With this year’s Polyfest looking to be the largest ever, a small minority of committed and creative educators are increasingly exploring the cultural festival as an opportunity for deep learning.

Since its humble inception in 1976 with four Auckland secondary schools, Polyfest has grown to become the biggest event of its kind anywhere in the world. It has become a celebration of youthful creativity and a showcase of the diverse cultures in New Zealand today. In 2017, 220 cultural groups involving 9,000 students from 60 secondary schools participated for an audience of roughly 100,000 over four days.

However, despite its growing popularity, the potential for deeper learning around Polyfest has remained largely untapped for the duration of its 43-year life. Only a small pocket of teachers and school leaders have tinkered around the edges, collecting credits here and there for their “struggling students” – mainly from the Dance standards at NCEA level. Ill-informed teachers continue to espouse that the event is mainly for Pasifika and Māori students and their families and therefore use the standard excuse – “What about the rest of my classes who are not involved in Polyfest?” – to continue rolling out the same old stuff.

But it’s impossible for teachers and school leaders in the Auckland region not to think and talk about Polyfest at the start of every year. Even if you choose to hide under a big rock you can’t escape it – Polyfest is a major event in Term One of every year for many secondary schools. Creating deliberate links between the event and classroom practice should be a no-brainer.

The key barrier to engaging with Polyfest at a deeper level is teacher beliefs. Many teachers and school leaders are not convinced about the value and power of such an event to transform teaching practice and student learning. Some educators have labelled the event “time-consuming,” “a disruption” and even a “time-waster.” The same teachers go on to tell me that term one of every year is “taken up” by Polyfest and “their students spend far too much time practising, arriving to class tired and ill-prepared for learning.”

Students are certainly practising and perfecting their performances perhaps much more than they are working on their classroom learning. My interviews with three groups of senior students in three schools indicate that the key competencies from the NZ Curriculum are in full swing in each of the groups. Many cultural groups are student-led. Some groups are modelling to their school leaders effective ways of creating educationally powerful connections with their schools’ ex-students, families and whānau with ease. Students work in teams to:

  • Analyse their previous performances (and that of other schools) to learn how to improve.
  • Organize practices during lunchtime, after school and on the weekends.
  • Create a subtle balance between traditional and contemporary through their repertoire.
  • Make decisions about uniform and build team culture.
  • Perfect and “lock down” their routines within the allocated time frame.

The level and depth of student engagement are high. There are many lessons here for us all as we continue to ask the same questions about student disengagement in the classroom. The potential for deep learning across the curriculum using Polyfest as a context is limited by teacher creativity and imagination.

The truth is, for most schools, it is teachers and school leaders who determine all the contexts for learning for their students. Our key education documents – The NZ Curriculum, Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, Ka Hikitia, Pasifika Education Plan, and Success for All – have the students’ interests, strengths and learning needs at heart. These driving documents also encourage schools and communities to co-design relevant and meaningful curriculum that engage their learners and whānau. However, the reality is that teachers, determine what knowledge is important, how to impart it, when and how it will be assessed, and if there is time, then the why may be shared with students. Schools are not neutral institutions. Rather, they become places where biases, particular beliefs and values are promoted as the norm.

The time has come for an evaluation of school teaching and learning practices in relation to Polyfest. A key part of the evaluation involves the exploration of teacher and school leader beliefs about the event and its power to influence culturally and linguistically responsive classroom pedagogy. Regretfully, many educators remain largely oblivious to the links between the beliefs they hold, the actions they choose to take, as well as the intended and unintended consequences of their actions for every learner in their classes.


Siliva Gaugatao

Siliva Gaugatao is a Lead Facilitator at Team Solutions, School of Learning, Development and Professional Practice, Faculty of Education and Social Work.

He is a former student participant, school cultural group coordinator and judge at Polyfest.

He and his colleagues have led workshops with teachers and school leaders to explore deep learning across the curriculum around Polyfest.



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