Whakapapa is a “WH” Word and it’s the best one


Before we talk more about whakapapa, it’s worth noting that we often use the “Wh” words as a quick way of teaching the basics of a research or inquiry process. These five words give you a quick and easy formula for getting the basics of a story, a report, or getting your head around some subject.

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?

Sometimes we add a sixth word to the sequence:

  • “How”

But I’d like to suggest that there is another “Wh” word that we could add to round off this set which possibly sums up all of the words and actually provides a great framing tool. This word comes from Maori, one of the official languages of New Zealand. Here it is:

  • Whakapapa.

Whakapapa refers to history, background, and genealogy. However, it is so much more than that.

What is Whakapapa?

Whakapapa is a foundational Māori concept that refers to genealogy and kinship. It is the process of tracing our ancestry and lineage through generations, connecting us to our past and our future. In a traditional sense, it is the stories and knowledge passed down from our tūpuna (ancestors).

In the present, it is used in education to help students understand their identity, their place in the world and the stories and values that connect them to their whānau, hapū and iwi. It is also used to help structure learning and to bring Māori values to the classroom.

Back to the WH words

Exploring the whakapapa of something, e.g. a subject, a discipline, an object, a person, a group of people, an organisation, or your own genealogy allows you to actually deal with all of the “Wh” words mentioned above and to investigate the relationships between the parts and the whole.

By adding whakapapa to the traditional list of “Wh” words we can add another dimension to the kinds of conversations and teaching we typically do around this.

How can I introduce whakapapa into my teaching?

Here are some ideas to introduce and use whakapapa in an adult education setting:

  • Storytelling: Encourage the educators to share their own whakapapa stories and experiences to personalize the topic and foster connection among participants.
  • Interactive activity: Facilitate a group activity that involves tracing their own whakapapa or connecting to the whakapapa of a significant place or historical figure.
  • Visual representation: Use graphic organizers or visual aids to demonstrate the interconnectedness of whakapapa and the connections between people and their ancestral heritage.
  • Māori guest speaker: Invite a Māori guest speaker who is knowledgeable about whakapapa to share their insights and perspectives on the topic.
  • Incorporating te reo Māori: Use te reo Māori in the session to connect educators with the language and culture. This could include teaching the pronunciation and meanings of whakapapa-related terms or teaching a traditional whakapapa chant.
  • These approaches aim to make the topic of whakapapa engaging, accessible, and relevant to the adult education context.

Questions for Reflection

Here are some reflective questions for educators to consider when incorporating the concept of “whakapapa” into their practice:

  1. How do I currently address cultural diversity in my teaching?
  2. How can I create opportunities for learners to share their personal and cultural histories in my class?
  3. How can I incorporate cultural elements into my course content to make it more relevant to learners?
  4. How can I foster intercultural understanding among my learners?
  5. How can I use whakapapa to connect course content to learners’ personal experiences and cultural heritage?
  6. How can I support learners in exploring their own whakapapa?
  7. How can I recognize and respect cultural differences in my teaching?
  8. How can I celebrate cultural heritage and promote cultural understanding in my class?

By reflecting on these questions, educators can gain a deeper understanding of how they can incorporate the concept of whakapapa into their practice, creating an inclusive and culturally responsive learning environment that is learner-centred and promotes intercultural understanding.

Looking for more?

Check out this video or watch below:

There’s also another post on whakapapa here.

Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

4 thoughts

  1. You’re on to something and it’s all good. Actually, looking at it like this makes me think of a sociocultural lens. You look at the history of the society, culture, and institution to help ‘place’ and ‘track’ it as it changes.

    I think it’s great, what a good idea.

  2. You are so right Graeme. Now when you use the word ‘whakapapa’ it is not only the genealogy, but all the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ that go with it and you would probably get all the information that you require. Never stopped to think about writing in that sense.

    1. Thanks Michelle…! I think it makes the approach much more organic… and thinking of it like this makes the 5 Wh approach seem less like an old school newspaper reporter…

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