New Zealand: Learning from Aotearoa

Kia ora!


With the support of Burlington Schools and the Partnership for Change, my Fellowship learning has taken me to Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud--known to non-Maori-speakers as the nation of New Zealand. I am traveling with a UVM graduate class led by Middle Grades professor (as well as colleague, mentor, and friend), Penny Bishop. For the next few weeks, I will be visiting and collaborating with teachers and administrators from nine schools on the North Island. Evenings are spent with a host family made up of educators–a middle grades principal, a high school English teacher, and their college-age son.

Before setting off on this adventure, I wondered what I would find–and why I was traveling so far to find it. Although inspiring examples of student-centered learning certainly exist closer to home (and let’s be honest, nearly any place on Earth is closer to home), it has been exciting to find many Kiwi approaches to education that Burlington and Winooski schools may be able to learn from.


New Zealand Schools

While an exhaustive overview of the Kiwi educational system would be out-of-scale, the following may offer some helpful context:

  • The New Zealand education system is organized by “deciles.” 10th-decile schools are the most affluent, while 1st decile schools are the least affluent. Although the political landscape in New Zealand is currently shifting to the right, educational funding remains progressive; the lower the decile, the more funding a school receives.
  • Schools are most closely modeled on the British system, separated into Primary/Contributing schools, Intermediate schools, and Secondary schools.
  • By law (thanks to the Treaty of Waitangi), New Zealand is a bi-cultural nation. Among other things, this means that Te Reo Maori is one of three national languages (along with New Zealand sign language). It also means that some schools are bi-lingual; others make up a parallel system called Kura Kaopapa–which are Maori-immersion schools.
The British and Confederation flags at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

The British and Confederation flags at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

  • While Maori are full members of the modern society and economy, most remain deeply connected to their iwi and hapu (people/clan), whanau (family), and marae (communal land/place). Every Maori living today can trace their genealogy to one of the few original waka (canoes) to first arrive in Aotearoa.
  • IMG_4616
  • While many Maori students are finding success, overall they are lagging behind in most measures of achievement. This is especially true for Maori boys.
  • New Zealand colonists have long lived side by side with native Maori, but New Zealand’s history as a nation of immigrants is seeing a further rebirth. Today, the country is extremely culturally diverse, especially in Auckland. Over the past forty years, New Zealand’s largest city has become the de facto international capital for dozens of Pacific Islands–as well as being a recent home to immigrants from across the globe. Add to that a curious connection to Northwest Vermont: the experience of welcoming scores of new refugees.


  • New Zealand schools themselves are diverse as well. This is due in large part to the fact that there is no hierarchy between the Ministry of Education and the local school. Literally nothing stands between the Minister’s office and the Board that governs each public school. Within national parameters–and subject to five-year audits from the ERO–Principals are largely autonomous, and able to make choices that best serve students.

The next few posts will offer images and stories from New Zealand schools. Stay tuned!

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