A Mātauranga Māori Approach to Learning

At Rototuna Senior High School (RSHS), we aspire to “empower our people to be connected, collaborative, community-minded learners who are inspired to soar”. To this end, we teach modules that are collaborative. This involves two subjects sharing a context, knowledge and skills to help deepen students’ understanding of the curriculum. Thomas and McDonagh (2013) believe that “It is the responsibility of the individual to ensure that they are understood in the way they intended”. Learning (especially in a collaborative environment) needs to have elements of a common language to allow individual learners to find success and connect their learning.

Heemi McDonald, Deputy Principal at RSHS, designed a common language for learning based on a Mātauranga Māori approach to  learning. “Mātauranga Māori is about a Māori way of being and engaging in the world – in its simplest form, it uses kawa (cultural practices) and tikanga (cultural principles) to critique, examine, analyse and understand the world” (Kia  Eke Panuku,2016). Through the use of a Mātauranga approach to learning, at RSHS we use learning modes that are culturally responsive for all learners in our kura. It opens up their world to see a range of perspectives that is not just a western view of the world.

There are 6 learning modes, each having their own learning experiences that can occur in each mode you are using in the classroom. Within my teaching inquiry in 2021, I had a module with English looking at the threshold concept ‘Anyone can Lead’ . Students participated in inquiry around leadership principles and physical activity. We mapped out the curriculum knowledge that we wanted the students to have a deeper understanding of. And then purposefully planned the learning experiences based on each of the learning modes.

The HAUTUTU mode required students to be curious and creative. They explored and made sense through ‘active exploration’. Students were free to learn about leadership and physical activity through looking, touching, testing, playing and challenging. Students were given different contemporary leadership principles to use in a variety of physical activity contexts and tested and trialled how they worked. 

The MAHINGA mode required students to apply learning. They are applying knowledge or skills by doing. Repetition is a key aspect of Mahinga and implies that learning is solidified as students repeat learning experiences and apply these to a range of contexts. Mahinga mode students used research to support their understanding and knowledge of the key leadership principles and applied the knowledge to a variety of contexts. For example students lead a group of students in dodgeball using a transactional approach, to leading their peers in an outdoor education setting using a situational approach. To work with kaumatua in leading physical activity through a kaupapa Māori approach. 

The WHAKAPAPA mode required students to form strong connections and to map relationships between knowledge, skills or learning. In essence, the Whakapapa mode is evaluative. Students are encouraged to ‘link learning’ as a way to map the relationship between outcomes and experiences. The Whakapapa mode is a reflective process which helps students evidence all their learning for the English and Physical education assessments. It brought their inquiry all together. 

The KAIMAHI mode required students to ‘work’ towards a communal purpose. Kaimahi encourages working individually while maintaining connection with a shared purpose. Independence and self motivation are critical in the Kaimahi mode. Students had different roles and responsibilities in the leadership contexts and then worked together towards the common purpose of leading the target group they had been given. 

The HUI mode required students to network and share. Hui is an opportunity to role model learning and to support others to develop  deep understandings. Students will experience opportunities to mentor and support as tuakana/teina. Evaluating learning and sharing experiences enables students to mentor each other. At the heart of Hui is gathering to review, reflect or discuss learning. We videod students in their leadership contexts and they watched back and unpacked how effective or ineffective the leadership principles were. This was really effective as they were often quite brutal in their feedback to one another but they were all in the vulnerable seat together. 

The HAPORI mode required students to work as a collective. Students understand the importance of communal learning and building strong learning relationships as groups. The strength of Hapori is that students develop links and strengthen connectedness to community, peers and others. Learning in groups or as communities fosters positive interactions and encourages to grow and evaluate learning in a shared context. The students worked closely together organising an event for local kaumatua. This connected them to the community and took the focus away from the assessment. They had a group that they were accountable to. 

When we  asked our learners what they thought of the learning modes here were some of their opinions;

  • Bob (aged 17) “‘A variety of Learning modes helped me engage and learn different perspectives’. 
  • Sunny (aged 16) ‘I didn’t enjoy Mahinga learning mode. But… can see the purpose and use for each of them in structuring lessons to help us understand’.  
  • Pippa (aged 16) – Learning modes in the assessment helped me make links between what we have done in class and what I need to do in the assessment.

After engaging and using the learning modes within my teaching I have some learnings:

The use of Mātauranga Māori as an approach to learning ensures that my teaching is not a one size fits all approach. It is an ongoing process which results in better understanding of the curriculum knowledge.

The modes are a good framework to use,  ensuring your learning experiences are differentiated to cater for all types of learners.

It made me realise that at times I have a default mode that I used more prior to intentionally planning for all different modes.

When discussing my inquiry of learning modes with Heemi, he noted it  is important to understand that the learning experiences can legitimately sit with the individual (takitahi) or the collective (kotahitanga). The collective (kotahitanga) learning experience is something that is often overlooked, neglected or disregarded but is central to how Māori live in the world. So for example, you are likely to Haututu, Mahinga and Whakapapa more as an individual in learning – although not absolute – and you are more likely to require a collectivist view of learning experiences in Kaimahi, Hui & Hapori.

 One golden nugget that came from the students was that it  has also helped bridge the gap between learning and assessment. Often seen as two different things, the use of the learning modes in teaching and signs posted in assessment helps students see that assessment is just evidence of their learning. A shared language also helped enhance collaboration and communication of knowledge across two curriculum areas. 


Thomas, J., & McDonagh, D. (2013). Shared language:Towards more effective communication. The Australasian medical journal, 6(1), 46–54. https://doi.org/10.4066/AMJ.2013.1

This microblog post was a featured post in #slowchathealth’s #microblogmonth event. You can search for all of the featured posts here. Please do follow each of the outstanding contributors on social media (including Amy Kaukau, the author of this post) and consider writing a microblog post of your own to be shared with the global audience of slowchathealth.com

Pair this post with the following:

Creating Unicorns and ‘AHA’ Moments in Health and Physical Education (HPE) by Amy Kaukau

The Curious Case of Senior Secondary Health Education in Aotearoa New Zealand by  Rachael Dixon

Te Whare Tapa Whā  from Georgia Dougherty

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