Te piko o te māhuri, tērā te tupu o te rākau: language and literacy in marae-based programmes

Publication Details

This report explores the effectiveness of marae-based learning in providing language and literacy for Māori adults. It examines two marae-based programmes at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi.

‘Te piko o te māhuri, tērā te tupu o te rākau’ can be translated as ‘the way in which the young sapling is nurtured (bent), determines how the tree will grow’. For this research it symbolises the importance of strong learning foundations for future success in learning.

Author(s): Susan Mlcek, Ngareta Timutimu, Carl Mika, Monte Aranga, Nikora Taipeti, Te Rurehe Rangihau, Te Makarini Temara, Yvonne Shepherd, Huturini McGarvey, Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi

Date Published: August 2009

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Executive Summary

Te piko o te māhuri, tērā te tupu o te rākau

(The way in which the young sapling is nurtured (bent),  determines how the tree will grow)

Background to the research

Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi is actively engaged in raising the literacy, numeracy and language (foundation) skills of Māori learners while ensuring the education system has the capacity to be inclusive of Māori. The wānanga is keen to foster support for student learning through strengthening foundation learning opportunities in both te reo Māori and English, in keeping with the wānanga's focus on promoting and developing effective bilingual and bicultural learning environments that will help improve and attain successful education outcomes contributing to positive tertiary studies, work and living.

In practice this requires the application in both languages of a complex web of reading, writing, speaking, listening, critical thinking, problem solving, numeracy skills, and communication technology so that people can achieve their own goals in meaningful social, cultural and/or vocational context/s. One such context is through learning on the marae. Currently, marae-based education programmes at the wānanga extend into over 30 different marae. These programmes range from certificate-level foundation skills training to undergraduate degree-level, formal discipline education. Therefore the need to offer foundation learning opportunities to all Māori students at the wānanga is potentially both extensive and intensive.

In responding to the government's prioritisation of foundation learning, this project is seen as a springboard for research that aims to:

"build adults' fluency, independence and range in language, literacy and numeracy so that they can use these skills to participate in all aspects of their lives".

The project sought to extend and enhance research already completed in 2005, namely "Working in the Light of Evidence"(2005a), a review of the best evidence available internationally of effective programme and design methods for teaching literacy, numeracy and language to adults, and "Pedagogy in Practice" (2005b), a study that explores literacy, numeracy and language teaching by observing how 15 adult educators in a variety of contexts actually teach their students.

Specifically, this research used qualitative research methods to explore the utility and potential of marae-based education programmes to provide effective foundation learning opportunities for Māori learners. This is reflected in the phrase 'Te piko o te māhuri, tērā te tupu o te rākau', which symbolises the importance of strong learning foundations for future success in learning.

Aims and goals

The aims of the project are best exemplified through their contribution to an overall framework of evidence that followed Ministry of Education guidelines, including exploring the questions:

  • Where are we at?
  • Where do we want to move to?
  • How do we get there?

The research provided a unique opportunity to build knowledge and understanding of the foundation learning levels and aspirations of Māori learners. The main research goals of this project were:

  • Goal 1: To broaden our understanding of marae-based education programmes to provide, develop and improve foundation learning opportunities for Māori learners in the context of two programmes that are delivered primarily through the teaching medium of te reo Māori: the undergraduate degree programme Bachelor of Mātauranga Māori, and a relevant bridging-to-tertiary programme, Te Pouhono.
  • Goal 2: To build evidence of the ways that marae-based education programmes help to foster holistic learning for Māori learners in order to enhance foundation learning and also to improve retention and successful outcomes in tertiary education programmes.

The following sub-goal for this research project became evident also:

  • Sub-goal: To document how the juxtaposition of the two ideologies – Māori and non-Māori – makes a pedagogical impact on the development of language, literacy and numeracy for Māori learners.

Literature review

A perusal of relevant literature both in New Zealand and overseas indicates that very little published work is available that refers to marae-based learning. Use of this model of education to promote knowledge acquisition among Māori learners is a growing phenomenon, given the remote nature of communities and the mixed ability of people to access continuing education. From a social justice framework perspective, learners who enrol in certain programmes at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi are given equitable access to, and participate in, learning that is more culturally appropriate, particularly through the mobility of lecturers and programmes, which enables them to go out to those communities and move between marae. In doing so, the rights of Māori learners to gain opportunities to improve literacy and language development through privileging te reo Māori is accentuated. For these learners, their education through marae-based learning opportunities will span their lifetime; it has triggered literacy learning that involves "the spiritual, and the material, the ancestral and present-day realities", and helps to deal with past and continuing impacts of colonisation (Rawiri, 2005, p. 29).


The project employed qualitative case study methodology that was driven by the project objectives and logical scope for the research. Two Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi programmes that use te reo Māori as the main medium for teaching and learning were also chosen for their marae-based delivery mode. The main programme is the undergraduate degree programme, Bachelor of Mātauranga Māori, and the other is one of the several 'feed-in' bridging programmes, Te Pouhono. They share commonalities in their use of the marae as both a teaching and learning environment and social context, their use of teachers and lecturers who are highly proficient in te reo Māori me ngā tikanga Māori, and their use of knowledgeable community members from whānau, hapū and iwi to enhance the learning opportunities for Māori learners.

Participants from the two programmes were interviewed using an interview schedule, in either one-on-one interviews, or collectively as a group. Interviewees had the option of responding in te reo Māori or English – most chose te reo. Data was transcribed, translated into English and bracketed under themes that were embedded in the interview schedule, and analysed against the goals for the research project.

