Science, mātauranga Māori, and the national curriculum

The biggest problems in New Zealand’s schooling system are poor literacy and numeracy.  This results from factors such as too little direct instruction as compared to child-led learning, inadequate use of phonics, and “fads” such as modern learning environments.  We also lack a knowledge-rich national curriculum that gives all New Zealand students a good educational start in life, and with this a basis for democracy and civil society.  The evidence is that socio-economic background is the main determinant of differences between Māori and non-Māori educational achievement.

Given all this, it is surprising how much emphasis the Ministry of Education (MoE) is giving to race as a key variable in education.  MoE seems more focused on promoting Māori racial and cultural identity than, for example, professional identities.  “Māori succeeding as Māori” is a recurring trope.  A wisely sardonic Māori kuia once said to me that New Zealand has too few Māori in the professions and too many professional Māoris (sic).  This was decades ago, and she spoke in a whisper.  By now the prevailing zeitgeist will have silenced her completely.

MoE’s Te Hurihanganui initiative launched in 2020 included “white privilege” and racism in schools as root causes of poor Māori educational outcomes.

Te Hurihanganui defines “tino rangatiratanga” as Māori exercising their authority over their tikanga and taonga.  It associates this with decolonisation of the education system.  In the 19th century missionary schools, and later government-funded schools played a key role in Māori education.  For example, Te Aute college was established in 1854 on English public-school lines and set high educational expectations for its students.  Te Aute graduates included top Māori professionals, politicians and intellectuals, including Maui Pomare, Apirana Ngata and Peter Buck.  Colonisation had benefits, and much is owed to the British missionaries and teachers who sacrificed so much to educate their Māori compatriots.

Proposed changes to the New Zealand Curriculum focus on “obligations to Te Tiriti o Waitangi” and enhancing “Te Tiriti-honouring practice.”  It is assumed that racism causes inequity, and that “western science” has dominated in New Zealand whilst mātauranga Māori has been “deliberately disrupted by colonisation.” 

It is claimed that te Tiriti provides for the active protection of te Reo Māori, tikanga Māori, and mātauranga Māori, which are claimed to be taonga under te Tiriti.  However, nowhere in te Tiriti are these claimed taonga mentioned.  ‘Taonga’ in 1840 meant real property such as a waka, a whare or a fishing net.  It did not include, for example, language, water, ‘cultural property’, or later discoveries such as broadcasting spectrum. 

In MoE documents references are made to te Tiriti creating an equal partnership between chiefs and the Crown.  However, it is impossible for Māori to be both subjects of and equal partners with the Crown.  The “equal partnership” argument is a modern invention absent from the 1840 documents and devoid of credible scholarship.

MoE contends that te Tiriti includes “a promise that Māori would retain their sovereignty (tino rangatiratanga)”.  Equating ‘sovereignty’ and ‘tino rangatiratanga’ is invalid.  Article 1 of the Treaty/Te Tiriti transfers to the Crown “sovereignty” (in English) or in Māori “kawanatanga” (governorship).  Māori acceptance of Crown sovereignty is clear from records of debate among Māori at the Treaty signings in 1840, from the later discussions at the 1860 Kohimarama conference, and from many other sources. 

Tino rangatiratanga protects Māori property rights and reflects Magna Carta principles.  It could also mean economic self-determination at the individual, whanau and hapu level.  However, it cannot mean sovereignty and the right to make laws as set out in Treaty/Tiriti Article 1.

Integral to the new Te Tiriti-Honouring and Inclusive Curriculum Framework is the relationship between science and mātauranga Māori and how this relates to identity.  In a background paper for MoE, mātauranga Māori is said to “provide a world view and an identity for those who have whakapapa Māori.  For those who do not have whakapapa Māori, engagement with mātauranga Māori provides an opportunity to explore and understand the Māori world view; however, it does not provide identity.”

