Space and design considerations: Toward cultural sustainability

By Judy Bruce

A growing number of English medium schools across Aotearoa are working toward cultural sustainability that gives effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. To embed and sustain changes requires an entire systems approach and this includes considerations for space and design. A small number of recent research projects in Aotearoa have been exploring the ways in which school spaces support the implementation of culturally responsive pedagogies (CRP) within innovative learning environments (ILEs). In this article we provide highlights from three studies that explore this kaupapa.

Kua Takoto Te Mānuka 

In this Grow Waitaha resource, Dr Gabrielle Wall considers how English medium schools might grow CRP within ILEs. Many cultural narratives within English medium schools have sought to ensure that the cultural history of school grounds and surroundings are incorporated in to new or redeveloped school spaces and design. Less consideration has been the ways in which teaching spaces might afford opportunities for supporting CRP. A CRP learning environment is one in which ākonga can experience success as culturally-located individuals. The resource explores these ideas by asking:

“To what extent are ākonga Māori identities, language and culture recognised, valued and reflected both in physical spaces and in all teaching and learning activities? And, how might teaching and learning spaces support this aspiration?”

To inform the Grow Waitaha resource existing research literature was reviewed and interviews and focus groups were undertaken with principals, teachers and ākonga Māori and Pasifika from English medium schools. The resource provides recommendations and considerations for creating more culturally responsive learning environments. Some recommendations are: 

  • Demonstrate the value of culture and cultural diversity by visibly showcasing elements of culture throughout a range of media in the learning space – with artworks, iconography, photographs, language and student work.
  • Create structures and physical spaces that support organised pair or group work, with clear roles (these may include the role of tuakana and teina) and specific tasks and outcomes. Learning environments can be created to better support agentic learning; such as those with flexible spaces for diverse ways of learning (individual, groups) with different choices of seating, and supported by technology.
  • Create spaces where whānau are welcome and can become involved in ways that support ākonga, whānau and community wide events. 

To learn more, check out this insightful resource. It is recommended that the resource be read alongside Māui Whakakau, Kura Whakakau. Both resources consider the ways in which space might afford opportunities to support CRP.

Māui Whakakau, Kura Whakakau

Also written by Dr Gabrielle Wall, this resource explores the impact of physical design on Māori and Pasifika student outcomes (MOE, 2016). Interviews and focus groups, as well as an international literature review, were undertaken to support the writing of this resource. Some of the key ideas are:

  • The physical environment can only support cultural inclusivity to the extent to which this is also reflected in teacher-student relationships and CRP. So, PLD that supports teacher growth in embedding CRP is also needed alongside physical design changes.
  • Co-design of spaces with whānau, hapū, kaiako and ākonga is preferred using the principle of ‘ako’. This creates the opportunity for all to learn together about different possibilities for innovative teaching and learning environments that reflect local tikanga and CRP implementation.
  • Consider the physical spaces needed by whānau and hapū, and more broadly of the school as a community hub that supports ākonga development.
  • The visibility of a cultural narrative through physical design contributes to a sense of belonging and connectedness for ākonga.

In the resource, further cultural considerations for school design are provided.

A Māori Moden Learning Environment: Ko Te Akā Pūkaea Kia Ita, Ko Te Akā Pūkaea Kia Eke!

Professor Jenny Lee-Morgan is leading a team of researchers with Te Akā Pūkaea Māori medium education pathways (Newton Central School) to explore the idea of ‘spatial biculturalism’. The term is used by AUT researchers, Stewart and Benade to theorise space from a Kaupapa Māori lens. The TLRI-funded research explored how ‘space’ is understood and utilised by kaiako Māori, ākonga and whānau in two Māori medium pathways, within the wider English medium school context.

The research paper provides a review of literature in the field, and recognises that there is not yet a strong body of research or knowledge to support an in-depth understanding of the intersections of ILEs and Kaupapa Māori physical design aspirations.

As increasing numbers of English medium schools work toward giving effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, spatial design plays a critical part. Stewart and Benade (2020) write that the idea of bicultural education as a form of social justice can be aligned with the concept of ‘spatial justice’. Drawing on the work of Soja (2010), spatial justice can become a significant force shaping social action toward decolonising spaces.

In another paper written by the same team of researchers (Mane et al., 2023), ideas related to CRP and ILEs are highlighted as being synergistic. Concepts such as whanaungatanga, ako, tuakana-teina, agentic learning, collaboration, etc., are all afforded greater possibilities within ILE spaces. The spaces are more likely to be flexible, fluid and purposeful for collaboration and collective learning – both for kaiako and ākonga.

Key takeaways

If you are involved in a school property design project, the ideas shared in this article may help. Here are some key ideas to consider. 

Give significant time to co-designing spaces with hapū, whānau, ākonga and kaiako in ways that draw on the concept of ako and reciprocal learning. 

Through a co-design process, develop a cultural narrative that acknowledges the history and culture of mana whenua, and brings to life the associated āhuatanga (characteristic) of the school.

Design teaching and learning spaces that present opportunities for CRP practices to be implemented. These includes ideas such as: 

  • collaborative work spaces for kaiako and ākonga,
  • flexible learning spaces that allow for agency and choice among ākonga,
  • outdoor learning spaces, and using elements of nature for learning, and
  • spaces for performances and sharing of the arts, multipurpose spaces, including whare for wānanga.

These are just some of the examples to support CRP in action. 

Finally, plan for PLD that will strengthen CRP so that space and teaching and learning practices are aligned. 

Additional References

Mane et al (2023). Reviewing flexible learning spaces for Māori-Medium Education. Mai Journal.

Soja E. W. (2010). Seeking spatial justice. University of Minnesota Press.

Stewart G. & Benade L. (2020). Spatial biculturalism for schools in Aotearoa New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 55, 129-131.