Culture matters in teaching and learning

Culturally-based methods of teaching and learning can lead to significantly improved educational outcomes, but is an opportunity often missed by traditional western teaching practices, according to Professor Konai Helu Thaman, Chair in Pacific Education and Culture in the University of the South Pacific.


Professor Konai Helu Thaman

Professor Thaman will be in New Zealand shortly to give the 2016 New Zealand Aronui Lecture Series for the Royal Society of New Zealand. She has spent her career dedicated to making school and university learning more culturally democratic, especially for Pasifika students. In her lecture, she will draw on the experiences she has gained from education systems in Tonga, New Zealand, and the US in order to illustrate how culture, and the role it plays in the classroom, informs teaching and learning practices.

“Over the past four decades or so my pre-occupation has been to assist in the task of helping Pacific young people achieve better in school and university by trying to encourage their teachers, lecturers and educational leaders to take their cultural background more seriously, because of my belief (based on personal experiences and research) that culture matters in teaching and learning, more than most of us teachers know,” says Professor Thaman.

“Compared to thirty or forty years ago, there are some Pasifika people who have celebrated great achievements in New Zealand but as a group, they still trail behind others.”

In order to address the problem of academic underachievement of Pasifika students, Professor Thaman focuses on two particular strategies:

Firstly, the creation of culturally specific poetry that school students can better relate to and analyse. As a celebrated poet, Professor Thaman has authored five collections, which are used in classrooms throughout the Pacific region. Secondly, she will discuss the development of the Kakala Research Framework – a research framework sourced from Pacific cultures – for university students.

The core idea behind both strategies is that students who are able to better identify with education material are also “better motivated to conduct research in their own communities, using their own languages, and most importantly, value and respect people and their cultures, especially elders – something that is fast disappearing in some of our urbanised communities”.

Konai Helu Thaman is currently Professor of Pacific Education and Culture and the UNESCO Chair in Teacher Education and Culture at the University of South Pacific (USP). She is a member of the joint ILO/UNESCO Committee on the Recommendation on the Status of Teachers (CEART), and a Fellow of the Asia Pacific Centre for Educational Innovations and Development (APEID). An eminent poet, her work is studied by school children throughout the Pacific region, and has been translated into several languages, including Chinese, French and German.

Konai Helu Thaman is speaking in Hamilton, Auckland, Dunedin, Palmerston North and Wellington. Tickets are free and can be booked at