14 Foolproof Concepts from Te Ao Maori we use in Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Aotearoa New Zealand

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14 Concepts from Te Ao Maori we use in Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Aotearoa New Zealand
Get my eBook on Learner-Centred Teaching

Māori Concepts

The purpose of the following is to provide you with a framework for adult literacy and numeracy using Māori concepts. These concepts are often holistic and can apply to many aspects of life including education.

Definitions, too, can vary among different groups. These definitions were taken from a number of sources including the latest available version unit standard 21204.

If effective LN teaching is a two story house, think of these concepts as the foundations that you might need to lay before you can build a delivery of effective LN teaching on top.


Whakapapa refers to genealogy, history, stages of development. This is another one that’s important in adult literacy.

Knowledge about who you are (identity) and where you come (background) from are integral to Māori literacy and numeracy. Whakapapa helps connect people to knowledge about the world through stories and narrative. Whakapapa also means that the learners are central to the learning.

For Māori, whakapapa is always the starting place. Learning to whakapapa opens up the whole person and helps create relationship and connections. Also, everything has a whakapapa, not just people. Everything comes from somewhere. The story of where something or someone comes from is whakapapa.


Whanaungatanga comes from the word whanau or family and refers to nation, society, community, relationships. The family or extended family forms the basic unit of Māori society into which an individual was born and socialised. A simple way to understand whanaungatanga is that it is all about relationship. Sometimes it’s described as a process of getting to know each other.

Sometimes it’s used to describe the relationship ‘glue’ that holds people together in any whanau-type relationship. Just think of a rugby team, forestry gang, or similar arrangement where people work, play, and often socialise together.

In tough times, it’s the relationship-glue of whanaungatanga that causes the whanau to gather round, provide support, and put the needs of the group before the needs of individuals.


Kaitiakitanga refers to the practical doing; and rules and tikanga of adult literacy and numeracy education (or other field); the tutor is a kaitiaki (caregiver) of the learner’s knowledge so that the student can practise according to their needs/wants.

The term comes from Kaitiaki. Traditionally, a Kaitiaki was a guardian of the sky, the sea, and the land. The process and practices of protecting and looking after the environment are referred to as kaitiakitanga. The term kaitiaki is also increasingly used for broader roles of trusteeship or guardianship, and education as noted in the definition above.

Update: There’s more on Kaitiakitanga here.

Mana atua

Mana atua refers to spirit/spirituality, well-being, sacred power of the ‘Gods’.
Literally, mana atua means the mana, or sacred power and authority, of God (or gods). In education Mana Atua has come to refer to well-being.

The concept of well-being encompasses the physical, mental and emotional, social, and spiritual dimensions of health. This concept is recognised by the World Health Organisation.

Mana whenua

Mana whenua refers to the power of the land, importance, beliefs, belonging.

Literally, mana whenua means the mana or power that comes from the land. Traditionally, this refers to Māori territorial rights, power associated with possession and occupation of tribal land. The tribe’s history and legends are based in the lands they have occupied over generations and the land provides the sustenance for the people and to provide hospitality for guests.

In education, mana whenua has come to represent the concept of belonging. Learners should feel a sense of belonging – that they literally and metaphorically have a place to stand. The education setting should be secure and safe, a place where each person is respected and accepted for who they are.

Mana tangata

Mana tangata refers to identity; individual cultures; the power an individual gains through their abilities, efforts, and taking advantage of all opportunities, and contributing to others.

Literally, the mana of people, mana tangata refers to the power and status gained through one’s leadership talents, strength of character, from basic human rights, or by birthright. In education, mana tangata refers to an individual’s contribution to the learning process – a process where opportunities for learning should be equitable and each learner’s contribution is valued.

The idea is that learning and development occurs through active participation in activities and through collaboration with others in a programme that builds on individual strengths and allows others to “make their mark” as well as develop satisfying relationships. This involves interactions with others, learning to take another’s point of view, empathising with others, to ask for help, see themselves as a help for others, and discussing their ideas.

Mana reo

Communication. Mana reo refers to the power or authority of language, as the life force of mana Māori, communication.

Mana ao turoa

Mana ao tūroa refers to strengthening abilities; manipulating the environment to suit personal strengths and situations; exploration.

Te mana ao turoa translates literally as the mana of the wider world around us, of nature, or the earth. In education, mana ao turoa refers to the concept of learning through an exploration of the environment. All aspects of the environment – the natural, social, physical, and material worlds – are part of the context of learning.

