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Teaching within culture and heritage environments

In this step we consider some of the unique opportunities and challenges of teaching within culture and heritage environments in Aotearoa.
Group of visitors exploring Māori carvings outside at Manea Footpints of Kupe with one visitor greeting an ancestral carved figure with a hongi or pressing of noses

In this step we consider some of the unique opportunities and challenges of teaching within culture and heritage environments in Aotearoa.

Culture and heritage educators

As educators working within culture and heritage contexts we have a special role to play. Our interactions with students can bring culture and heritage sites to life and create memorable learning experiences. Working as an educator within a culture and heritage context is distinctly different from teaching within a school or other formal education setting, and could be conceived as more challenging, however the stimulating environments we work within are full of rich learning opportunities. What are some of these challenges and opportunities?

Making connections, welcoming students

One of the challenges for us is that we often have a limited time frame within which to enable learning and engagement when students visit our organisations. Therefore we need to quickly establish rapport upon student’s arrival in our spaces. One way of doing this is to whakawhanaungatanga | establishing relationships with students when they arrive. This could be achieved by sending a pre-visit activity to students which enables them to describe who they are prior to the visit, or it can be done at the beginning of a visit or online interaction. It could become a reciprocal pre-visit activity e.g. the educator could introduce themselves via a short video recording or social story that is sent to schools in advance of their visit.

Educators at Manea Footprints of Kupe design short activities for students to participate in when they arrive at their site, to enable a connection to be formed. They sometimes use a map and invite students to pin where they or their whānau are from, then begin a conversation about those places to ensure students feel a sense of belonging. Educators at the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa research the local area and local iwi | tribe of the schools who visit prior to their arrival, so that when they meet they can talk about where they are from and form a connection. What ideas do you have for ice breakers or ‘getting to know you’ activities? What other challenges are there for teaching within a culture and heritage environment?


Educators in culture and heritage sites have the opportunity to provide a wide range of different types of learning interactions and education services. Teaching students face to face within our organisations is only one aspect of our work. We can also provide teaching resources to be used prior to or following a visit, or independently by teachers in the classroom, teacher professional development workshops, outreach education visits to students in different learning settings, self-guided learning activities for students, teachers and whānau to use independently at our sites, distance or online virtual learning experiences etc. Educators in culture and heritage contexts sometimes have the opportunity to collaborate with teachers to co-design bespoke learning experiences that meet the needs of their students. What types of learning interactions, education services or bespoke learning experiences could you add to this list?

Big ideas

The way we design and facilitate our educational interactions can provide meaningful, inspiring and memorable learning experiences. At culture and heritage sites we have the opportunity to enable students to consider big ideas that transcend individual subject areas within the curriculum. We can pose questions and stimulate debate. Wencke Maderbacher, writing an article in 2020 for ICOM The International Council of Museums, conceived culture and heritage educators as ‘cultural mediators’ who ‘initiate inclusive learning… they inform, moderate and encourage social and cultural debates within museums or cultural institutions and across society’.

This view of educators as facilitators of debate within culture and heritage organisations is a useful one. It moves us away from a didactic approach of simply re-telling histories or sharing facts, towards a focus on encouraging critical thinking, careful observation and analysis and enabling students to make meaningful connections and articulate personal responses. What are examples of some big ideas students could grapple with at culture and heritage sites? How would you form open provocative questions to stimulate debate and critical thinking?

Ministry support

The Ministry of Education promotes the need for educators beyond the classroom to show meaningful bicultural partnerships with mana whenua knowledge holders, and use Māori language when teaching and learning to support national identity. They encourage organisations to support every learner including disabled, neurodiverse, gifted, and those at risk of disengagement from education. What measures do you have in place to ensure you are able to support every learner?

The Ministry of Education provides guidelines for education providers outside the classroom, and case studies of good practice. The case studies show that educators working in sites beyond the classroom in Aotearoa are ‘highly regarded and provide access to knowledge that would not otherwise be available to teachers and students…as experts in their field, [they] simulate and extend student learning’. Case studies of good practice in culture and heritage education are very important for the sector to grow and develop by learning from peers. How do you document the impact of the unique learning that takes place at your organisation and share it beyond your walls?

Teaching with taonga

In Aotearoa when teaching with taonga | Māori artefacts there are several cultural concepts and related protocols that we need to be mindful of. Certain taonga may be tapu | sacred, prohibited or forbidden, they may contain wairua | spirit, they might hold mauri | life force, they could embody important whakapapa | genealogical connections with people and they may hold mana | prestige, authority, power or control. Learning about taonga contributes to our understanding of matauranga Māori, Māori indigenous knowledge, and can give us insights into te ao Māori, the Māori world. Any of these special features of taonga Māori artefacts might require particular kawa | principals or tikanga | protocols to be followed. How do these unique cultural features relate to your work?

Intangible culture and heritage

Pūrākau | stories, legends, and indigenous knowledge are important aspects of the intangible culture associated with culture and heritage organisations. According to the 2019 UNESCO report ‘Education can play a valuable role in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage.’ The report goes on to acknowledge that teaching is ‘a dynamic interactive process through which intangible cultural heritage is constantly recreated from one generation to the next’. The report describes how students experienced an increase in relevance of learning and motivation to learn, as some of the positive benefits of first language learning and indigenous knowledge within cultural heritage education. How do you integrate first language learning, indigenous knowledge or Māori legends into your teaching?

The opportunity to enable students to gain greater insight into how they relate to and connect with aspects of their culture and heritage and/or the culture and heritage of the place they live in can be a very rewarding outcome of teaching within culture and heritage contexts. What other opportunities for impacting students’ learning are unique to educators in culture and heritage contexts?

Post any initial comments you might have about teaching within culture and heritage contexts below.

In the next step, we ask you to discuss your thoughts about the opportunities and challenges of teaching in culture and heritage contexts.

Extend your learning! To find out more about topics covered in this article, follow the links below.

Education Outside The Classroom

Te Papa Tongarewa Matauranga Māori Research

Digital NZ stories

Māori Television pūrakau

National Library topic search

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Enriching curriculum through culture and heritage in Aotearoa, New Zealand

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