halapua, 2008), and as a concept (Fa‘avae et al., 2016). For this study, we use talanoa to describe how we imagined the research, as well as how it was conducted.

Vaioleti (2013) describes research talanoa as an oral form that involves the levelling of power through the deliberate alignment of researchers’ and participants’ emotional and spiritual states. Talanoa also implies engagement that features dialogue and empathy in a space made safe for all participants (Farrelly & Nabobo-Baba, 2014). We worked towards creating research that offered a safe discursive talanoa space to Pacific parents and communities by consulting the communities themselves about the parameters of consultation.

At one fono/meeting, approximately 100 Pacific students, parents and community members joined with KA members and researchers to share an evening. The negotiated programme included an opportunity for Pacific students to perform cultural items, speeches of welcome and response, multiple small-group talanoa where a scribe recorded data, and a communal meal. Key aspects of the process included the visibility and celebration of Pacific cultures; the gifting of information by parents and community members to educators; relationships warmed by the common concern to improve Pacific educational experiences; and shared time and space. Other fono took different courses, but all featured talanoa as consultation, and reciprocation on similar lines.

Prompts were provided by the researchers and were often used by Pacific parents in talanoa groups, including “What do Pacific parents want teachers to know about Pacific families”; and “What one piece of advice would Pacific parents want to offer their children’s teachers”. Responses to prompts together with unsolicited information from Pacific parents and community members led to a rich information set from each research setting.

3. Pacific voice

Although considerable contextual difference in detail was evident, some similarity became evident across the two talanoa-derived data sets. Five common themes emerged through thematic coding. Here, we offer these with sample details drawn from Pacific parent and community voice from one location.

i. Pacific identity: What it means to be Pacific

“Know all Pacific people are not the same, [don’t] put us in one umbrella, it’s not fair, we do things differently.”

“[Who we are] depends on cultural make up—when you migrated, the language spoken at home.”

ii. School culture: The experience of school

“What does it look like when not being treated the same? Sad, not feeling like belonging.”

“[We want to see Pacific students] achieving at the same level as other children, on a par with everyone else, not always behind.”

iii. Student–teacher relationships: Pedagogy and learning

“[We want] a teacher who takes time to really understand them [Pacific students].”

“Love our children, be unconditional and accept their value.”

iv. Parent–teacher relationships: Partnership

“[Tell us] what we can do differently to make the biggest gains.”

“Please talk to us for anything you need to know.”

v. Success: Cultural norms

“[Involves] being strong in who you are and where you come from. Identity and self-belief are important.”

“[can be supported by] knowing about cultural commitments they [students] are involved with outside of school. It’s not having time off—they are busy being who they are.”

The themes accord with the focus on identity, relationships and culture of recent literature on Pacific education (Ministry of Education, 2019), and coincide with the themes in the recent Talanoa Ako publications (Chu-Fuluifaga et al., 2022; Fairbairn-Dunlop, 2022) including wellbeing, Pacific visibility in, and access to, education.

Pacific parents also voiced the value to them of the fono talanoa process: “This [fono] is a great concept”; “[The fono] is wonderful and we applaud you [educators] for listening to us and using your ears.”

Learning

In this section on learning we explain in four subsections what was designed as a holistic learning journey for participants: learning related to process; parent and community voice; theory; and navigators. We focus on responses to Themes 3 and 4.

Learning from the process

The aim of collecting the voices of Pacific parents and communities (and some Pacific students) was to provide a resource for teacher PLD. Themed sections of local Pacific parent and community voice were offered to those who had agreed to participate as teachers-as-learners over five 2-hour meetings. These meetings were structured as part of a mediated dialogue conducted through the researchers. Mediated dialogue recognises the practical difficulties of getting a group of educators and Pacific stakeholders together, and also moderates the power-related silencing that may be present in (Pacific) parent–teacher encounters (Nakhid, 2003; Reynolds, 2017). The mediated dialogue extended the fono talanoa process into a PLD talanoa space.

