Sunday, March 25, 2012

Etu! Stand up!

Here in Aotearoa we are required by law to incorporate Te Ao Māori into our practice as teachers: spoken and written language, music, and cultural practices that influence everything from eating to gardening. This is our legal, ethical and pedagogical response to Te Tiriti O Waitangi, the 1840 treaty that (supposedly) framed out a bicultural partnership between the tangata whenua and the colonising British. The treaty was finally enshrined into law and government practice in the 1980's and incorporated into Te Whāriki, the curriculum document for the ECEC sector. Internationally, Te Whāriki is highly regarded for its weaving of two cultures on many levels that includes pedagogically.

You would think that the joining of cultural beliefs at a theoretical level would mean that we have moved beyond the tokenism that we experience through typical multicultural practice with its food and festival days. Not really. Let's push it a bit further, a bit harder. What's beyond a multicultural approach to education? Critical Multiculturalism of course.

Here's a quick breakdown:

Multiculturalism has tied itself to a static, essentialist idea of culture that responds primarily to an individual's ethnicity while ignoring the reality of multiple identities that are fluid, encompass multiple social categories that are being continually reconstructed: schools/centre are sites of cultural identity construction – it's complex. This focus on culture alone makes multiculturalism 'easy', its seen a quick-fix 'lets all get along' solution to issues of 'cultural misunderstandings' that ignores the wider context of unequal power relationships that underpin inequality.

Despite the faults it's a good idea. Sadly it seems to be quickly going out of vogue due to the rise of the one-size-fits-all standardised curriculum, the fear of difference in the age of 'terrorism' (like white men never kill...) and the entrenchment of neo-liberalism in education and the associated limitations of access and opportunity for marginalised groups.
Critical multiculturalism, rather than prioritising culture, puts the spotlight on the analysis of unequal power relationships and requires an understanding of how power is used and institutionalised.

It asks us as educators to identify the material, political, and ideological underpinnings of inequality, listen to communities that experience oppression directly and explore how forms of inequality have been challenged in the past. It means bringing diversity into the core of the centre so it (the centre) matches the cultures of the community: reciprocal, collaborative, co-operative non-hierarchical relationships with families.

Is this were we are at in Aotearoa? No. Māori culture struggles to make it past tokenism, an add-on to the dominant discourses of western modes of thinking/doing.

Where am I going with this? Well I've noticed that our use of te reo Māori has become one of giving commands. We have learned the basics of the language – object names and simple one or two word commands like sit, stand, come here, wash your hands etc. We talk to the children in English, but we tell them what to do in Māori. And we tell them in a loud 'crowd control' type manner as we rush them through routines. What is this doing for the status of the Māori language in the minds of our children? That we have a good cop // bad cop thing going on? That Māori remains the deficit language with English used for 'real' conversations?

I'm going to drop the commands and focus on praise. Tino pai!