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Ka Hikitia: How New Zealand changed their education strategy to support their Māori learners

This is the third article in a series about the Teach for All-Oak Foundation Reaching All Learners Fellowship experience in New Zealand. For background on the fellowship, read the first article here. Read the second article here to learn more about New Zealand’s history and shift to biculturalism. 

“Think of a time you tried something new,” Mrs. Kumar, a grade 11 English teacher at Papatoetoe High School told her students. “How did you feel?”

“What about when you performed at Polyfest?” she asked one student. “What about when you had a big gymnastics meet?” she asked another. 

The students in Kumar’s class were getting ready to read a short story, presumably about a character who tried something new. Prior to reading, she asked them to activate their prior knowledge and experiences in order to make the story relevant to them. And she was able to do this because she knew her students. She knew which students performed at Polyfest, a massive dance festival celebrating students’ Pacific Island heritage and Auckland’s diversity. She knew which students performed in the marching band, and which had done gymnastics as a child.

This may just seem like good teaching, but it reflects New Zealand’s education strategy, Ka Hikitia, which emphasizes celebrating student identity and creating strong relationships between schools, students, families, and communities. During the Teach for All-Oak Foundation Reaching All Learners fellowship experience in Auckland, we had the chance to learn about how New Zealand radically changed their education strategy and visited a school to see Ka Hikitia in action.

As explained in my previous article, Ka Hikitia means “to step up, to lift up, or to lengthen one’s stride” and is the name of New Zealand’s education strategy launched in 2008. The goal of the strategy is “to rapidly change how education performs so that all Māori students gain the skills, qualifications and knowledge they need to succeed and to be proud in knowing who they are as Māori.” 

The strategy is built around five guiding principles: 1) The Treaty of Waitangi, 2) Māori potential approach, 3) Ako, or the idea that teaching and learning is reciprocal, 4) Identity, language, and culture count, and 5) Productive partnerships. Let’s look at each one.

The Treaty of waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, is considered to be New Zealand’s founding document. It is an agreement between the British and the Māori giving Britain sovereignty of New Zealand while Māori gain protection as British citizens and retain full rights to their land, forests, fisheries, and “other possessions.” In the Māori translation, which over 200 Māori chiefs signed, “sovereignty” was translated as “governance” and “properties” was translated as “treasures,” creating a discrepancy between the two documents. In 1975, the government created the Waitangi Tribunal to interpret the treaty and investigate claims against the Crown. 

New Zealand laws and government policies, including Ka Hikitia, refer to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. Yet, because of the differences in the English and Māori translations, there is no definitive list of principles. Instead, they have been developed over time through new laws, Waitangi Tribuanl findings, government statements, and court cases.

The Ka Hikitia report stresses the need for collaboration between the government, iwi (tribes), hapū (sub-tribes), and whānau (family) as an expression of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi:

“For education professionals, collaboration is about creating ways for whānau, hapū, iwi, Māori organisations and communities to contribute to what and how Māori students learn, as well as working together to provide support for Māori students’ learning.”

Māori potential approach 

It is well known in the education world that teachers’ expectations of students can have a huge impact on student success, and that teachers’ own biases can affect those expectations. Ka Hikitia recognizes that teachers in New Zealand can have lower expectations of Māori student abilities that can negatively impact Māori student learning and educational success. 

The Māori potential approach states that all Māori students have the potential to achieve, and educators must work to overcome personal biases to ensure they hold high expectations for their Māori students. The graphic from the Ka Hikitia report explains how the government views the approach.


Ako is a Māori word that means both to teach and to learn. It is the idea that teaching and learning are not independent from one another but rather reciprocal: the teacher learns just as much from the student as the student learns from the teacher. The Ka Hikitia report explains:

“Ako describes a teaching and learning relationship where the educator is also learning from the student in a two-way process.”

Ako is grounded in the belief that teachers must learn from their students — about their lives, their cultures, their identities — and this is central to effective teaching and learning. When extended to government, it is the idea that government must learn from the people to whom it is providing services.