The talanoa inspired approach to PLD offered new experiential learning to the non-Pacific participants. Aspects of this approach included an intentionally created safe space; shared goals focused on enhancing Pacific education; and the explicit recognition of educator, Pacific parent and community, and researcher expertise. Appreciation of the PLD as a talanoa inspired process is evident in participants’ comments: “This is a safe space”; “We can ask what we like”; “We are not scared of making mistakes here, you know, about cultural things”.

Learning from Pacific voice

The productivity of the PLD approach also became clear as teachers-as-learners developed responses to Pacific parent and community voice. For example, one responded to the potential intergenerational effect of racism implied in a parent’s comment by suggesting:

We need to address the pain Pacific people feel in education—through relationships — to support healing…

Another responded to Pacific parental voice that addressed discomfort at teacher–parent interviews by realising:

As teachers we need to communicate, open up powersharing in our environment, they [Pacific parents] don’t have to wait for formal inteviews... its [good to make contact and] not always when things go wrong... We need to be opening up the four walls of the educational classroom...

These responses to Theme 4 suggest learning that is both of the heart and of the mind—empathetic to the experiences of Pacific people, and able to imagine solutions.

Learning from theory and research

In addition to Pacific voice, participating teachers-as-learners were offered supported discussions. For example, they encountered time as relationally focused (Chu-Fuluifaga & Ikiua-Pasi, 2021; Cunningham & Jesson, 2021), a notion that challenges conceptions of time as linked to efficiency. This view of time resonated with Pacific parental contributions to the PLD information and led to responses Theme 3 from educators such as:

relationships comes back to that...making that time when it’s just them and not rushed... A little bit of time goes a long way...

take the time to explain... I can see the importance taking that time... hopefully [I’ll] spend more time [after] having that pointed out

Pacific parent voice also referred to the significance of relationships and learning environments. To appreciate this significance, the teachers-as-learners were supported by information about the va and responded accordingly, again within Theme 3:

If we go back to the va, it made me go away and really think about why a couple of students...didn’t really put their hand up...didn’t speak to me...

If we nurture Pacific culture and values, then we nurture the va—it improves our relationships with our [Pacific] students

Ideas of success in education that move beyond achievement were present in Pacific parent voice. Teachers’ understandings were supported through reference to wider studies (Averill & Rimoni, 2019; Reynolds, 2017) so that enhanced appreciations develop within Theme 3:

It’s a communal sense, its not your success, it belongs to everyone, to the “village”...

[We need to be] asking what parents and children see as success and changing our practice to achieve this

Learning with navigators

Navigators—Pacific and palagi (non-Pacific people) support people—contributed during the PLD. Pacific navigators brought experiential stories such as low expectations of Pacific learners in education, differences and connections between ethnic groups, and high Pacific parental expectations. Palagi navigators shared stories as allies in Pacific education such as of strategies for building relationships, successful classroom practices, and how they approached other educators about changing practice. The presence of navigators provoked “curly” questions, “the kind you might not want to ask” within the PLD talanoa.

Participating teachers appeared to grow through the combination of experiential, voice-based, and theory driven learning. Their growth was located in their own context, matching the expressions of Pacific parents and communities with their own developing knowledge and expertise:

We weren’t learning about a programme, we were learning about who our students are, what our students and parents want, and about what we have to do to make learning a better experience for them.

Time

A significant consideration is “sufficient opportunities to learn” Ministry of Education (2007, p. 34), a tenet of effective pedagogy in the New Zealand Curriculum. In the case of Learning From Each Other, attempts were made to provide sufficiency by staging learning over a period of at least a year, and through access to the varied but multiple resources described above. A further resource was hearing the storied experiences of fellow participants. These provided confidence so that collaborative thought generated the impetus to create “disturbance” (Peck et al., 2009, p. 20) to existing frames of thinking about school, especially by reflecting on how Pacific voice could be implemented through different actions across sectors.

It’s good to hear other ideas, especially across the primary/secondary divide.

The nature of traditional PLD sessions reduces the opportunities to ponder, trial, evaluate, re-question and revisit new thought and action. Experience suggests that one-off PLD sessions, discussions in a space dominated by educators invested in the status quo, and lecture-style delivery are unlikely to produce sustainable change. Time is an important factor in achieving sustained change. In one setting, the participants requested to continue learning for a second year and accepted the challenge to provide support for their own schools outside the researchers’ plan for a second cohort journeying through the PLD in Year 2.

