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


This literature review explores both the conceptual and research-based literature related to the effective engagement of Pasifika parents and communities in education. The conceptual literature encompasses basic writings in the field, and provides a theoretical base for the review. As well as this theoretical and conceptual literature, the review also considers previously-conducted research in the field. A number of databases were searched to glean the relevant research studies conducted to date, in addition to reports and publications by the Ministry, a range of educational journals and texts, conference papers, and unpublished theses.

The review first provides a thematic overview of the literature using the adapted Sheets' framework. Sheets' "clearly defined" pedagogical typology is described by Geneva Gay as being a "…conceptual paradigm for characterizing and organizing different approaches to multicultural teaching…" (in Sheets, 2005, p. xvi). The "Diversity Pedagogy" typology and the Pasifika adaptation (2007), in the form of a conceptual framework, is also used to organise the research findings. Second, gaps in the literature to date are identified, to inform potential growth areas for ongoing research. Finally, some pertinent questions are raised and some conclusions drawn.

Definition of terminology

Coxon, Anae, Mara, Wendt Samu & Finau (2002) noted the importance of conceptual clarity around the key concepts of "culture" and "ethnicity", in order to minimise the inherent risk of misunderstanding amongst readers. The following section provides some definition of these terms as a framework for the wider review of the literature.


Weiss, Kreider, Lopez & Chatman (2005) define culture as "a set of values, norms, beliefs and symbols that define what is acceptable to a given society, are shared by and transmitted across members of that society and dictate behavioural transactions within that society" (p.137). Helu-Thaman (1996) adds to this definition, suggesting that culture is:

A way of life of a discrete group, which includes a language, a body of accumulated knowledge, skills, beliefs and values. I see culture as central to the understanding of human relationships, [and] acknowledge the fact that members of different cultural groups have unique systems of perceiving and organising the world around them. I also believe that the ways in which we have been socialised largely influence our behaviour and the way of thinking as our world view. (p. 120)

Culture, however, is dynamic and constantly evolving in response to influential social and physical structures, and processes such as the family and school (Mara, 1998). Morrish's (1996, in Coxon et al., p. 6) definition of culture encapsulates this more fluid understanding of culture, suggesting that:

Culture is not merely transmitted, it is made; it is not simply historical and related to the past, it is functional and vitally concerned with the present; it is not the collective catalogue of discrete objects, ideas, mores and pieces of knowledge, it is configuration of the total inheritance and way of life.


Ethnicity incorporates notions of culture but adds a very different set of dimensions in terms of the focus upon a group's collective beliefs and experiences within a given societal context. Gibson (1976, p. 12) summarises this, noting that:

…ethnic groups are essentially social and political rather than cultural. Traditional customs are used as idioms and as mechanisms for group alignment. They serve to form the boundary and to maintain the group's exclusiveness. Ethnic groups call upon their cultural distinctiveness, not out of conservatism or traditionalism but rather as a tool for maximising group interests. The degree to which a group emphasises or de-emphasises cultural differences is determined by the degree of profit to be gained.( p. 12)

The social and political dimensions shape ethnicity. Barth, as cited by Simon (1989) was of the view that ethnicity is about analysing the "ethnic boundary that defines a group—and not the cultural stuff it encloses" (p. 24). Ethnic differences include class and ideological differences. Anthias & Yuval-Davis (1992) described ethnicity as being:

...more than a question of ethnic identity...[it] involves partaking, of the social conditions of a group which is positioned in a particular way in terms of the social allocation of resources, within a context of difference to other groups,  as well as commonalities and differences within the group. (p. 20)

It is the nature of common experience that is a critical feature of ethnicity, particularly ethnic identification. Spoonley described the process of establishing new ethnic identities as "ethnogenesis", and cited as an example the experience of African-America in the 1960s. This clearly demonstrates the "malleable" (Spoonley, 1993, p. 38) and shifting nature of ethnicity. As a notion, "common experience" changes over time—according to Samu (1998), as:

…social and economic (not to mention political) circumstances and conditions may change, so too can the effects these have on different social groups particularly those in a minority group situation. How ethnic groups respond to such shifts in the societies they are located within is also a crucial factor to the process of ethnic identification (p. 209)

This is why it is important to consider the contemporary forms of ethnicity and culture which have "evolved" over the intervening decades since the 1960s, for multi-ethnic groups such as Pasifika. With reference to Samoans, Samu (1998,) stated:

…given Bourdieu's notion of 'cultural habitus', and the potential for ethnic identification to shift and change (in response to broader social, economic and political changes), illustrations can be drawn from the New Zealand context—for example…many New Zealand-born Samoans have asserted their ethnic identity in a number of ways, such as the growing enrolments of such students into tertiary Samoan Language courses, and powerful dramatic productions which explore important social and political issues (such as Pacific Underground's 'A Frigate Bird Sings' in 1996, and 'Dawn Raid' in 1997).( p. 157)

This process of ethnic identity formation in the context of New Zealand society undoubtedly continues as a process within the 21st century for Pasifika peoples. Examples of such ethnic identity formation are seen in the production and commercial success of films such as Sione's Wedding, nationally televised fashion extravaganzas such as Style Pasifika, and national radio stations such as Niu FM.

