The first thing I learned is that Rotorua, a town that is at the center of Maori culture and is also the site of the training I am doing, smells. The seismic activity that New Zealand is known for has created thermal springs. Maori people used them to cook over, and tourists come here for spas and mud baths. But the smell of sulfur can be pretty strong in certain places.
The second thing I learned is that New Zealand domestic airlines have no security screening. You just walk on the plane.
The third thing is that Maori culture is a vibrant and essential part of the culture here. I know there have been problems and awful stories, but in the end, New Zealand as a whole works toward being a bicultural society, and Maori words, customs, and approaches are woven into society in a way that I have not seen other cultures achieve, or even try.
These values are at the base of Te Whariki (the Wh is pronounced like F), which is the national framework for early childhood education. I have had many conversations with educators here, and a couple longer and more in-depth talks with Wendy Lee, who has been involved with the process for something like thirty years. I am amazed and inspired by the New Zealand Early Childhood system.
Te Whariki is a Maori word that means woven mat. The symbolism of the name involves the weaving together of strands of learning, and the idea of the foundation, what we walk or rest upon. It’s not really a curriculum in the traditional sense, but rather a framework that guides instruction and interaction. It’s very different from what’s common in the United States.
There are several distinguishing characteristics. Keep in mind that my understanding is new and limited, and it’s worth exploring Te Whariki in much greater depth.
Assessment takes place not through checklists or responses to learning objectives or content standards, but through what are called Learning Stories. Teachers use narrative to document and explore how and what children are learning. These stories don’t reduce children to a series of goals and numbers, but instead allow for a holistic view that focuses on strengths and interests of children. It forces teachers to know their students more deeply, to listen harder, and to see them in greater depth. In addition, the outcomes that these stories reveal are primarily about dispositions, not content or skills. Narratives about perseverance, creativity, social interaction, and curiosity are central. These are the qualities educators seek to nurture, qualities that will last throughout a person’s life no matter what they attempt or engage in. I think it’s a powerful answer to the question of assessment that dogs all educators these days.
Children’s interests are at the center of the approach. For years my wife Heather, who is an amazing educator, has talked with me about the power of a constructivist approach. I think Te Whariki is like constructivism gone wild. The interests and passions of kids guide instruction. Wendy says that there are very few themed units. Just because it’s spring doesn’t mean you get out the bean seeds and put the cups in the window. New Zealand educators are filled with stories about how this approach manifests in deeper learning for their students, and how the attributes they develop reach across domains and situations.
It’s a hard thing to grasp, given the focus in the US on standards and testing. One of the key dichotomies is between an Academic approach and an Intellectual approach. We want to develop intellectual capabilities in kids, but that’s not the same as expecting that all children will recognize 20 letters and 10 numbers by the time they are five, which might be a typical academic standard. You don’t measure what students know, but rather how they know and learn. It’s a recipe for life-long learning.
The commitment to Early Childhood education is woven into government funding. Although it’s a bit more complicated than this, the basic idea is that every child between 3 and 5 has a government subsidy for 20 hours of education. It’s a right. And teachers are paid well, by US standards anyway, and are expected to have a high degree of education. When you see how parents in the US struggle with paying for childcare and struggle to find high quality options, it’s like a breath of fresh air through a sulfur wind to see what New Zealand offers.
There are problems, of course. Academic demands press at the edges of EC education, and budgets. The government seems to want to chip away at the funding formulas. As Wendy says, it requires constant vigilance to maintain the system. It’s also not clear how well this approach is carried through at later grades.
But it’s a system that stands the test of time. It took five years to develop it back in the 1990s, which means that a diverse group of stakeholders were involved in planning, revisions, editing, and more revisions. This careful attention to the creation of Te Whariki has meant that it keeps working. It’s not the kind of system we often experience, where every 3-5 years some new educational wave or idea or curriculum comes in and supplants the last fad. Te Whariki has been a model for countries around the world. It’s also flexible enough to allow for various pedagogical models of education like Montessori, PBL, and Waldorf.
I probably have the perspective and perhaps naivete of a new convert as I learn more about Te Whariki. But it sure beats any other country or state or school approach that I’ve seen. Because part of its power is that it is a national framework. It’s not just a school or a teacher that is doing something amazing. It’s a whole country that has endorsed an approach to teaching that focuses on children and authentic learning.
Thanks to the Early Childhood Council for their good work in bringing teachers together and in standing up for kids. And for bringing me to spend time singing and telling stories.