FIGURE 2. THE LEARNING MODEL

Initial results

The operation of the framework produced various forms of success inspired by Pacific parent voice. One account of success describes how a participant dealt with COVID-19 disruptions to the local Pacific festival. This involved valuing Pacific cultures, a partnership enhanced through the research with a Pacific parent, and acting to create an alternative opportunity for Pacific students:

A result of the work we have been doing here, over time, is that we have the relationship now where I was able to say, ‘I would still like us to do a Pasifika cultural group and would you help me?’, and she [a Tongan parent] said, ‘Yes’. And when we got together- she was part of the whānau group that helped here [with the fono] and that relationship has grown – her as part of a link to the community as well, she made a video of bread making and used the Tongan values and we used that in school…

A second form of success is confidence in navigating cultural matters so that partnership between [palagi] educators and Pacific people can be enhanced. Evidence of this confidence is the replacement of educators’ fears of saying or asking “the wrong thing” of Pacific contacts and also of worries about being judged “tokenistic” in front of non-Pacific colleagues with the confidence to engage as partners with Pacific parents as described above. In one research group, enhanced relational confidence resulted in a mass where Pacific cultures were celebrated, and Pacific languages were used in everyday ways in classrooms as preparation.

Confidence also means being able to withstand expectations that exist of a silver bullet for Pacific education—a simple, shallow, quick gain such as a “special programme”, a force that at one point led to the doubt-ridden question “Am I missing the point?” from a participanting teacher whose school leaders seemed to want a new programme rather than changes in everyday practice. Participating teachers-as-learners also presented their developing understandings to colleagues (and beyond), working to normalise discourse about Pacific concepts in education. For example:

This has given me the confidence to talk to people including my hairdresser.. I probably wouldn’t have before these discussions...

Other positive results reported by participating teachers so far include increased time spent with Pacific students through after school sessions, and increased one-to-one interactions and timely communication between school and home as participants challenge “how we do things here”.

We have to get away from the ‘fact’ that if they [Pacific parents] don’t make an appointment its not they are interested... Go and ‘capture’ them at the gate .... give a call.... We have to look...We have to say, ‘I wonder why they didn’t come’... We need to invite them...

Other results include opportunities for Pacific students to perform for peers; consultation with Pacific students about their priorities in education, in one case rendered as prayer; enhanced expectations exercised through monitoring the kinds of questions offered to Pacific students and the kinds of role models offered to them; and deliberately constructed leadership opportunities.

Conclusion

In a relational approach, what matters in the intercultural space of Pacific education (Nakhid, 2003; Reynolds, 2019) is the appreciation through well-configured relationships of the strengths of all involved: teachers, students, and parents/community members. The framework we offer promotes closer relationships between these groups as the core of enhancements in Pacific education. The elements include consultation through a talanoa approach in order to amplify the contributions of Pacific parents and community members; recognising the importance of context in terms of meeting the learning and motivational needs of teachers; and providing sufficient opportunities to learn in terms of resources and time. The framework illustrates that when significant investment is made to support educators, they can experience deep change of the heart and mind capable of remodelling educational practice, embodying the aspirations of Pacific parents and communities, moderating many gaps between home and school, and bringing honour to all those involved.

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As a trainer–facilitator and senior lecturer, Dr Cherie Chu-Fuluifaga has a research interest in mentoring, human development, identity, cultural change, and leadership in Pasifika contexts. Cherie has led research projects for Ako Aotearoa and the Ministry of Education and has developed cultural training and education for New Zealand judges, educators, teachers, youth workers, academics, and students.

Email: cherie.chu-fuluifaga@vuw.ac.nz

Dr Martyn Reynolds has been a teacher for 35 years. He currently provides PLD in schools and works as a researcher in Pacific education, leadership development, and Oceania oralities. He hold a post as postdoctoral fellow in Pacific education research at Te Herenga Waka / Victoria University of Wellington.

Email: martyn.reynolds@vuw.ac.nz