Colouring in the White Spaces: Cultural Identity and Learning in School

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When we look at a new page in a childs colouring book we tend to think of it as blank with spaces to be coloured in. We dont often consider the fact that it is already coloured in with white. White is the invisible colour, because its just there as the whole background. Also already on the page are lines boundaries that tell you where you are allowed to put, and confine, any colours you choose to add. My study suggests that schools are white spaces part of wider societys white spaces. The white is just there as the background set of rules that dictate whose knowledge is important, what success looks like, what achievement matters, how the space is organised and who has the power. Thats racism.

When we talk about schools being multicultural or diverse what we are really talking about is the colour of the students faces the background colour stays white. Often we see diversity as a problem or a challenge we have to come to terms with, so we address the issue from a deficit perspective. We all know of schools where all the children are brown, but the schools colour is still the same invisible white. Thats hegemony. We might as well put our colour around the edges of the page because they make no difference to the way the school operates. Thats marginalisation.
As the education professionals and the grownups in this equation, we cant ignore the fact that we dont think much about the colour of our schools page, and therefore we are complicit in perpetuating the status quo through what happens to our Maori and Pasifika youth in our schools and classrooms every day.

Dr Stuart Middleton, drawing on his research as one of 36 international educators in the 2007-2008 Fulbright New Century Scholars Programme identifies 18 features we share with the other four English-speaking education systems the United Kingdom, USA, Canada, and Australia. These features include:

  • changing demographics, where the white population will be in the minority
  • education systems based on monocultural world views that are resistant to change
  • education systems failing indigenous and minority children
  • changing economies, where there will no longer be a place for unskilled workers

He states:

The proportion of students coming from backgrounds that lead to high achievement is shrinking while the number of students coming from backgrounds classed as low-decile continues to grow. If New Zealand does not address the achievement of those at the bottom of the pile, its international standing will not survive at a high level. … New Zealand wont have a successful education system until it is successful for Maori & Pasifika learners.

This research looks specifically at the conditions that need to exist in schools for young people to retain their identity and to have their cultural norms validated and valued throughout their school day. The sub-topic that comes out of this research is what sort of school leadership is required to foster those conditions? What personal and professional journeys effectively equip educators to understand how a whole system can advantage some students and disadvantage others, and to personally reflect on their own part in this process?

No matter how many new curriculum documents, strategies or testing regimes we introduce, schooling will not become more equitable until paradigm shifts happen in the way we think about and define achievement. As school leaders how can we change our current approach to ensure equitable outcomes for Maori & Pasifika learners? This research hopes to plant some seeds that lead us to consider alternative approaches to the managerial, technical, and limited academic focus now rampant in our schools.

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