Hangaia te mātāpuna o te mōhio: learning foundations for Māori adults

Publication Details

Hangaia te mātāpuna o te mōhio can mean to build the precious gift of knowledge or to build the well-spring of learning. It symbolises the experience of Māori adults as they re-enter education to develop their literacy, language and numeracy.

This report summarises three research projects that explore how success for Māori adults in the learning foundations of literacy, language and numeracy can be built on the foundations of Māori culture and identity.

Author(s): Professor Stephen May, Waikato University

Date Published: August 2009

Please consider the environment before printing the contents of this report.

This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  To view the individual chapters please refer to the 'Sections' inset box.  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.

Section 1: Introduction

Hangaia te mātāpuna o te mōhio can mean to build the precious gift of knowledge or to build the well-spring of learning. It symbolises the experience of Māori adults as they re-enter education to develop their literacy, language and numeracy.

This publication summarises three research projects that explore how success for Māori adults in the learning foundations of literacy, language and numeracy can be built on the foundations of Māori culture and identity. The programmes covered range from tertiary certificates at an equivalent level to school qualifications, to vocational diplomas, to bachelor's degree programmes. The breadth of courses recognises that, as New Zealand has open entry for over-21-year-olds, many first-year adult students studying at higher qualification levels may also need extra help with literacy and study skills. The research features pre-employment skills courses fully funded by government. It also investigates foundation or bridging courses for students seeking to strengthen their learning skills or improve their confidence before moving into higher-level study.

The three projects examine programmes taught by Māori tutors. They use a kaupapa Māori research approach, which reinforces the importance of Māori language and culture and takes for granted the validity and legitimacy of being Māori and of Māori knowledge. Māori processes include whakawhanaungatanga (making or renewing relationships), settling the wairua (inner sense of well-being or spirituality), manaakitanga, (respecting Māori customs, and working together in and for a collaborative process). A key feature of all the projects is the prominence given to the voices of the Māori participants.

In kaupapa Māori research there is also a strong link between cultural values and practices, and emancipatory goals (Smith, 1997). The Ministry of Education thus expects that the findings from these current projects will be empowering for Māori learners and give important messages to tutors of Māori learners, managers, tertiary providers, policy makers and Māori learners themselves.


An additional objective for this research is to provide opportunities that will enable Māori researchers who are new to the adult literacy, numeracy and language learning area, and/or have had limited prior research opportunities, to increase their capability in this research area.

These three research projects are part of a broader programme of government education research that builds an evidence base on how to provide high-quality and relevant adult literacy, numeracy and language learning for adults.

Background to the research

School achievement data reveals that Māori students are underachieving in schools. In 2007, 34.5 percent of Māori students left secondary school without completing a qualification (Ministry of Education 2008, p. 53). Only 58 percent of Māori stayed in secondary school until the age of 17 (Ministry of Education 2008, p. 41).

While Māori participation rates in tertiary education are high in comparison to any other ethnic group, their involvement tends to be at sub-degree level (Ministry of Education 2008, p. 64).


State-funded tertiary programmes which scaffold learners into tertiary learning are a partial response to concerns about unsatisfactory secondary school statistics for Māori, but the degree to which these programmes are effective for Māori adult learners is only now being gauged.

Prior research

The three research projects focus on how learning for adult Māori students can be optimised in foundation learning or bridging contexts, particularly where culturally appropriate approaches to teaching and learning are employed.

The projects build upon recent research in New Zealand secondary schools that indicates that culturally appropriate pedagogies and teacher-student relationships are of vital importance for the success of Māori students (see Bishop et al., 2001; Bishop & Berryman, 2006; Mcfarlane, 2004).

The projects also extend the limited prior research examining Māori learners at the tertiary level. Of these prior studies, Martin et al. (2004), for example, highlight positive lecturer characteristics and pedagogical practices, as defined by the adult Māori learners, that include being positive, approachable, committed to students, and encouraging collaborative and cooperative work. Whakawhanaungatanga was also an integral aspect of the lecturers' practices, as they provided activities that encouraged interaction and the establishment of positive working relationships between the Māori staff and Māori students. Staff encouraged a whānau atmosphere and students called them whaea (mother or aunty) and matua (father or uncle).

Various studies also articulate the importance of relationships in the teacher/learner interaction. This is especially important when students are members of minority ethnic or marginalised groups (Bishop et al., 2001; Carpenter et al., 2004; Hawk et al., 2002). The study by Hawk et al. (2002) includes a section on the tertiary context. It appears that, whatever the age group of the minority ethnic group learner, it is preferable that a relationship is established with a teacher/tutor prior to any formal instruction taking place. The prior relationship better facilitates successful learning outcomes.

Benseman et al. (2005a) is one of the few prior empirical studies that is also based on the observation of practice in tertiary foundation learning contexts. The authors observed 15 literacy, language and numeracy tutors working in New Zealand tertiary institutions. In the study, they identify issues to do with:

  • tutor status and background (only a small number held specific qualifications related to adult education or literacy, numeracy and language)
  • physical environment and teaching resources (varied, with computers mainly used for word processing rather than computer-aided teaching)
  • generic teaching (committed, positive, supportive tutors, tutors talked more than learners, questioning was important, limited discussion and debate)
  • forms of provision (one-to-one and group teaching both effective) and the teaching of literacy, language and numeracy skills (e.g. a small range of teaching methods, deliberate teaching of reading)
  • writing, spelling and numeracy teaching linked to diagnosed learning needs (speaking and listening skills also seen as an important means of building social and personal skills).

A further study by the same authors (Benseman et al., 2005b) found that quality tutors in these contexts:

  • have positive attitudes
  • are approachable 
  • create positive and supportive learning environments 
  • use learners' experiences in learning contexts 
  • are supportive in times of crisis 
  • help learners set realistic goals 
  • balance challenge and support for their learners.

As will be shown, the findings from the three research projects are congruent with previous research. However, they also extend the existing knowledge base in important ways.

The three projects

Authors: Hera White, Tania Oxenham, Marion Tahana, Kim Williams and, Kimi Matthews, Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec)

This project explores the perspectives of current learners, potential learners and their tutors, some of whom were involved in an introductory course at Wintec, and some at private training establishments (PTEs). The project examines adult Māori students who were considering, or are undertaking, tertiary education at introductory, foundation or certificate level. The principal focus is on how language and literacy can be optimised for Māori learner success in these programmes.

A kaupapa Māori methodology was used for this research. The participants included tutors from PTEs, current students enrolled at Wintec, and a group of potential future students and their tutors.


Authors: Colleen McMurchy-Pilkington, Faculty of Education, University of Auckland

The purpose of this project is to capture the perspectives of learners, tutors and providers in foundation learning programmes, with a particular focus on how literacy, language and numeracy can be optimised for adult Māori learners.

A kaupapa Māori methodology was used for this research. The participants were drawn from PTEs, iwi-based/wānanga programmes, and 'traditional' tertiary providers (universities and polytechnics). Participants included students, tutors and CEOs from the various institutions.


Authors: Susan Mlcek, Ngareta Timutimu, Carl Mika, Monte Aranga, Nikora Taipeti, Te Rurehe Rangihau, Te Makarini Temara, Yvonne Shepherd and  Haturini McGarvey, Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi

This research project examines the effectiveness of marae-based learning for adult Māori learners, as part of the Wānanga's wider approach to foundation learning. This overall aim also includes the preparation of adult Māori learners for further successful tertiary study.

The project examines two marae-based programmes at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi in depth, employing a qualitative case study methodology. The aim is to explore the efficacy and validity of these marae-based programmes in providing foundational learning opportunities for adult Māori learners.