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


New Zealand's population of Pasifika peoples is a multi-ethnic, heterogeneous group comprising different languages and cultures. This diversity is recognised by the authors of this literature review. We also acknowledge the cultural and ethnic complexities inherent in this literature review which explores the experiences of Pasifika learners in the classroom. Throughout this review, the term "Pasifika peoples" is used to describe people living in New Zealand who have migrated from Pasifika, or who identify with Pasifika because of their ancestry or heritage. Terms used to describe these people vary considerably: for example, Pacific Nations person, Polynesian, Pacific Islander. The Ministry uses the term "Pasifika peoples" to differentiate from other people who view themselves as being Pacific, based on New Zealand being a country in the Pacific region.

Pasifika peoples are not homogeneous, hence the use of "peoples" rather than "people". The terminology includes those peoples who have been born in New Zealand or overseas. It is a collective term used to refer to men, women, and children who identify themselves with the islands and/or cultures of Samoa, Cook Islands, Tonga, Niue, Tokelau, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and other Pasifika or mixed heritages. The term includes a variety of combinations of ethnicities, recent migrants or first, second, third, fourth, and subsequent generations of New Zealand-born Pasifika peoples.

Because of the scope of this review, a pan-Pacific approach has been taken in organising the literature. This has facilitated the collation of a range of the relevant generic, international, conceptual and research-based studies, as well as literature pertinent to Pasifika groups generally. The review, however, does focus predominantly on the experiences of Pasifika learners in this nation's classrooms. In using this term, we recognise that it has been considered problematic for some time now, for a range of reasons. For example, in the mid 1990s, Mara, Foliaki & Coxon stated that:

It is important to keep in mind that 'Pacific Islander' is a blanket term used in metropolitan countries like New Zealand to identify people from a number of different Pacific Island countries (and their New Zealand-born descendants) Its use conceals and undermines the historical, social, political and cultural uniqueness of each Pacific Islands society (1994, p. 181).

Samu (1998) advocated the use of either the term "Pasifika" or "Tagata Pasifika", in the belief that such a term would recognise the heterogeneity of this New Zealand grouping but more specifically because of the power to name. She commented:

The fact that as a term, it 'originated' from us, is of no small consequence because being able to define ourselves is an issue of control (p. 209).

It was evident that some years later, Samu continued to hold that view-a view also held by Māori educator and theorist Tuhiwai Smith (1998), who argued for the importance of empowering marginalised groups to self-identify and self-define. Samu encapsulated this notion in the following:

Sometimes the main advantage of a unifying concept is the countering effect it has against oppositional forces such as neo-colonialism - or for migrant community groups such as Pasifika in New Zealand, countering oppositional forces such as assimilation and social/economic/cultural marginalisation (2006a, p. 7).

In contrast, Manu'atu (2000, Abstract) suggested that "the popular notion of 'Pacific Islands Education' paradoxically serves to perpetuate the marginalisation of Tongan students and maintain the status quo". Similarly, Manu'atu & Kepa (2002) noted that:

"it would be a contradiction in terms if teachers and administrators from the prevailing perspective on education, established a conceptual framework that includes Tongan people and their culture".(p13)

Terms such as "Pasifika" continue to be problematic and challenging.

The term "Pasifika", however, is common in the literature and we use it as such, aware both of its limitations and the criticism it has generated amongst the research community. Readers need to be aware of the considerable diversity amongst peoples from different island nations, and to be cautious about generalisations, as we have endeavoured to be.

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