Monday, March 18, 2013

Te Whariki and the Big White Guy in the Sky...

In Aotearoa we don't have religious instruction in our education system by law. This came out of colonial fears that 'the troubles' between Irish Catholics and English Protestants would continue within migrant communities if one or the other was declared 'official' and made compulsory in schools. The New Zealand education system was to be free, universal, and secular. Radical stuff, widely applauded. There were hidden agendas of course: unifying a diverse country on the brink of bankruptcy, wayward poor kids causing trouble, up-skilling the work force etc, but they are not for this discussion!

Unfortunately the English settlers in Nelson quickly got around this: the 'Nelson Clause' sees many state schools officially close for a short period each day for religious (ie Christian) studies. These are not compulsory – but peer pressure usually wins hearts and souls. Calls to close this loop hole continue today. Jump forward several decades and the line between The State and religion gets blurrier when many church-owned schools are integrated into the state system and now receive full funding. Finally, things get really confusing with the Waitangi Tribunal's decision in the mid-80's that all Government departments must actively promote Maori language, heritage and customs which saw the arrival of 'spirituality.' Queue much eye-rolling by Pakeha New Zealand.

Spirituality is “one of those subjects whose meaning everyone claims to know until they have to define it” (Sheldrake, 1995).

Our curriculum, Te Whariki, does not define spirituality or how a child is 'healthy in spirit' despite it being part of the core aspiration for children. How do teachers help child develop a spiritual aspect to their lives? Individual interpretation. Again. Default discourses rear their ugly heads – again.

Which is why we have teachers singing Sunday School hymns to children and the karakia said before meals is turned into a form of Christian prayer complete with hands clasped.

The Batchelor, Hedges and Haigh (2011) study into teacher beliefs and practice around spirituality found that the teachers they interviewed had a clear understanding that there was a difference between religion and spirituality. Maybe they got lucky because it has not been like this in my experience.

Spirituality was found to have two significant features that were common throughout the world: 

  • The meaning of life, their place in it, connection to other people, to the land, or to a transcendent being.
  • And that it is not synonymous with religion. Historically however they have been considered to be together and the focus was religious knowledge.

So linked, but clearly separate.

The phrase that a child be 'healthy in spirit' used in Te Whariki is not found in any related literature outside of Te Whariki which is interesting – did they just make it up?

Fisher (1999) defined spiritual health as a “dynamic state of being, shown by the extent to which people live in harmony within relationships... with self, others, the environment and with something or some-One beyond the human level.”

This can be expressed as mutual respect where children can share unselfconscious and authentic expressions of self. Rofrano (2010) argues that “ the spiritual life of the infant emerges in relationship with a caring adult”. In considering that relationships are the basis of a healthy spirit, the authors found that a distinction is made between gaining the skills for healthy social/emotional learning and development and the deeper connections that spirituality entails. Brilliant. And I think we do a fantastic job at nurturing deep reciprocal relationships with the children in our care as is required by Te Whariki.

When it comes to those 'deeper connections', it is the karakia said before meals that most teachers get right in considering it as a critical ritual to take the concept of relationship to a deeper level. Tilly Reedy, one of the authors of Te Whariki, writes about the confusion around karakia and the misconception by many teachers and parents that it is about praying to either Maori Gods or the Pakeha God. Personally it wasn't until I was staying at a Marae on Parihaka (staunch opponents to the Government) where they did not allow any Christian-based karakia to be said that I realised it wasn't just about 'praying' as I knew it. Yes, karakia can be looked at as “a form of prayer or relaxation. It isn't aimed at any faith, belief or denomination, but focuses on encompassing the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional attributes within oneself. In Māori tradition, karakia plays a vital role in upholding the values and traditions of our ancestors,” (Reweti, 2004).

According to Reedy, karakia is a tool to “imprint within the mind and being of the person, the ability to focus on the purpose at hand which may be to seek help for someone, themselves, a job, or to help achieve some goal.”

So karakia is all about holistic relationships (self, others, land, past, present, and future) and perfectly fits our definition for spirituality. Yet confusion remains about its intent with responsibility for this lying in the ongoing problem of the curriculum failing to offer clear definitions and practice guidelines. Parents refuse to let it happen in their centre as it is 'Christian'. Teachers refuse to say it because it is 'pagan' etc etc...

Ongoing education? Just talk about it! There is literally nothing 'practical' out there on this topic! Bring back the PD funding!

Supporting young to children to grow up healthy in spirit. Susan Batchelor, Helen Hedges and Mavis Haigh. 2012; The First Years Journal.

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