Te ao Māori and indigenous ways of learning about our world

This article was written in 2021 for Open Society, the Journal of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists |

Like te reo Māori, mātauranga Māori is having a renaissance in New Zealand after years of suppression through colonisation. But a lot of middle New Zealand is having none of it. And it’s no surprise that our western-educated academics in the ivory tower are joining in to perpetuate disturbing misunderstandings of indigenous approaches to understanding our world. When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And if every problem is a nail there’s no point looking for other tools.

When I read the letter in the Listener published 31 July “In Defence of Science” I wondered what the signatories were defending science against? And then I wondered what the science is they are defending?

The big shift that has prompted so much discussion is the refresh of the New Zealand Curriculum taking place over the next 5 years. The consultation website stated that it is “fundamental that there is parity for mātauranga Māori within NCEA, and it has equal value as other bodies of knowledge”. From this year school boards are required to have plans, policies and local curriculum that reflect local tikanga, mātauranga Māori and te ao Māori. The refreshed science curriculum will be ready for use in 2023.

As a western-educated academic I don’t have an in-depth understanding of mātauranga Māori. Perhaps most surprising is that it wasn’t covered in my education degree, a field where a uniquely New Zealand-based perspective on child psychology, learning and development, and research practices would have been of huge benefit in my present working life. 

As a humanist I know that the scientific method is the best approach we have for understanding the world around us. However, an understanding of mātauranga Māori doesn’t stop us from applying the scientific method. If anything it helps us to make observations about our natural world, to synthesise these observations, and make better hypotheses that we can test. It will allow us to develop innovative approaches that can have  a real-world impact. 

An example of this is the conference I attended last month where a Māori academic spoke about her experience studying for a PhD in psychology. She noted that western models were the only ones taught, but these made little sense when applying it in the context of her work in a Māori setting. She spoke about a young person she was working with who wasn’t able to communicate about themselves and was on the cusp of being diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder. After working with the young person she understood the miscommunication was because the young person thought and communicated about the collective over the self. That for this young person self-actualisation couldn’t be achieved because of the gap between the Pākēha and Māori value systems meant it was an alien concept to think about the self independent of others.

Psychology isn’t the only science that needs mātauranga Māori in order to be relevant in Aotearoa. Research funded by Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities National Science Challenge explored how to create prototype digital ethnographic tools that enable towns and cities to become ‘listening organisations’, utilising Māori Urban Design Principles. Social science, design science, engineering, and environmental resource management all feed into how we can build better cities for our populations. Academics might want science to be an “abstract noun”, devoid of “morals and feelings”, but science is both knowledge and a process, and a process followed by people, people who are driven by morals and feelings. 

Mātauranga Māori and the philosophy of science

Mātauranga Māori is fundamentally Māori knowledge. It’s the application of Māori practices and principles in examining, understanding, and making sense of the world around us. It’s not just “looking at the world through a Māori lens”, rolling back knowledge to what Māori people understood about the natural world pre-colonisation, or inserting spiritualism and pseudoscience into science.

While scientists often hate to hear it, without philosophy, and the philosophy of science, then we wouldn’t have the questions that science endeavours to answer. To marginalise mātauranga Māori to “the preservation and perpetuation of Māori culture and local practices” ignores how mātauranga Māori is, at its heart, the philosophy of science. 

Māori participation in STEM

The impact of only looking at academic subjects using western models is that Māori currently represent less than two per cent of the sciences and technology workforce within New Zealand. Māori participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) programmes is low, and programmes like Massey University’s Pūhoro STEM Academy have had huge success in engaging rangatahi Māori in academic subjects at a time in their schooling where Māori students are typically streamed out of science subjects. 

The writers of the letter to the Listener expressed concern that “given this place [of mātauranga Māori] in the curriculum, it might well put students off the study of science”. I’ve not seen a similar letter from these academics about the currently low participation of Māori in science subjects.

While school leaders and science teachers may be confused about how to include mātauranga Māori in science lessons, they have a few years to plan. Luckily, the subject is currently being piloted, and the science curriculum learning matrix allows for innovative teaching practices that apply critical thinking skills to big questions without relying on just one school of thought. 

Mātauranga Māori in policy

It’s clear there’s a shift in thinking towards realising economic returns from mātauranga Māori through public policy. 

In 2010 the Minister of Science and Innovation approved the integration of Vision Mātauranga across MBIE’s investment priority areas, and established the Vision Mātauranga Capability Fund. In 2011 the Vision Mātauranga policy was incorporated into the Crown research institutes’ (CRIs) Statements of Core Purpose. CRIs are now required to enable the innovation potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people as part of their operating principles.

If business is getting behind it, schools and universities need to be quick to catch up.
As Humanist Rebecca Goldstein wrote in Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (2006), “The necessary incompleteness of even our formal systems of thought demonstrates that there is no non-shifting foundation on which any system rests. All truths — even those that had seemed so certain as to be immune to the very possibility of revision — are essentially manufactured.”

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