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The Science of Learning - A Tangata Tiriti Lens

by Rebecca Thomas

The Ministry of Education's recent teacher-only PLD day content focused on the "Science of Learning" - a synthesis of research on how humans acquire and apply knowledge. 

The resources presented are clear and concise. Dr. Nina Hood shares a kōrero on the Science of Learning Pedagogical Principles, with a gentle reminder at the end that the Science of Learning Principles are not the only pedagogical practice we should be employing in our schools. The research shows when explicit instruction is combined with other pedagogical approaches we can create a rich learning environment. 

This was followed by another succinct explanation from Alison Arrow describing Structured Literacy From A Science of Learning Perspective. One model in particular caught my attention and made me do some hard thinking: The "I do, We do, You do, You do together" model, also known as the Gradual Release of Responsibility model. This model was developed by literacy experts Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, and it gained popularity in the United States as an effective approach to scaffolding instruction and supporting student learning.

These facts then married to the question (on slide 18 of the MOE slide deck): 'How can an understanding of the Science of Learning help you to give practical effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi?' got me thinking more deeply as tangata tiriti.

I imagined if I were sitting in a staffroom at the time that question was posed a discussion might start with the principal or a senior teacher providing some context about why this question is important for the school to grapple with, potentially they might cite data about Māori student achievement gaps and the need to uphold Treaty obligations.

Initially, the responses might come from teachers who have some familiarity with educational psychology and "science of learning" research. They may point to theories like:

  • Using culturally-responsive pedagogies to validate Māori learners' identities

  • Activating prior knowledge/experiences in lesson plans

  • Building metacognitive skills for self-regulated learning

These teachers may see the science as a helpful evidence-base for designing more effective instruction for Māori students. It is possible that their interpretation may view learning primarily through a Western academic lens.

As the discussion continues some critical thinkers may challenge whether that framing of the actual question truly upholds the Treaty in itself. Some potential critiques could include:

  • Much of the "science" comes from a limited cultural viewpoint

  • It often separates learning from its holistic/spiritual context

  • It doesn't necessarily recognise Māori paradigms like tuakana-teina mentoring

Voices in the room may reframe the question through a Te Ao Māori worldview - what does learning look like when you centre Māori values, metaphors, and practices? This could prompt others to rethink their assumptions.

In regards to the Fisher and Grey Gradual release model, conversations might start with teachers expressing interest in the framework as a way to make literacy instruction more explicit and scaffold learning for students. They might see connections between the "focused instruction" and "guided instruction" phases and research on modelling, think-alouds, and providing temporary supports.

Some staff members may then raise concerns about whether this Western framework truly aligns with Te Tiriti principles and Te Ao Māori:

  • Does the Linear "release of responsibility" from teacher to student conflict with Māori views of collective, reciprocal learning?

  • Does it account for how Māori students' literacy learning is shaped by te reo Māori and oral traditions?

  • Does implementing this framework 'as-is' risk subtracting or devaluing Māori learners' strengths, identities and funds of knowledge around literacy?

Maybe the conversation might move towards exploring how the framework may need to be adapted, complemented or "braided" with Māori literacies in order to uphold the Treaty. For example:

  • During focused instruction, incorporating Māori metaphors, stories, whakataukī as part of modelling

  • In guided instruction, leveraging tuakana-teina roles and cross-age peer supports

  • For collaborative learning, designing tasks that cultivate ako (reciprocal teaching/learning)

  • Ensuring independent literacy tasks validate and build from Māori personal/cultural contexts

Additionally, some may propose involving kaumatua, whānau and local iwi to get input on whether and how the "science" behind this framework resonates with their perspectives on optimal literacy teaching and learning.

The key may be not fully rejecting or fully accepting the framework, but using it as a stake in the ground to critically analyse: Where does it enable or constrain our ability as a school to braid literacy pedagogies in a way that empowers and enhances Māori students' identities as skilled communicators?

Ideally, the discussion wouldn't get bogged down in rigid dichotomies but move towards a beginner's mindset of "Where is the science incomplete, or misaligned?" This could pave the way for locally-grounded, Treaty-honouring practices.

As I wasn't sat in any staffroom when I went through these slides and this work, I can only hope that the question, "How can an understanding of the Science of Learning help you to give practical effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi?" provoked a thoughtful negotiation that didn't treat frameworks as immutable, but as dynamically shaped by local ākonga, whānau and iwi aspirations for what powerful literacy looks like through Te Ao Māori perspective.

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Derek Wenmoth
Derek Wenmoth
Jun 20

Fabulous post, Rebecca - really appreciate your time taken to put this together - well done!

Replying to

Thanks Derek, I might say the same to you as I enjoyed your 'What are we fighting for?' post too :) I'd like to make reference to it in my blog tomorrow if that's OK?

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