MoE assumes two major “ways of knowing” in New Zealand: science and mātauranga Māori.  However New Zealand has long been a multicultural society. Every ethnic, racial or cultural group has a different body of traditional knowledge and belief.  This is typically shaped by past learning, the wider physical, technological and social environment, and the influence of ideas, technologies and flows of knowledge from other people and from cross-disciplinary sources. 

MoE documents show little real interest in the traditional knowledge and beliefs of New Zealand’s large Asian and other minority (non-Māori) cultures.  However, people from these cultures tend to succeed through their own endeavours. 

It is argued that there is a unique Māori knowledge base and ways of learning (‘mātauranga Māori’) that existed before European contact and that these are valuable in the modern world.  Mātauranga Māori is a complement to rather than a substitute for science.  Advocates argue that mātauranga Māori is undervalued and that it should be valued and funded at similar levels to science. 

A 2019 New Zealand Science Review special issue defined mātauranga Māori as “Māori knowledge, Māori methods of knowledge creation, and Māori ways of knowing.”  Sir Mason Durie contended that indigenous knowledge cannot be verified by scientific criteria, nor can science be adequately assessed according to the tenets of indigenous knowledge.  Rather, “Each is built on distinctive philosophies, methodologies and criteria.”  Arguments about the validities between the two systems distract from “explorations of the interface”, and the “subsequent opportunities for creating new knowledge that reflects the dual persuasions.”

All advanced countries invest substantially in science that transcends cultures and is universal.  Science follows agreed disciplinary rules internationally rather than local and culture-specific rules. 

As Diamond (1997) noted, people in Eurasia and parts of the Americas had the domesticated crops and animals to support economic surpluses, and the trade and other connections to learn from others.  However, isolated and migratory groups were limited by their resource base and poor access to new technology and ideas.  Some such groups became so isolated that their technological capabilities stagnated and sometimes went backwards.  Aboriginal Tasmanians gave up bone tools and fishing gear.  Polynesian societies lost pottery-making skills, and Māori whose ancestors sailed to New Zealand on multi-hull sailing canoes (waka hourua) reverted to single hull canoes and forgot how to build and sail larger ocean-going vessels.

The first New Zealanders lacked most major food crops and domesticable animals and had no metallurgy, pottery or written language.  This made it impossible to build up the surpluses needed for labour specialisation.  Māori do not appear to have undertaken plant breeding on any significant scale.  This likely reflected factors such as the narrow genetic variation within the kumara, yam and other staple food crops that Māori had available.

Before European contact, Māori had no trade connections with the outside world that could open up access to new ideas and technologies.  As a result, New Zealand Māori delivered no significant innovation in 800 or so years of pre-European settlement.  This had nothing to do with lack of curiosity or intellect.  Had the Māori population included Thomas Edison, James Watt, Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates, Ross Ihaka and Steve Jobs they would still be “sucking the cold kumara” in abject poverty because the conditions for science-based innovation were absent.

Science aims to continuously advance knowledge and seek universal truth.  In contrast, much traditional knowledge or belief such as mātauranga Māori is local.  MoE states that “a mātauranga Māori programme will be locally based, drawing on the knowledge and understanding of the iwi and hapū of the locality where the schooling is located.  For an interface between mātauranga Māori and science to be successful, a science programme should also be locally derived.”

MoE’s support for a local focus for mātauranga Māori is intellectually limiting, hampers scalability, and reduces the generalisability of the learning undertaken.  It also undermines the vision of a national curriculum that delivers powerful knowledge to all New Zealand students on an equitable basis.

Mātauranga Māori includes mythology and religious belief as well as secular content and scientific method.  However, while science itself must be rational and secular, scientists can achieve great things in their field whilst also holding beliefs or having passions that sit uneasily with scientific method. 

Gregor Mendel was an Augustinian friar as well as a founder of genetics science.  Blaise Pascal was as much a theologian as a mathematician.  Isaac Newton was a devout though unorthodox Christian who devoted years to studying alchemy and Biblical chronology.  Newton’s theory that white light is a mixture of unaltered spectral colours drew on techniques with roots in alchemy.  Long after his work on alchemy was forgotten, Newton still earned from his physics and maths the epitaph “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said,’Let Newton be’ and all was light.”

Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace was a leading mathematician whose work influenced the development of digital computing.  She used poetic, pattern-based language to describe mathematical insights, seeing no need to separate poetry from science.  She valued metaphysics as much as mathematics, viewing both as tools for exploring “the unseen worlds around us”.  This may well be what Sir Mason Durie is referring to as “explorations of the interface” and “opportunities for creating new knowledge that reflects the dual persuasions.”

Mātauranga Māori is proposed to be woven into our national science curriculum.  This may create risks when science and myths are confused.  For example, no “mauri” or indeed any other “life force” exists within inanimate objects.  Therefore, including such concepts in any science curriculum harms students’ education.

New Zealand graduates need to compete in domestic and international marketplaces.  Our qualifications need to be respected internationally and remain portable to other countries.  We may value mātauranga Māori, however we cannot expect it to be valued outside New Zealand. 

Science involves understanding of how and why things work as they do.  It is not limited to learning what is, but also why things have come to be.  Knowing how to prepare karaka berries is knowledge; trying to find out why and how they are poisonous, and how preparation removes the poison, is science that can then be a platform for other applications   It is these platforms that achieve scalability and leverage off rapidly diminishing marginal costs.

Traditional knowledge is rarely accompanied with a deeper understanding of causation.  However, such knowledge can trigger rigorous scientific analysis that can lead to significant advances.  Japanese traditional knowledge includes indigo dyeing, which involves fermenting indigo leaves to extract dye.  This was an artisan craft until science explored how the microbial fermentation process worked.  This led Japanese scientists to new fuel cell developments.  In this case, traditional knowledge inspired new science.

Science needs connections to others’ research, and reliable ways of storing and disseminating information.  Oral cultures require ways of organising knowledge so it can be transmitted through the generations.  For example, oral poetry from Homeric times used recurring lines such as “young Dawn shows her rosy fingers” to help structure and aid the recall of poems of the length of The Iliad or The Odyssey.  Richard Dawkins used Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a device to order his Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life.

In Māori culture whakapapa became a means of structuring knowledge and facilitating its recall.  Māori also encoded useful knowledge in memorable tales.  An example is the story of Mahuika’s fury with Māui for wasting her nails and flame, with her last embers deposited in the kaikomako tree.  This tale reminds future generations that kaikomako wood can be used to make fire. 

Fundamental to New Zealand’s future is its capacity to engage with and learn from the wider world.  We must be an open society and be part of the global “Republic of Science”.  Our science must be delivered in the language and style appropriate to people overseas.  If we talk only to ourselves no one else will listen and over time we will have nothing left to say.

Some argue that mātauranga Māori knowledge can only be known by those inside Te Ao Māori and skilled in kaupapa Māori.  It is fundamental in science that no knowledge is protected from challenge, including from outsiders.  Knowledge that requires protection is belief, not science.

The Māori Centre of Research Excellence Nga Pae o Te Maramatanga may do good or bad for Māori engagement in science and their subsequent career paths and socio-economic wellbeing.  Its research outputs as reported in its end of December 2021 report are overwhelmingly in society and culture and identarian fields.  There are some health and environmental outputs largely from a cultural or sociological perspective.  Few of the researchers seem to be developing knowledge and capabilities that will greatly boost their employment prospects outside of academia and government circles, let alone make a big difference to the world.

A risk we are creating is that some of New Zealand’s finest minds may be diverted into ideological “research” and political advocacy and fail to develop fully their skills in critical reasoning and rigorous scientific method.  Society may reinforce this while it is the prevailing zeitgeist, and then it will walk away, leaving misled graduates in the wrong fields with devalued degrees and angry with a system that duped them.

