‘Feeding the Roots’ model supports Pāsifika student engagement

Dr Alet van Vuuren, who graduated with a Doctor of Education at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences ceremony, Auckland.

Teachers of intermediate-aged Pāsifika students are being encouraged to include more cultural components into their teaching to ensure young adolescents stay engaged with learning throughout secondary school.

Massey University PhD graduate (Education) Dr Alet van Vuuren, a Registered Psychologist for the Ministry of Education, explored factors facilitating the engagement in learning of Pāsifika students at intermediate school level.

Her study showed the positive difference to student engagement when teachers include critical cultural content into classroom practices.

She says her doctoral study supports a move for culturally strengthened teacher engagement with Pāsifika students at intermediate level as a way to foster higher levels of achievement at secondary school and tertiary levels.

“Despite considerable effort to improve student engagement, achievement and performance outcomes within the required inclusive educational contexts, a significant number of Pāsifika students still leave school without any formal qualifications,” she says. “Although 80 per cent of Pāsifika students stay at school until the age of seventeen, they do not necessarily achieve high enough qualifications to guide them into the workforce or tertiary education.”

Feeding the roots model empowers Pāsifika engagement

Dr van Vuuren’s study, supervised by well-known Pasifika education researcher Associate Professor Bobbie Hunter and special education expert Associate Professor Mandia Mentis (both from Massey’s Institute of Education) generated a cultural assessment tool, called the Feeding the Roots Model of Pāsifika Student Engagement. It is designed to help teachers understand the importance of acknowledging critical cultural components when engaging Pāsifika students in learning. She interviewed students, staff teacher aides, Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour (RTLB) and parents at a South Auckland intermediate school where 52 per cent of the students were from Pāsifika backgrounds.

Her study found that teachers who explicitly integrated cultural references, knowledge, language and learning styles (solving a problem as a group rather than focussing on the individual) achieved higher levels of Pāsifika student engagement in learning. Examples include; displaying student work in classroom to enhance a sense of belonging, allowing students to learn from within the context of their cultural experiences and identity, showing personal interest in students and their families, having high expectations of students, and encouraging them to collaborate with peers to problem-solve.

What surprised her was that the ethnicity of teachers played no role in Pāsifika student engagement. Her survey showed palagi (non-Pasifika) teachers who were deliberately teaching with more cultural awareness and understanding, achieved the highest levels of Pāsifika student engagement.

This highlights a need for all teachers to understanding the value of incorporating their cultural competency to address ethnic diversity in their classrooms, especially in South Auckland, where there are an estimated 168 different nationalities and ethnicities, she says.

It was her contact with students, parents and teachers through her work as an educational psychologist that prompted her inquiry into the issue. Originally from South Africa, she has worked in New Zealand education for 17 years and is “passionate about education and promoting inclusive practices that benefit multi-cultural societies – values I grew up with and practiced throughout my life.

“In my role, I support children with learning and behaviour needs. This has highlighted a particular area of interest to me – what are the motivating factors that keep Pāsifika students participating in learning – specifically at Intermediate school level and in their first year at secondary school?”

National statistics reveal that the reading levels of Pāsifika students in New Zealand schools drop to lower levels once they leave primary school. The many possible reasons intrigued her. For example, could it be that students felt more supported at primary school? Could students at intermediate level experience challenges such as entering young adolescence and also a change in the delivery of education, with rostered classes and more teachers.

Government policy needed to back Pāsifika education support

While there is a broad awareness in the education system for finding ways to support and improve learning outcomes for Pāsifika students, more work is needed to bolster teachers’ understanding and skills in teaching culturally diverse classes, Dr van Vuuren says.

And while resources exist, such as the Pacific Education Plan 2013-2017, which is aimed at “raising Pāsifika learners’ participation, engagement and achievement from early learning through to tertiary education” – these are not widely applied, Dr Van Vuuren says.

Recommendations from her doctoral research, about the potential of the Feeding the Roots model for integrating cultural aspects into everyday classroom teaching, could support what the Ministry of Education is encouraging in schools.

Dr van Vuuren says she doesn’t identify as an expert who could speak on behalf of Pāsifika, but perceives her research as “a cultural assessment tool to support culturally appropriate and culturally responsive systems in which Pāsifika students operate.”  


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