In the eye of the beholder

March 2011


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ROSEMARY CATHCART has been an exponent for Gifted and Talented children for 30 years. She wonders why Māori and Pasifika students are seldom seen on that school roll.

School is back, and the tussle over national standards resumes. Have

we actually heard all the voices who

have something relevant to say about this divisive issue?

A major focus of national standards is on improving the literacy and numeracy of all students, with a particular emphasis on raising the achievement of Māori and Pasifika students. Within this worthy ambition there’s an implication that Māori and Pasifika students will be among the lower-achieving.

Certainly statistics tell us that there’s some basis in fact for this expectation. But where is our recognition that this has nothing whatsoever to do with innate learning ability? That the range of natural ability is just as great in Māori and Pasifika students as it is in Pākehā students? In particular, where’s our recognition that there are many gifted children, regardless of their ethnicity?

The Education Review Office’s 2008 report on schools’ provision for gifted students found that 85 per cent did not incorporate Māori values in their identification processes and that “almost all” schools failed to include Māori values, tikanga and pedagogy in their gifted provisions. Even less recognition was given to Pasifika values. Who then is at liberty to set a standard that invites unanimous support for what is deemed ‘gifted’?

How will national standards help recognise exceptional ability in Māori and Pasifika students? It doesn’t even do this for gifted Pākehā students. One mother of a six-year-old reading four years above his chronological age summed it up for every parent of a gifted child in New Zealand at the end of last year. Her school told her that her son had met the national standards for reading. He certainly had! But in despair, she asked what use was that information to her? How would it help her son or provide for his continuing progress?

And that’s a child who was performing in ways our Pākehā system (theoretically) knows how to recognise. When it comes to gifted Māori and Pasifika students – and indeed to all Māori and Pasifika students – what we have consistently failed to realise or appreciate is that different cultural values produce different ways of learning, different learning responses, and that this plays a part in the alleged “underachievement” by these students.

In particular, we as a profession remain ignorant of what should be one of the most exciting treasures our gifted Māori and Pasifika students have to offer us – an expansion in our perception of giftedness to dimensions we may be overlooking.

National standards, good or bad, right or wrong, are but one lens through which to view achievement. As a profession and as individuals we need to broaden our minds to foster the talents of all our children. A few years ago, there was a tremendous fuss about the use of the phrase “bridging the gap”. The changing politics of edu-speak erased this from our vocabulary. But perhaps it’s time to revive it in another form. All Kiwis are familiar with the plethora of one-way bridges on our narrow country roads. What we all need to do, as teachers and perhaps also as citizens, is to recognise the need to re-build our bridges so there is two-way traffic flowing between cultures. Then we may see a lift in the achievement of Māori and Pasifika students – and the wider education sector may discover the taonga that is the Māori and Pasifika view of giftedness.

Whāia te māramatanga: Let us seek enlightenment.