"Unconscious bias" in education goes deeper than the classroom

When I was eight, the kids at school used to call me the “dictionary eater” – ironically, this compromised my access to dictionaries. Kids would sometimes run to “save” a dictionary from my desk, running off with it yelling that I’d been just about to eat it.

I was an alright speller, that’s how this came about. I liked deducing the meanings and spellings of words; I found it satisfying. I liked reading too, and I liked writing. So I did alright at school.

In some sense, it came naturally – I think it’s natural for children to love reading. On the other hand, it didn’t, because how could it? The English language is a dizzying labyrinth of inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies. It has approximately 44 sounds, and 1200 letter combinations to represent them. It includes words derived from Dutch, Danish, French and a host of other languages.

I had an advantage though, and I often wondered how other kids who could spell managed to get a grasp of it without the kind of help that I had at home. The particular advantage I had was that my parents learned English as a second language; and my mother is a storyteller.

My parents are Dutch, and Dutch is the major precursor to Old English. It’s the language from which English sprang. So my mum had Dutch as a first language, and learned English whilst being exposed to numerous European languages. This gave her deep insight into the patterns, logic and histories of English. My brother and I would sometimes roll our eyes when we asked mum what a word meant, specifically requesting the short answer, and she gave us a long etymological history. Yet it helped me immeasurably that for mum, each word had a whakapapa that she was fascinated by. Words made sense to me because of them, and so did the letter combinations that composed them.

As a kid, I often wondered how other kids came to grips with the challenges that learning to read and write in English presented to me, but that I was given strategies to navigate. We weren’t given too many of these strategies in school and I was quite sure without my mother’s stories, I’d struggle badly in the classroom. Many New Zealanders struggle with spelling, and without my mum’s help, I would have as well. Growing up, it never surprised me to see my college friends, even teachers, and then colleagues, still struggling to spell.

What surprised me greatly, was studying for a Diploma in Teaching in 2011, and confronting the predominant theory of literacy acquisition that currently informs teaching practice in New Zealand. It is so at odds with what I experienced; what I witnessed among my school peers, and what New Zealand needs in an idea that underlies the training in literacy education all student teachers receive.

I went into teacher education committed to augmenting and developing the set of skills my mother had passed to me. I wanted to know I’d be able to help children who found the English language as difficult as so many of my peers did; like my mum helped me. I wanted to be a teacher who could close any “literacy gap” presenting itself in my classroom. Up to 20% of students underachieve in our education system, and a disproportionate number of those students are Māori and Pasifika. I was ready to learn and love te reo Māori, and to learn, know and love my language better too, so that I could encourage joy in reading among those students who’d rely on my classroom for that the most.

Literacy, I knew, determines a young person’s educational and life chances to a large extent. It’s the tool with which we can come to understand the world independently, communicate, and influence our social environment. I didn’t want kids to lose out under my watch.

What I discovered in teacher education though, was not a new set of skills to help me with these aims. Instead, I discovered one of the deepest forms of Pākehā bias that I believe exists in our education system: those embedded in our understandings of literacy acquisition.

The theory of literacy acquisition underpinning policy and teacher education in New Zealand is called “whole language” theory. It gained traction in the 1970s and 80s, and it posits that children do not need to learn language (even a language as complex as English) through explicit teaching, but simply through exposure to text. Its principal text is John Smith and Warwick Elley’s Learning to Read in New Zealand, which says that:

Children are assumed to acquire their word attack skills incidentally, while reading and rereading favourite books, repetitive texts, poems and songs. The majority of New Zealand teachers lean more towards this position … arguing that reading and writing are best acquired ‘naturally’ in the same way we learn to speak and listen.

Whole language theory was institutionalised around the time of neoliberal reforms like Tomorrow’s Schools, and it is consistent with them. The problem with it is the same as the problem with free market ideas of an “invisible hand” being a suitable determinant of who can flourish in the market. Ultimately, it is those with pre-existing capital (in this case, educational capital) who prevail and, overwhelmingly due to colonialism, those people are white.

My first year of primary school was 1989, and I did well in school, but this was not “incidental”. When I began my first year at Kena Kena primary, it so happened that the teachers picked up from where my mother left off, and she was equipped to assist me throughout my education. As a learning environment, my white European middle-class home blended seamlessly with the public school classroom. My home environment gave me the skill-set that I needed to get through school.

