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

Suggestions for future research and development

Strengthening desired outcomes for Pasifika learners is dependent on the whole education system engaging in iterative processes of shared knowledge-building and use. Research and development can be a powerful systemic lever for change in education, if evidence-based practices become embedded within everyday educational practice. This literature review clearly suggests that there is an urgent need to build both capability and capacity in the educational research sector, if system change is to be informed by, and generated through, evidence of effective practice. The following section identifies a number of areas worthy of ongoing research and development.

Macro issues

This literature review has highlighted the complexity of issues and practices that impact upon Pasifika learners' experiences in the classroom. The research cited has occasionally—sometimes strongly—argued for consideration of macro issues that may affect Pasifika learner achievement. Whilst these macro issues have not been fore-grounded in the review, nonetheless the references to cultural capital and the gate-keeping inherent in current assessment practices that impact upon access to higher socioeconomic career opportunities demonstrate ways in which educational, cultural, and social practices have marginalised Pasifika learners.

Ongoing research in the area of Pasifika learner schooling experiences needs to be cognisant of the cautions about "arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic" to ensure that macro issues work equitably for enhanced Pasifika educational achievement, rather than perpetuating the status quo. Among the researchers who argued for the need for macro-level change were Bishop (2003), Carpenter (2001), Jones (1999), Hirsh (1990), Manu'atu (2000), Manu'atu & Kepa (2002), McMurchy-Pilkington (2001) and Sheets (2005), although this list is not exhaustive. Despite the optimism described by some Sāmoan young women in Tupuola's (1998) study—"it is hip to be a Samoan" (p. 154) Pasifika learners still saw themselves as vulnerable, saying, "we will be the ones who will lose out in the end, not the palagis, they'll always be in power" (p. 159).

The research reviewed has demonstrated the strong commitment that many teachers have to improving the educational achievement of learners, often through a process of self-critique. There remain, however, examples of inappropriate teacher attitudes, values, practices, and expectations that need to be challenged. This literature review has examined the centrality of inclusiveness and respect for different cultural behaviours and traditions, and demonstrated examples of where these practices are occurring in New Zealand classrooms. Yet "old habits die hard", and there have also been examples provided of the system not working well for new immigrants, or even second or third generation immigrants. The literature has highlighted both the negative impact this has had upon Pasifika parents' hopes and expectations for their children's successful schooling experiences, and the need for ongoing research in this area.

Much research has been presented on the need for educational systems to interrogate current understandings, practices, and terminology that historically, presently, or potentially may inhibit equitable educational achievement by Pasifika learners. This remains an ongoing challenge that requires regular monitoring and critique. Recent assessment practices—for example the development of the NCEA—may well provide fairer pathways to successful outcomes for Pasifika learners, but these too will need to be carefully evaluated and further researched.

International cross-cultural studies

Whilst this literature review has highlighted the indigenous and Pasifika research that informs our understandings of Pasifika learners' classroom experiences, there is also learning in the international cross-cultural research field that can inform New Zealand's development. Some of New Zealand's "home-grown" methods are world leading: for example, kaupapa Māori methodologies and professional learning initiatives such as Te Kōtahitanga and Te Kauhua. This analysis of the literature has highlighted, however, the need for the benefits of such initiatives and their outcomes to be disseminated more efficaciously through widespread professional learning programmes in our schools. New Zealand has striven to provide co-constructed curricula in areas such as the Te Whāriki Early Childhood Curriculum. It is yet to be determined whether the new  school curriculum will be as effective—another area for future research.

Professional learning and resourcing

A synthesis of the literature examined suggested a number of areas for ongoing research and development within the context of professional learning and resourcing. Alton-Lee's (2003) best evidence synthesis provides a framework for the direction of the future research that could include the following.

Heterogeneous learner groups

Exploration into the factors that impact upon the teaching and learning experiences of heterogeneous groups of students could examine issues such as deficit theorising, low expectations, and the homogenisation of learners.