Cultural maintenance, and even cultural and language revival for different Pasifika groups, appears to be earnestly supported, at least in principle, by New Zealand's political and educational institutions. Examples include the writing of school language curricula for Cook Islands Māori, and development of Niuean, Tongan, and Tokelauan language curricula. However, there are researchers who argue that insufficient is being done to support any meaningful political and/or educational progress for such marginalised groups.

For example, Tuafuti & McCaffery (2005) conducted a critical examination of state policies and practices and presented the argument that the absence of a strong national languages policy in New Zealand denies the language rights of New Zealand's Pasifika communities. Further, it ignores the potential relationship between academic achievement and the ever-increasing gap between first-language English speakers and bilingual Pasifika learners (see also Cahill, 2006). Other researchers and educators in bilingual and immersion education, such as May (2000, 2001) and Franken, May & McComish (2005) have contributed strong evidence for this.

School, as well as community, Pasifika cultural festivals are well-established and well-supported, by Pasifika communities as well as other cultural and ethnic groups from the wider community. However, critical perspectives are also applicable with regard to Pasifika cultural festivals, and cultural festivals in general. Bullivant (1981) posited that there are two social domains—the private and the public. Knowledge about cultural expressions (such as customs, language, performance, artefacts, foods) encapsulates information about a group's lifestyles, which are features of the private domain. The public domain of life involves participation in the systems and institutions of society—for example the market system, the judicial system, and the education system. Being able to fully participate in the public domain improves one's life chances. A school's positive focus on culture alone enhances knowledge and self-esteem regarding lifestyles, but does little for life chances. Lei (2006) argued, in terms of the education of Pacific Islanders in the United States, that:

These studies reveal that the educational experiences of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are more complicated than what is indicated by research that presents them only as cultural beings (p. 89).

Samu's Ethnic Interface Model (1998, 2006) is a New Zealand-based piece of work that endeavours to assist teachers to understand their individual Pasifika students as complex social beings.

The conceptual understandings of culture and ethnicity that underpin the wider framework for this literature review and the associated research project that the review supports, are contextualised by the contemporary 21st century New Zealand society within which we live. A particularly positive perspective of this society, in terms of the location of Pasifika peoples within it, comes from the editor of The Listener in a response prompted by a number of education, sporting, and social trends as well as both the content and commercial success of the film Sione's Wedding (Stirling, 2006, p. 5):

…it is not just an uplifting comedy about characters who strike us as true and engaging, but also a feeling that the producer and writers have captured a new confidence and optimism about the browning of New Zealand: that growing sense of a nation in good spirit… 

Before embarking on a discussion of Pasifika contributions and experiences to wider New Zealand society, she states:

…Pacific peoples are immensely innovative…they are upbeat achievers…they are a formidable national asset (Stirling, 2006, p. 5).

Previous reviews

Two major literature reviews that explored Pasifika issues in education have been conducted in New Zealand to date Coxon et al.,(2002); and Gorinski & Fraser, (2006). In addition, an independent evaluation report of the Pacific Islands School Community Parent Liaison project (PISCPL) conducted by Mara (1998) included a literature review that was inclusive of both international and New Zealand research which explored the field of home—school relationships. Each of these reviews identified the lack of literature specific to identifying effective pedagogical practices in mainstream schooling contexts. The present review, then, draws on the wider base of national and international conceptual and research studies to augment the work done in Pasifika contexts, to identify key factors impacting upon the classroom experiences of Pasifika learners.

The focus of this literature review was the experiences of Pasifika students in New Zealand classrooms. As a migrant minority group was the topic of this study, with an historical location of almost five decades within largely urban New Zealand, international literature of Pasifika migrant communities in other parts of the world (such as in the USA and Australia) was also sought. The international literature was searched for additional methodological references, incidental, or additional supporting evidence. The Sheets typology was selected specifically because it addressed the cross-cultural pedagogical influences that the project was likely to encounter.

This review then, is a synthesis of studies to date, including Anae, Anderson, Benseman, and Coxon (2002); the related best evidence syntheses reviews such as Biddulph, Biddulph & Biddulph (2003) on family and community influences; Alton-Lee's (2003) review on quality teaching for diverse students; and research on Te Kōtahitanga and Te Kauhua (Ministry of Education initiatives to advance Māori student achievement). The review considers a range of conceptual studies and the variety of methodological approaches adopted in the research to date.

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