Whole language theory looks at me, at how my first years of school saw me progress as I was supposed to, and simply ignores my mother’s efforts and what they indicate. This is an experience shared by many white, middle class children: we generally enter school equipped with bigger oral vocabularies, more phonetic awareness, and a greater capacity to rhyme and recognise syllables, more knowledge of written letters, and more confidence and motivation in using language, because of early education we receive in our homes. Our schooling system doesn’t identify and recognise all of this as a set of skills, or an education, or privilege – just “natural”.

Children who grow up in conditions of poverty are, for a start, said to experience 3 million fewer verbal utterances per year than their wealthier peers, and this greatly affects literacy development. Our system continues to prove itself incompetent when it comes to assisting students who do not enter school having acquired skills necessary for literacy in the home. Those children do not only stay behind in school, but fall increasingly far behind – until now they meet a minister who tells them they’re better off as labourers or in the service industry.

In 2014, only one third of Māori and Pasifika Year 13 students gained university entrance – down from half in 2013.* Entrance to university was apparently made harder in response to reports that 22% of Māori and Pasifika students are dropping out of university after their first year.

Hekia Parata defended this move by saying that “It is not in the interests of any students to begin their university studies without the skills or experience necessary to succeed.” More difficult assessments amount to a purported ‘clarification’ of university requirements – as if the increased difficulty is in the interests of the very students who are being filtered out of higher education or forced to pay for a foundation studies year; as if our public institutions are not accountable for their exclusion in the first place.

Parata’s statement, dumbing down of NCEA and collaboration with Steven Joyce on Vocational Pathways programmes, carries uncanny echoes of the Education Act first penned in New Zealand by Charles Bowen in 1877. Bowen, a Social Darwinist, said that his intention was “to place the key of knowledge in the hands of every boy and girl,” but added that it was not the bill’s intention to

encourage children whose vocation is that of honest labour, to waste in the higher schools, time which might be better devoted to learning a trade, when they have not yet got the special talent by which that higher education might be made immediately useful.

Bowen’s was a racist statement. Around his time, the Native Schools, alongside religious instruction, taught Māori boys manual labour and farming skills; Māori girls learned to cook, wash, iron and make and mend clothes. While English was barely spoken in Māori communities, te reo was violently banned in schools, making school traumatic for many children. Māori were kept from attending secondary school through proficiency exams, if there were any colleges accessible to them.

Reports published recently show how nowadays, racial discrimination in the form of ‘unconscious bias‘ among teachers is “making Māori students fail” – something that is indisputable. Yet I do not believe this fully explains our literacy gap. I believe the racial bias we see in our education system stems from beyond the individual teacher; and that much of the Pākehā bias embedded within our schooling system from the settler era has never been truly addressed. It has simply shape-shifted and become more covert, gone underground.

In teacher education now, pre-service teachers are offered smatterings of te reo, and learn to do things like incorporate kowhaiwhai into their numeracy programmes in the name of biculturalism and inclusivity. This work is important but it is not enough, when what Māori and Pasifika students require of our education faculties is nothing short of a complete reconceptualisation of how teachers are to be trained in literacy education. Whole language theory as a basis for literacy education worked okay for me, because my home environment compensated for its actual inadequacy as an educational theory. It did not work for too many of my Māori and Pacific peers, and will not for their children.

Alongside promoting genuine Pacific pedagogies, we need to listen to educationalists like Louisa Moats in the U.S., and Bill Tunmer in New Zealand, who are offering alternatives to whole language theory that acknowledge the skills involved in reading and writing.

New Zealand is a Pacific island and we need a Pacific education: Pacific stories, Pacific histories, a Pacific outlook. For that, we need Māori and Pasifika in higher education; we need Māori and Pacific teachers, we need Māori and Pacific voices contributing to systemic change. For that, we need to radically rethink our concepts of literacy acquisition, so that they do not exclude these voices from day one. Kia ora.

Ngataki School, 1950s. Source: Turnbull Library


* This is of course one third of those Māori students who do pass NCEA Level One and are still in school by Year 13. In 2003, only 9% of Māori students gained a qualification that allowed them to attend university. 5% leave school through early leaving exemptions by Year 10. 

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