Mātauranga Māori reflects what Māori have learned or come to believe through centuries of observation.  Beliefs that are erroneous need to disappear and not be protected.  While mātauranga Māori resulting from observation of environmental processes can be ongoing, modern scientific method has taken over from most traditional “ways of knowing and believing” internationally.  Rather than funding mātauranga Māori we will get more value from applying modern science to the priorities Māori and other New Zealanders have and engaging more Māori in outwards-looking science that matters for the world.

For example, Peter Lucas Jones of Te Hiku Media is using artificial intelligence to develop Te Reo speech recognition software. The AI and the speech recognition software are science not mātauranga Māori.  However, the science is being applied in the first instance to Māori cultural priorities and it can then go wider. 

It is great that science and ways of learning are stirring increasing interest in the Māori community.  We should manage science education so we deliver more people of the calibre of Shane Reti, Ross Ihaka and Garth Cooper.  We must avoid creating a generation of embittered identarians who blame all that is wrong with their lives on “western science” and colonialisation.

On these issues I have given my views.  Where do you stand?


Diamond, J.  1997 Guns, Germs and Steel.  W. W. Norton.


About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
This entry was posted in Constitutional and Treaty of Waitangi issues, Cultural issues, Economics, Learning, education and pedagogy, Maori, Science and innovation. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Science, mātauranga Māori, and the national curriculum

  1. David Lillis says:

    Hi Peter. Good blog. Can I share it with the professors – Elizabeth Rata et al?

    David ________________________________

  2. Ross Munro says:

    Excellent analysis of our current woeful state of education. Thank you. It’s hard to pin down why it has come about though. The idea that Maori never ceded sovereignty, that the Treaty is a partnership, and that there are “principles” of the Treaty have been around for a long time. But they have always been contained within a lunatic fringe. Suddenly these ideas, that completely lack any basis in fact nor logic have burst upon us as received wisdom that can not be argued with. It has been enabled by a government devoid of any guiding principles of it’s own, without public mandate and the complicity of a docile fourth estate. None of that explains why it has been given such substance though.

    It is more than surprising that the MoE should focus on race based solutions. It would be unbelievable, but for the fact of it. The same can be said of healthcare, water services and local government. The great and tragic irony being that the approach will almost certainly have terrible consequences for Maori themselves. You also mention how people of other minority cultures succeed by their own endeavours, which is ultimately the only way anyone can succeed. Yet here we are enabling and reinforcing Maori victimhood and helplessness.

    Sadly, I see the same mechanism of madness unfolding around the world – in the west at least. It’s as if we have all become gripped by an ergot delirium. May be time to check the bread.

    • Peter Winsley says:

      Greatly appreciate your comments Ross. I like your ergot delirium diagnosis, though I think it might best be described as a mass psychosis.

  3. dougelliffe says:

    Thank you Peter. Your views on this are very close to my own. ‘Open to all’ and’open to challenge’ are not only science’s defining characteristics but its strengths. We abandon this only at great cost to future generations.

  4. Hall Peter says:

    Thoroughly worthwhile read thank you. Points I particularly like was the distinction between environment and genetic gifts in the way of curiosity and ambition being separate. And your main concern about the education of our young people.
    I suspect Maori, see themselves as fighting for identity, and even a place to be, and the fact it is at the cost of so many lies, and young people’s standing in the world, indeed, the whole country’s standing in the world, is a cost they are prepared to make. They are ruthlessly amibitious.

    Anyway thank you.

  5. Paul Pearson says:

    Great analysis Peter. However, I suspect I don’t see the risks in this that others might see. I say let another way of knowing make its case alongside traditional natural and physical science in the classroom. The contribution it makes will be proportionate to the value the students will perceive it to have (and I think there will be some, if not the level of value as claimed).

    On a side note, I always enjoy the irony of the diverse-though-equal world views proposition given its origins in the heads of a few male, Paris-based, French, post-modern philosophers. And on another side note, given how much my kids have picked up an excellent understanding of, and enthusiasm for, science via the internet (much more engaging content and presentation), I wonder more about its impact on education over the next decade or two. Do a blog on that 😉.

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