Tino rangatiratanga

Tino rangatiratanga refers to determination by Māori of issues that impact on Māori; the learners’ right to define their powers of decision-making, leading to their independence

Taken literally, rangatira means chief and the suffix -tanga implies the quality or attributes of chieftainship. The addition of intensifier tino in this context means the phrase can be translated as ‘absolute/unqualified chieftainship’. Its closest English translation is self-determination.


Ako refers to the traditional Māori thinking about the transfer and absorption of skills, knowledge, wisdom, experience, much of which has traditionally occurred in the course of everyday activities. It implies ‘learn’ and ‘instruct’ at the same time.

In English we use two words – learn and teach. This is not the case in Māori . Rather the word ako is simply used for both learn as well as teach. In the Māori world it is acceptable practise for the learner to shift roles and become the teacher and for the teacher to become the learner.

The simplest way to understand ako is that it means: sometimes learner, sometimes teacher. The concept of ako allows for an alternative to traditional Western methods of teaching. Consider the following two different models of teaching and learning. The arrows indicate the transmission of knowledge.


Tuakana-teina refers to the relationship between an older (tuakana) person and a younger (teina) person, and is specific to teaching and learning in the context of Māori. Within teaching and learning this can take a variety of forms:

  • Peer-to-peer – teina teaches teina, tuakana teaches tuakana
  • Younger to older – the teina has some skills in an area that the tuakana does not   and is able to teach the tuakana.
  • Older to younger – the tuakana has the knowledge and content to pass on to the     teina
  • Able to less able – the learner may not be as able in an area, and someone more     skilled can teach what is required.

Tuakana-teina is a mentoring approach where typically the mentors (tuakana) share their experiences, and their knowledge as well as provide information. The tuakana is a support person and adviser for the teina and the teina gives the tuakana a chance to learn new things and meet new people. This is ako in action.

Kōrero, titiro, whakarongo

Kōrero refers to speaking. Titiro refers to, looking, observing. Whakarongo refers to listening.



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This is the plain-English introduction to literacy and numeracy that you’ve been looking for to help you understand what everyone else Is talking about.

Author: Graeme Smith

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

14 thoughts

  1. Very direct explanation of the relevance of the use of these Maori concepts in education. I am doing a course and this helped immensely in half of one task that I had to complete. It would have helped the entire task if I wasn’t too lazy and went back through the entire task and based it on your article! 🙂 Thank you again for writing this.

    1. Hi Dan. You’re welcome. Thanks for the feedback. I’m pleased it was useful for you. We use this content in the second assessment of the National Cert in Adult Literacy and Numeracy. Just one slight caveat: These explanations are kind of the standard “party line” and some of it comes from the NZQA special notes to Unit Standard 21204. The caution is that for some Iwi and hapu these words and concepts carry different meanings. This was a big source of confusion for me when I was trying to figure out what the words meant when I started this work. So as well as different shades of meaning, when you talk about these words with different people don’t be surprised if it sounds like people start by talking about one concept and then it sounds like they’ve shifted to another. This is not to confuse you, but just so you’re aware of what’s going on. All the best with your course. Kia kaha! Graeme

  2. Kia ora Graeme,
    What does this look like in the student material for literacy and numeracy? Is the incorporation of these concepts explicit or implicit?

    1. I’m not an expert on this so I’m just giving you my personal opinion here. I think that incorporation of these principles can sit anywhere on a continuum of explicit to implicit depending on the context. But I think a better answer is that in order to be visible, they they require human beings rather than student material. Concepts like ako, tuakana-teina, kaitiakitanga, whakawhanaungatanga have to be experienced in real time by people (in my experience). This means that they are less of a feature of materials and more something that happens during teaching or facilitation. Materials do reflect a certain kaupapa, but you can’t negotiate this for the learners without a group of learners in real time. What do you think?

      1. I’m reviewing learning content for adult foundation learners (distance learning) who are predominantly Māori. I’m aware of what these concepts are from a pedagogical angle, but have not yet seen good examples (purely subjective) of what these look like in learning material/resources and in contexts that are not specifically Māori. I’ve made key recommendations that align with the Kaupapa Māori theory and Te Ao Māori Concepts for foundation learners. Thanks for responding.

      2. Sounds like a good approach. I’d love to hear more of what works for distance adult foundation learners, particular Maori and Pasifika. Would make a great workshop or conference paper. Kind regards, G

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