New Zealand: Collaboration and Crossing Cultures

[The following post is a continuation of a series of insights gleaned from observations, interviews, and collaboration in New Zealand schools.]


As the window into Kiwi education continues to open, here are a few more glimpses into the world of teaching and learning that one can observe down here… .

Collaborative Learning

Class sizes in New Zealand are large. Typical classes have between 26 and 30 students–although some are smaller, and some are larger. How do teachers “manage” class sizes this large? Elegantly, it turns out: by using collaborative learning and complex instruction to allow individuals and groups to manage their own pace, goals, and challenges.


Often, groupwork takes place outdoors.


Some projects require being outside. Here, students work together to use local plants to complete electrical circuits.


Math classes include direct instruction, but much of the time is spent in organic, collaborative workshops.

When you walk into a classroom in which learning is collaborative, it often takes a moment to locate the teacher. At least the adult teacher. In many New Zealand classrooms, “teachers” were everywhere.


Crossing Cultures


New Zealand has always been a bi-cultural country. When European colonists arrived, they established a nation that acknowledged the presence of the Maori, who had lived on these islands for hundreds of years. That bi-cultural reality, however, is growing ever-more complex, however–especially in Auckland.


New Zealand’s largest city is now both the de-facto multi-cultural capital of greater-Polynesia, and a place that welcomes arrivals from Asia and the rest of the world.


Intermediate students on a ferry ride to a school-sponsored island bike-tour represent varied backgrounds: Korean, Chinese, Phillipino, Iraqi, British, and Kiwi.


At Henderson Intermediate, friendships cross cultures–and oceans. Many students are “Pasifika,” including Tongans, Samoans, and Cook Islanders.

ESOL teachers’ lives are remarkably similar to those in our part of Vermont. New arrivals are constantly flooding in, presenting familiar challenges: multi-level classes, socio-emotional needs, and the systemic issue of how to navigate pull-outs within the traditional “timetable” (schedule).


Here, ESOL teachers often welcome students from India and China–but just as often from Niue or Nauru!

There are many different responses to this growing diversity–and the need for both cultural empowerment and cultural cross-cultural learning. Because of the relative autonomy of individual schools, New Zealand offers fertile ground for the testing of creative approaches. In the course of a week, for instance, our group saw:

– A mainstreamed ELL model, with ELL instructional support

– A bi-lingual program, in which traditional material (e.g., history) is delivered in both English and Maori

– Active outreach to sending schools, to build coherence between varied programs

–  A secondary school transitioning to a Maori-immersion program, with integrated subjects

– The use of “Te Kokotahitanga,” a multi-faceted system that supports Maori students’ growth–in large part through embedded professional development related to culturally-grounded practices

– A school’s separation into “whanau” (teams/houses–“families”) by ethnic group — including a Maori team, a Samoan team, a Tongan team, etc.

– “Kapa Haka” (cultural pride and performance groups) for Maori and Pasifika students — some open to all, others mono-cultural


Some schools also took on cross-cultural learning as an avenue for student growth, and as a means to build society’s values of affirmation and inclusion. Takapuna Normal, a school in North Auckland, has been facilitating cross-cultural experiences for groups of “emerging adolescents.”  Over the past 17 years, Takapuna estimates that ~3500 students have had the opportunity to leave Auckland by ferry, bike Waiheke Island, and stay on a Maori marae.


To stay on a marae is special. Many of the parent volunteers who joined the trip had never been to a marae themselves–even though they had grown up in New Zealand.


One cannot just walk onto a Marae. Visitors must be formally welcomed, through a powhiri ceremony. This ritual includes the exchange of stories, songs, genealogy, and gifts.


Students were invited to sleep in the faranui–the Maori “big house,” a sacred space for all Maori iwi (tribes).

Building a multi-cultural society does not happen by accident. Nor does it happen merely through setting immigration policies. It must happen through the deliberate building of relationships, and through the facilitation of reflective cross-cultural learning.

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