Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Bicultural Early Childhood Curriculum

  • Chris JenkinEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_91-1


With internationalization and globalization, educational services – early childhood through to secondary schools – reflect increasingly multicultural and multilingual communities. Alongside these international changes, since the 1970s, there has been a resurgence in Indigenous peoples claiming recognition of their language and culture. This has been particularly the case in early childhood settings which have been incorporating Indigenous language and culture into their curriculum. For example, the Indigenous Welsh language is encouraged in early childhood services but on a voluntary basis. In Australia, there have been moves to ensure that education programs support all students to understand and acknowledge the Indigenous cultures. In counties such as Canada, Belgium, and Finland, there are bicultural and bilingual curricula.

However, the focus here is on the one country with a compulsory bicultural curriculum foregrounding its Indigenous people’s language and culture. That country is Aotearoa New Zealand. Therefore the definition of “bicultural” in this context refers to any person’s personal ethnic identification plus engagement with, and at least basic understanding of, the Indigenous culture. For a person who identifies as Indigenous, the dominant culture is the other culture. Thus a focus on a “bicultural curriculum” is foregrounding an Indigenous culture alongside the dominant culture, and that curriculum is mandated through a national education system.

Because of its pioneering of a bicultural approach to education from national policy through to classroom experiences of teachers and students, Aotearoa New Zealand is a case study of the aspirations and challenges of creating and enacting bicultural curriculum for all children: from early childhood through to secondary school.

The formal enactment of the bicultural curriculum started with Te Whāriki, [“the woven mat”] which was first published in 1996 and revised in 2017 (Ministry of Education 1996, 2017). Te Whāriki is the early childhood curriculum for Aotearoa New Zealand. It was the first national curriculum for early childhood anywhere in the world, and it was New Zealand’s first mandated bicultural curriculum. Its framework consists of principles and strands which reflect Māori concept of Mana which position children as “competent and confident learners, strong in their identity, language and culture” (Ministry of Education 2017, p. 2). Within Te Whāriki, mana is defined as “the power of people, authority, prestige, spiritual power, status and control” (p. 66), and this is the overarching Māori concept that permeates Te Whāriki. Mana is key to understanding of what it means to be human in Māori culture.

Te Tiriti o Waitangi/The Treaty of Waitangi

After James Cook’s arrival in Aotearoa New Zealand in 1769, there was a gradual influx of mainly British immigrants (sealers and whalers, missionaries, explorers, traders, and settlers) over the next 70 years. For Indigenous Māori there were growing challenges over such matters as land sales and the behavior of the newcomers (e.g., drunkenness, treatment of the Māori women, and the breaking of protocols). This led to several petitions and deputations to the British Crown, culminating in the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 by representatives of the Crown and some 500 Māori chiefs. Although often linked together as one document – Te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi – there are in effect two treaties as the treaty signed by Māori chiefs was significantly different than the English version (Orange 2013).

Te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi guaranteed Māori rights but was largely ignored for over a century by successive governments and legal decisions; however, it now serves as a constitutional cornerstone for government policy. Its aspirations have remained alive in Te Ao Māori [the Māori world] for more than a century of colonization and emerged into mainstream politics in 1975 with the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal which allowed colonial grievances to research, determine, and open up options for compensation.

It is important to note that colonial education was initially missionary run and often delivered in Te Reo Māori [the Māori language]. However, the creation of a national education system in 1879 led to prominence given to English language and culture and later to the outlawing of Te Reo Māori in school. Māori protests in the 1970s led to a treaty settlement process being established and further awareness of Māori concerns (Simons 1994). In 1987 the Māori Language Act came into force, making Te Reo Māori an official language. By the late 1980s, 150 years after the signing of Te Tiriti, many early childhood services committed themselves to honoring the treaty. But a national mandate for a bicultural curriculum only became legislated 6 years later with the publishing of Te Whāriki, which set a foundation for later bicultural curriculum development in the compulsory sector (primary and secondary schools). Importantly key aspects of bicultural practice were enacted throughout the consultation process prior to the formalizing of the early childhood curriculum. This process occurred over 14 months and involved early childhood teachers, academics, a Ministry of Education-appointed advisory group, and most importantly, partnership with Māori. Thus, the curriculum was informed by Māori concepts at every step, in order to produce a bicultural, bilingual document.