Data presentation and analysis

Some early trends indicated that worthwhile data came from the earlier research activities, and some of this related to the efficacy and relevance of marae-based learning opportunities in the following ways:

  • The significance of environment created by marae-based programmes, for enhancing the learning of the students.
  • The significance of being in a place that has evidence of tipuna all around, for influencing the wairua behind learning.
  • The significance of supportive roopu, coming together in the same rohe, for facilitating learning.
  • The significance of the inclusion of community places and people to the whole learning experience, and the continual generation of the idea that it is not just the one student who is engaged in learning, but the whole whānau and community.
  • The significance of the system behind marae-based learning opportunities for continuing to reflect the tikanga and kawa of the different rohe.
  • The significance of marae-based learning opportunities, for generating deep emotion that relates to continuing learning for the good of 'our children' – in order to lead the way.
  • The significance of marae-based learning opportunities, for engendering and promoting the acquisition of knowledge that enables students to continue through a degree programme.
  • The significance of marae-based learning opportunities, for promoting language development in te reo Māori, writing in te reo Māori, and critical thinking.


The data has allowed certain assumptions to be made about marae-based foundation learning opportunities, namely that they are sites for:

  • bringing out the language and tikanga of learners and making explicit the tacit knowledge(s), that exist at the heart of Māori connected to the marae
  • bringing back learners to the marae to engage in dynamic learning succession, particularly in relation to speaking te reo Māori
  • bringing up issues of historical connections to past learning experiences and putting these in a context that is removed from the cultural relevancy of marae-based education
  • bringing about understanding and validating the incredible diversity and flexibility afforded by marae-based learning to deal with both the subtle and explicit challenges of developing literacy particularly through the development of oracy.

Key findings

The key findings that arose from interviews and discussions became main themes for this research.

  • The significance of the system, for improving foundation learning opportunities.
  • The significance of tipuna and kaumatua (elders), for enhancing foundation learning opportunities.
  • The significance of deep emotion and wairua as a pedagogical instrument.
  • The significance of the marae base, for engendering safety and promoting language development to the extent where participants moved from an average assessment of 2/10 to 6/10 in spoken language proficiency after just one year on their programmes.
  • The significance of the ability to kōrero in te reo Māori as being of the utmost importance associated with marae-based learning opportunities; that is, there is a general recognition that while reading and writing are important – especially writing – it is the ability to speak the language that is more relevant and important.
  • The significance of marae-based education to foster achievement and progression in moving Māori learners through their programmes to the next level.
  • All the first-year students moved successfully to the second year of their undergraduate degree programme as a result of participating in the marae-based education model.
  • The Te Pouhono group have transitioned successfully to the first year of the Mātauranga Māori degree programme. These participants are now on the same successful learning journey as those from Case study 1.
  • The significance of the teacher being expert and confident in te reo Māori and tikanga to add a balance of expert knowledge, passion and spirituality to the experience of learning in marae-based situations.
  • The significance of improving access to foundation learning opportunities through fielding new opportunities, a desire and passion to learn the language, the influence of mokopuna, a hunger for Māori knowledge, and a shift in awareness.
  • The significance of the enhancement of foundation learning opportunities arising through marae being the access point for learning, identity development and reaffirmation coming from a different kind of wairua on the marae, the strength of leaders to enhance learning, and the knowledge that learning on the marae is the stepping stone to success.
  • The significance of pedagogical impacts of different ideologies, for influencing the phenomenon of language shift to create 'safety', the socialisation and 'conditioning' through language, the juxtaposition of two worlds to create present-day focus, and practices to enhance individual learning for community gains.
  • The significance of the admission that having just any education was not enough for Māori, but having mātauranga (knowledge past, present or future which has its roots in the language and culture of the Māori people) was the important factor. Acquiring 'Māori knowledge' was the ultimate motivation force behind education participation.


  • The findings indicate that the following three main points should be implemented:
  • All the findings need to be aligned and linked to all current education, literacy, and language learning strategy documents and reports that are currently being considered by the New Zealand Government.
  • Marae-based education opportunities are fundamental to promoting success in learning for Māori learners of all ages in both te reo Māori and English and need to be resourced accordingly, particularly in the areas of:
    • iwi and hapū liaison
    • upskilling teacher capacity and capability
    • funding to promote access and equity to such opportunities. 
  • Authentic marae-based models of education should be considered as the primary vehicle for the promotion, delivery and sustainability of te reo Māori, ngā tikanga and ngā mātauranga. That is, marae-based learning opportunities that are true and well intentioned to reflect the living context of Māori should be a readily sourced avenue of valid educational outcomes. Situations that reflect the tikanga, mātauranga, and use of te reo reveal the collaborative and social nature of learning among whānau, hapū and iwi.


The foundation learning opportunities that are embedded in the marae-based programmes enhance the capacity and capabilities of Māori learners to link the idea of learning on the marae to legitimate knowledge for effective communication.

Bringing about engagement with marae-based learning has the potential to take people out of their comfort zones and yet creates places of safety and confidence building. The extent and level to which using te reo Māori to build confidence in learners is mirrored by the understanding of learners that speaking the language makes them want to be confident, and, as Cummins (1989) indicates, intellectual benefits come from the increased ability and control learners have in being able to manipulate language development in reading, writing and oral expression.