Literature review on the experiences of Pasifika learners in the classroom

Publication Details

There are new challenges for education systems in knowledge societies. All learners need to be well served by their education to develop the requisite capabilities and sense of belonging and wellbeing to succeed and contribute to wider communities. This requires a responsive, future-focused education system, based on high expectations for successful outcomes amongst diverse learner groups.

Author(s): Dr P. Bruce Ferguson, Dr. R. Gorinski, T. Wendt Samu & Dr D. Mara

Date Published: June 2008

Executive Summary

There are new challenges for education systems in knowledge societies. All learners need to be well served by their education to develop the requisite capabilities and sense of belonging and wellbeing to succeed and contribute to wider communities. This requires a responsive, future-focused education system, based on high expectations for successful outcomes amongst diverse learner groups.

New Zealand learner outcomes in international assessments (for example, Programme for International Student Assessment—PISA) show relatively high disparities in achievement by comparison with most countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). According to Alton-Lee (2003), on these tests, “Māori and Pasifika students featured quite prominently amongst the students that performed poorly” (p. 8). She also stated that the:

…high disparities, the relatively high variance within schools in the New Zealand PISA results, and our rapidly growing demographic profiles for those learners traditionally underserved by New Zealand schooling, indicate a need for community and system development to be more responsive to diverse learners (p. 8).

The high disparities and rapidly growing demographic profile of Pasifika learners in the New Zealand education system indicate a need for some reorientation in terms of meeting the needs of this diverse group of learners.

To date, the government policy response has been the development in 2001 of the Ministry of Education’s Pasifika Education Plan. This, through its ongoing reviews, has provided a framework for the resourcing of initiatives to facilitate enhanced Pasifika learner outcomes. Examples of these initiatives include the Pasifika School Community Parent Liaison Project (PSCPL); Towards Making Achievement Cool: Achievement in Multicultural High Schools (AIMHI); literacy and numeracy school—parent partnerships; home—school partnerships; and the development of Pacific language curricula. Within the wider context of Pasifika education, there remain disparate pieces of information and research that need to be synthesised into coherent documentation to provide a clearer picture of Pasifika learners’ progress and achievement.

This literature review on the experiences of Pasifika learners in the classroom was commissioned by the Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Group of the Ministry of Education (the Ministry). It builds on the Literature Review on the Effective Engagement of Pasifika Parents and Communities in Education which was completed by Gorinski and Fraser in 2006. Together, these literature reviews provide currency in terms of the research specific to Pasifika learners’ and their families’ educational experiences. Both these reviews were informed by Alton-Lee’s (2003) best evidence synthesis that outlined the indicators of quality teaching. This review is also informed, to a lesser extent, by other outputs of the Ministry’s iterative best evidence synthesis programme.

The review explores both the conceptual and research-based literatures on the pedagogical dimensions that might impact upon Pasifika learner outcomes. It is intended that this literature review, in conjunction with the findings from a Ministry-commissioned research project exploring the experiences of Pasifika learners in the classroom, will inform Ministry policy making and subsequent professional learning initiatives that will seek to grow and/or further develop teacher capability in terms of maximising Pasifika student achievement outcomes.

A number of sources of literature were consulted for the review including: Academic Search Premier, ERIC, Expanded Academic, First Search, Index New Zealand and databases; reports and publications by the Ministry: a range of educational journals and texts, unpublished theses, conference proceedings, and keynote addresses. The analyses are based on a combination of a traditional narrative review and an interpretive synthesis.

The “Diversity Pedagogy” typology and the Pasifika adaptation (2007) of Rosa Sheets’ (2005) dimensions of diversity pedagogy provided the underpinning theoretical framework for this review. A rigorous adherence to Sheets’ dimensions was deemed inappropriate for this review. However, the adaptation made by the research team of this project facilitated the utilisation of a useful pedagogical framework within which to position this literature review. Sheets’ (2005) framework for “diversity pedagogy” focused on the ways teachers’ and learners’ behaviour “influences the co-construction of new knowledge” (p. 14). The underlying assumptions of this framework that are pertinent to this literature review are (Sheets, 2005, pp. 17–18):

  • that the dimensions naturally intersect with each other and rarely occur in isolation in the classroom;
  • that the dimensions are not hierarchical in nature;
  • that the dimensions are thematically organised and grouped; and
  • that the dimensional elements are grouped together and relate to social and cultural development, and learning and knowledge.

The literature, then, is presented under seven key dimensions. Each dimension has two parts: Teacher Pedagogical Behaviours (TPB) and Student Cultural Displays (SCD) (Sheets, 2005, p. 2). These dimensions include:

  • cultural distinctiveness < > consciousness of cultural difference;
  • identities < > identity development;
  • communication and social interaction < > interpersonal relationships;
  • indigenous and heritage languages < > language learning, language pride;
  • coconstructed classroom contexts < > the inquiring confident engaged learner;
  • culturally responsive pedagogical practice and content < > knowledge acquisition; and
  • assessment and evaluation < > reflective and self-evaluating.

This literature review argues that these dimensions align closely with the indicators of quality teaching delineated in Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling: Best evidence synthesis (Alton-Lee, 2003). Together, Sheets’ Diversity Pedagogy Theory (Sheets, 2005) and typology, and Alton-Lee’s characteristics of quality teaching provide a robust framework for this literature review.

Two key gaps were identified in the literature examined. The first is the dearth of research that focused specifically on issues for male Pasifika learners, and on a wider exploration of gender factors and how these may affect Pasifika educational achievement. The second gap identified, perhaps not surprisingly given its relative newness, was the seeming absence of awareness or application, by many non-Pasifika educators and academics, of the educational and cultural theorising being done by Pasifika scholars, and the dissemination of such research within the educational community.

In summary, the literature review demonstrates the strong commitment that many teachers evidence in terms of enabling pedagogical practices that facilitate the educational achievement of Pasifika learners. There are, however, still examples of teacher behaviour, attitudes, and skills that impact negatively upon Pasifika learners’ social, cultural, and academic achievement outcomes.

The review also clearly illustrates the need for educational systems to interrogate current understandings, practices, and terminology that potentially, or currently, work to inhibit equitable achievement outcomes for Pasifika learners. This remains an ongoing challenge for educators.

Research conducted within a pedagogical framework that acknowledges the cogency of cultural influences, and refutes the inherent disparities arising from deficit theorising, is requisite to understanding the classroom experiences of Pasifika learners. This review demonstrates that there remains broad scope for ongoing research and development that envisions and implements transformative models of practice that are grounded in a rearticulated moral purpose, focused on maximised achievement outcomes for Pasifika learners.