Teuila Fuatai: Why pitting mātauranga Māori against Western science misses the point


It was 300 words published in the Listener as part of the letters to the editor section. Titled “In defence of science”, the short but blunt statement spurred a lot of debate in the past week.

Authored by seven University of Auckland academics – all of professor or emeritus professor status – the letter targeted a Ministry of Education consultation document canvassing options for subjects in “Māori medium senior secondary settings”. In other words, subjects for year 11 to 13 students who attend kura Māori.

Specifically, the seven professors – one of whom has since resigned as acting dean of the faculty of psychology – highlighted the subject area Pūtaiao.

For those who aren’t familiar, Pūtaiao comes under Te Marautanga o Aotearoa – one of two national curriculum statements which make up our national education curriculum. The other statement being “the New Zealand curriculum” for English medium learning settings. In English, Pūtaiao loosely translates as “science”, however as a learning area in Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, it actually goes beyond what is covered in the mainstream New Zealand curriculum area of science.

That extra layer of learning comes under Ngā Tautake Pūtaiao me ngā Kōrero o Mua / Philosophy and History of Science. As described in the consultation document, this subject matter “promotes discussion and analysis of the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views (among which, its use as a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge); and the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European dominance over Māori and other indigenous peoples.”

As outlined in their Listener letter, the University of Auckland academics believed this a serious overreach. For them, having this as part of the wider science curriculum in schools undermined the very value of science, and encouraged mistrust in the discipline. They also made it clear that type of thinking was linked to mistakenly valuing indigenous knowledge as science.

Needless to say, reaction to the letter led to debate which encompassed far more than what a group of academics believed should and shouldn’t be taught to senior high school students.

At one end, it’s led to the pitting of mātauranga Māori against Western, scientific method, and the ongoing battle for indigenous knowledge and value systems among Western institutions and academics. At the other, it’s been about why a group of high-ranking academics – none of whom count mātauranga Māori as an area of expertise – felt the need to weigh in on a topic they knew little about.

Notably, both points of contention failed to connect to the wider purpose of the Ministry of Education consultation document at the centre of everything. That being to review current subjects that are part of Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, and make improvements to better serve students. For some areas of learning, this resulted in proposals around new subjects, while others identified more appropriate and suitable assessment standards. It should also be noted that Pūtaiao and its subtopic covering the philosophy and history of science has been around for a while.

In the context of a debate around “science”, mātauranga Māori and students in Māori medium education settings, perhaps what is most important to look at is how well Pūtaiao and the alternative New Zealand curriculum science subjects (like physics, chemistry or biology) is actually working.

Interestingly, data shows that senior students in Māori medium settings taking New Zealand curriculum science subjects, or the dual curriculum option of Science/Pūtaiao, “significantly outnumber” those taking Pūtaiao alone. Entry and completion assessment numbers for Pūtaiao also painted a mixed picture, with relatively low numbers at levels one and two.

Despite that, the consultation document also points out students and educators in Māori medium settings would “likely engage in Pūtaiao more effectively if they perceive and know that mātauranga Māori is the starting point for teaching and learning programmes” and that programmes are appropriately supported and resourced.

Essential to that is having an education framework which enables indigenous knowledge to be valued alongside Western knowledge bases – rather than pitted against it. Maybe then, a more insightful debate around how best to include and foster interest in a range of sciences and knowledge systems can occur.

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