An Interview with Deanne Thomas on the Indigenous Education culture in NZ

Deanne Thomas has a lot of experience and leadership in indigenous education issues. She has developed a number of projects and programmes for teachers of Māori immersion, dual immersion and te reo Māori. She was a member of Te Ohu Matua, the reference group for the Ministry of Education in the development of Te Marautanga o Aotearoa.

Deanne Says,



“we have a 200 year history of being a colonized people, to be quite honest its had its ups and downs along the track”



How did NZ incorporate indigenous culture in education?

Two foundation points to it, one is that indigenous people about 50 years ago took it upon themselves to make a fuss and said this is not good enough, not good enough for the first people of the land, be living in poverty, have no language, have a culture that only exist for being lost access to a whole range of things that were normal.

The teachers understanding the importance of being able to culturally relate to each child in the classroom, that is pretty huge.

What was your experience of schooling in NZ?

I would say when I was at school 50 years ago as a little tot, I would probably have learnt one Maori song or two in all my years at school.

What has changed since my childhood is the dual recognized curriculum, a curriculum in two languages that are quite different and the one that I was involved in was a curriculum by Maori adults teachers for Maori children with Maori families in their native language.

How did it all start in NZ?

25 to 30 years ago there was a group of older Maori people, there was nothing in the schooling system for these kids, so they started to open what became known as Kohanga Reo, it had no funding, it had no status. But they opened one in the garage and another one in the next garage and within a very short time, there were almost a 1000 of these early childhood groups.

In 1990 we had 5 schools in NZ that only taught in the native language, then the NZ government came in and started funding more of these initiatives. Now we have 400 either classes or groups of classes in an English speaking school or a Maori school that are funded by the crown.

Do you think digital technology is making an impact with the cultural integration?

Digital technology is only a tool, its got to be underpinned by who the people are that are using these technologies. The same goes for Australia, the culture of the people underpins in the tool being wrapped around that. If you just throw digital technology in the curriculum and then think, “Oh!” that is not going to work for aboriginal children.

“We listen to learn, and we learn to listen as well.”

What is the highlights of the system that NZ uses?

Breakaway system, we knew the square box system did not work for Maori learners. We created an independent system first, which was the emergent schools, by Maori for Maori and then recreated another structure altogether, what we refer to as medium and education now. This new system can be separate but can also be done together.

How do you think Australia should make the necessary changes to culturally integrate indigenous languages and teachings into the education system?

It will be easy to jump in boots and all and do everything in the next 25 years, its taken that period of time in a small country like NZ, with only one main native language. it’s going to be a much bigger job for Australia.

Changing the hearts and minds of teachers who for a long time have been able to turn away from indigenous children as if they did not exist we’ve got to turn them back and get them thinking about social justice and cultural equity and understanding that it is not a threat to society it is actually a bonus and a big one!

Integration is like bringing two things together into the one box. That might not necessarily be the way Australia needs to think about it on a big scale.

If you had a school for example with 15 classes in it, in 2 of those classes were small numbers of children taught in the aboriginal language for the first say 3 years of schooling and then we talked about integrating those children back into or alongside the English speaking kids. There is lots of ways of creating bilingualism and therefore biculturalism.

It’s more about how parents are engaged in schooling activity. It’s a more deeper thought about how we acknowledge culture to a degree where indigenous people feel like this is a place where they can actually participate equally.

takes peoples change of heart that one!