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The day the Ministry of Education stopped funding Te Kotahitanga was a sad day for New Zealand education. The programme, based on the internationally acclaimed research from Emeritus Professor Russell Bishop, had accelerated the learning of many Māori secondary school kids all over the country. Without any idea of how to sustain the programme, schools were left to deliver it themselves, and it went the way of all things unwatered by support and funding: it faded.

Fortunately, Russell Bishop partnered with Cognition Education to deliver the programme, including how to sustain it, in a new format: Culture Countsplus. But this time it would be for all primary and tertiary as well as secondary.

“Secondary schools are still our hardest clients because they have institutions and structures that they feel are inflexible or too difficult to change,” says Cognition’s Laurayne Tafa, who manages the Culture Countsplus programme. “But secondary schools are also where we get our quickest and best results.”

Laurayne says secondary schools can be difficult environments for Māori because learning relationships are typically transactional and operate in a huge imbalance of power.

It’s this power imbalance that the Culture Countsplus programme seeks to address in any given school.

“The underlying challenge we have is how much a school’s culture is based on power relationships. If we walk into a school where people experience marginalisation or lack of power, they have a lot of work to do to create a more family like culture.

“We know that drawing on deficit language or any deficit theorising only leads to deficit practices – therefore the coaches learn the language and practices of potentiality and capability and high expectations. And they’ve got to use that in their coaching so they become the most important cog in the improvement agenda,” says Laurayne.

“We’re really unapologetic about getting into the classroom as soon as possible. We focus on getting coaches alongside teachers first and then we deal with all the leaders and systems.”

It’s an approach that can put some teachers and leaders outside their comfort zone, and Laurayne says it’s common for teachers to feel a bit threatened initially, as we are asking them to re-consider some long held beliefs and practices.

“Most teachers have been allowed to work on their own little island and they get to believe in their own discourse.”

“Most teachers need support to manage deficit bias so the programme supports this by working with their basic belief system first, otherwise their practice won’t change.”

“The Impact Coaches provide non-judgmental data that actually starts to challenge the current discourse in the classroom and who it’s good for.”

Laurayne says all teachers subscribe to the notion that relationships are central to learning but in Culture Countsplus, there’s a key difference. The emphasis is less on skills and dispositions and more on the principles, pedagogies and language needed to drive relationships into relationships for learning. Only then can acceleration of learning really happen.

She says teachers will claim they know the cultural identity of their students, but it needs to go beyond getting to know their families and watching them play sport on Saturday. They need to create a classroom culture where the culture of learning and interactions (how we treat each other and our learning) counts more than each individual child’s language, culture and identity.

“It’s good that you know little Johnny, but what you need to focus on is: does the culture of your classroom communicate to kids that you believe in them, that you think they’re cognitively capable, and that you treat them like that and give them power over their own learning.”

And it’s working. Laurayne says she gets quite emotional at the almost daily emails that come in from teachers saying that the programme has not only changed their practice, but it has changed them. They’re not only seeing acceleration in their students’ learning, but also a change in the way they view teaching and their role as an educator.

To learn more, please visit: www.cognitioneducation.com

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