Identity, language, and culture count

During our week in Auckland, we heard from several Māori students and teachers about their school experiences. One teacher, Nyra Marshall, shared with us how isolated she felt as a Māori student in a school with few other Māori students and only one Māori teacher. She did not feel like her teachers cared about her, and she did not feel like she could herself and embrace her Māori identity. After watching several of her Māori classmates drop out and being told by a teacher that she was an embarrassment to her race, she begged her father to put her in a Māori school.

Marshall’s experience demonstrates the importance of acknowledging, embracing, and celebrating the identities, languages, and cultures of all students. Ka Hikitia states:

“Students do better in education when what and how they learn reflects and positively reinforces where they come from, what they value and what they already know. Learning needs to connect with students’ existing knowledge.”

Ka Hikitia calls on educators to develop a better understanding of their own identity, language, and culture and how they shape their learning experiences as a first step to understanding how their students’ identities, languages, and cultures shape their learning. It asks educators to work with students, families, communities, and other stakeholders to integrate Māori identity, language, and culture in the classroom. 

Productive partnerships

Ka Hikitia defines a productive partnership as “a two-way relationship leading to and generating shared action, outcomes and solutions.” The report calls for productive partnerships between schools and whānau (family), noting that Māori students should not be viewed separately from whānau. It also calls for productive partnerships between the Ministry of Education and other government bodies and Māori organizations, parents, iwi, hapū, whānau, and communities. 

What do the guiding principles actually look like in practice? The Ka Hikitia – Accelerating Success 2013–2017 report breaks down what this looks like, including making sure all students have access to Māori language instruction and early learning.

During the trip, we focused on the teaching competencies developed by the Ministry of Education called Tātaiako: Cultural Competencies for Teachers of Māori Learners. These competencies are expected of all teachers and align with the New Zealand teaching standards and criteria. The goal is to build high-quality relationships between teachers and Māori learners and their communities.  

As defined in this report, the competencies are:

  • “Wānanga: participating with learners and communities in robust dialogue for the benefit of Māori learners’ achievement.
  • Whanaungatanga: actively engaging in respectful working relationships with Māori learners, parents and whānau, hapū, iwi and the Māori community.
  • Manaakitanga: showing integrity, sincerity and respect towards Māori beliefs, language and culture.
  • Tangata Whenuatanga: affirming Māori learners as Māori. Providing contexts for learning where the language, identity and culture of Māori learners and their whānau is affirmed.
  • Ako: taking responsibility for their own learning and that of Māori learners.”

The report further breaks down each competency into teacher behaviors and student and whānau outcomes. Similar to the ideas behind culturally responsive teaching, the competencies require educators to acknowledge, celebrate, and incorporate students’ culture in all aspects of learning.

When we visited schools, we saw examples of these behaviors and outcomes, such as the example of Kumar connecting to students’ prior experiences to make learning relevant. We heard from students that they felt loved, valued, and cared for by their teachers. 

One student, Min, said, “The teachers care about you. If you’re struggling, they always help you.” Another added, “Some teachers treat you like one of their own, like family.” 

When discussing how they know they are successful, the deputy principal at Papatoetoe High School told us, “Our definition of success is that kids are in charge of their learning… cultures are valued and celebrated, and students don’t have to leave their culture at the door.” 

How well is this working for New Zealand? When I asked if Ka Hikitia had translated into achievement gains for Maori students, one presenter said it would take more time to see the results of the strategy. A 2016 report from the New Zealand Controller and Auditor General shows no real improvement for Māori students in reading, math, or writing achievement but a significant drop in the percentage of Māori students dropping out of school before age 17.

As dropping out of school is a clear sign of disengagement, it appears that Māori students are having better experiences with school, although that has yet to translate to higher achievement. In addition, every student I talked to spoke about positive relationships with their teachers. It remains to be seen whether this will in fact translate into better educational outcomes for Māori students. 

Editor’s note: The Oak Foundation supports the work of EducationNC.

Molly Osborne Urquhart

Molly Osborne is the vice president and Chief Operating Officer for EducationNC.