Pedagogical practices

Research in this area could focus upon the identification of pedagogical practices that create, value, and support positive and inclusive classroom learning communities for culturally diverse learner groups. Such classrooms would evidence responsiveness to the multiple learner identities present, and be aware of the importance and interconnectedness of culturally inclusive socio-cultural and cognitive practices. Research into the impact of multiple languages, experiences, ethnicities, identities, and achievement patterns in the classroom environment remains a rich challenge for future research.

Building productive partnerships

Ongoing research into the factors that facilitate effective links between school, home, and other culturally significant contexts for learners, for example, church and sports groups, is needed. As Alton-Lee (2003, p. vii) noted:

when educators enable quality alignments in practices between teacher and parent/ caregivers to support learning and skill development, then student achievement can be optimised…[and] teachers can take agency in encouraging, scaffolding and enabling student-parent/caregiver dialogue around school learning.

Teacher behaviours

The area of teacher responsiveness to student learning processes/cycles remains an ongoing context for further research and development. Further investigation is required into the ways in which teacher responsiveness to the prior knowledge and experiences that diverse learner groups bring to the teaching and learning context influences the sufficiency and efficacy of student opportunities to learn.

In addition, future research could further explore the impact of co-constructed approaches with diverse learner groups in the classroom. The research to date recognises the benefits of co-constructed curriculum and assessment approaches with Māori learners, in terms of their facilitation of students' critical thinking skills and metacognitive strategies that support the learning process. Further investigation into the outcomes of such approaches in Pasifika learner contexts remains a challenge.

Recognising that teacher practices and home–school partnerships have the greatest system effects on learner educational outcomes, government attention and resourcing is increasingly focused on improving teaching practices in the early childhood and compulsory education sectors. Teacher professional learning is a key strategy to ensuring that government's goals and policies for enhanced learner outcomes are achieved. Teachers' knowledge and beliefs about learning, teaching, and subject matter, are critically important determinants of how they teach. The literature illustrates how professional learning programmes that challenge teachers' beliefs, attitudes, and values, for example Te Kauhua and Te Kōtahitanga, have proved very effective in changing practice.

Identified research questions

Besides the future research possibilities raised which are discussed above, a range of other research needs has also been identified by those whose work has been critiqued in this review. Among them are:

  • What is the influence of teacher expectations on Pacific Islands students? (Parkhill et al., 2005).
  • What literary experiences do families provide? (Smith, 2004). 
  • How can we explain variances in success (both in education and work experience) across New Zealand-born Samoans? (Macpherson et al., 2000).
  • How do Pacific Islands students construct their identities? What are schools' responses to Pacific Islands students and what are the processes that keep them underachieving? (Nakhid, 2003). 
  • How do students move their self-control processes from external (teacher-based) to internal (self-determined)? (Sheets, 2005). 
  • What are the contemporary experiences of cross-cultural and multi-ethnic students? (Tupuola, 1998).
  • What is the relevance of Samoan elders' influence on contemporary Samoan youth? (Tupuola, 1998). 
  • Why and how do cultural marginalisation and educational alienation take place in secondary schooling? (Manu'atu & Kepa, 2002).

Clearly, then, there is much scope for ongoing research and development in terms of the pedagogical dimensions that impact upon Pasifika learners' classroom experiences. Currently, it is not uncommon for educational resource development, professional learning support, innovation, and research and development to occur independently of each other. This "siloed" approach lacks the coherence and leverage that is needed to achieve effective, cumulative, and sustainable improvement of outcomes. There is an identified need for a strategically planned, robust, interconnected, and continuous approach to building evidence and linking evidence to investments.

Synchronous with the need for a more coherent approach to achieving improved outcomes for Pasifika learners is the need for rigorous analyses of the research evidence, and responsiveness to identified knowledge gaps. Only as new evidence is embedded at policy level can it become a leverage point for future research and development, investments, and systemic change.

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