Te Whāriki: The Early Childhood Curriculum for Aotearoa New Zealand

The national early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki can be understood in multiple ways. The name itself – Te Whāriki – introduces the powerful metaphor of curriculum as a “mat.” Two particularly important aspects are that a large woven mat is a gathering place for a family or a community; thus a mat is where all can be made welcome. So the Māori concept of manaakitanga [responsibility to be generous] is evident in this positioning of an education as a place of welcome and of hospitality. The second key aspect of the metaphor of “the mat” is the visibility of both a warp and a weft within the mat – that the structure is evident to those who look closely. This metaphor – that ideas can be woven – is extended to introduce the idea of the curriculum as existing both at a local level and incorporating national requirements; the threads of context and national requirements have to be woven together. The national requirements – those identified in Te Whāriki – are also seen as woven. Thus, Te Whāriki is structured using the metaphors of “strands” that are interwoven with “principles” to create the mandated curriculum.

These principles and strands within the curriculum direct adults in early childhood centers to address Tiriti-based issues. They do so by promoting and practicing tikanga [customs] and Te Reo Māori and by liaising with Māori in order to include their contribution and collaboration within programs.

From the outset, underlying a national curriculum for early childhood was the importance, not only for Māori children but equally for non-Māori children, of appreciation and acknowledgment of the bicultural nature of New Zealand society. There is a requirement that Māori knowledge of spirituality, human development, stories, events, activities, places, and artifacts be included in every early childhood setting and available to all children: “In early childhood education settings, all children should be given the opportunity to develop knowledge and understanding of the cultural heritages of both partners to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. The curriculum reflects this partnership in text and structure” (Ministry of Education 2017, p. 1).

Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education 1996, 2017) is written in both English and Te Reo Māori. The English section is intended for “mainstream” services – which cover all early childhood services other than those offering an immersion Te Reo Māori service to families. The sections in Te Reo Māori are designed to provide guidelines for Te Kōhanga Reo and other Māori immersion programs. While the principles and strands are the same for both Te Reo Māori and mainstream services, the sections are not direct translations – one to the other. For example, suggestions for practice differ. Other sections of Te Whāriki also include Te Tiriti o Waitangi and its place in education, pathways to school, teacher responsibilities and assessment, planning, and evaluation.

Center Practices

In the development of Te Whāriki, important concepts from Māori childhood were selected to become the principles and strands of the early childhood curriculum. By taking the principles and interlacing them with the strands, each center and service can weave their unique “mat” – their own local curriculum. The principles and strands of Te Whāriki can be woven in different ways to reflect individual programs devised by teams of early childhood educators. This recognition of the local curriculum enables, for example, the explicit philosophies and pedagogies such as Montessori, Steiner, and Pasifika to be incorporated within the weaving of each unique “mat,” the local curriculum as experienced by children and their families (Williams and Broadly 2012).


Whakamana/Empowerment: As teachers embody this principle in their work with children, they are mindful to value each child, thus empowering them to learn. Listening to and embracing children’s cultural contributions are important. Teachers can also empower each other, as through teamwork they plan and support, building on their bicultural knowledge to expand collective skills. In this process, family and community can contribute to also be empowered alongside their children. With a focus on building on already existing bicultural strengths, the knowledge and skills can be shared.

Kotahitanga/Holistic Development: The five domains of development – cognitive, physical, cultural, interpersonal (social), and intrapersonal (emotional, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual) – are all incorporated when considering the development of a child. Thus in working with young children, teachers consider the child as a holistic being rather than catering separately for different aspects of development. Understanding children’s different world views and their cultural expressions of these enhances holistic growth.

Whānau Tangata/Family and Community: The concept of family and community in the wider world is an integral part of the early childhood curriculum. Teachers foster an early childhood center where diverse family and community feel valued, welcomed, and at home, as they share with parents and the wider family the child’s experiences and activities during their time at the center. Teachers invite reciprocal collaboration and for family to share the child’s involvements beyond the center, as well as encouraging and empowering people important in the child’s life to contribute to the planning and the early childhood center life. Teachers can ensure meaningful collaboration about planning for children’s holistic development, as well as valuing and encouraging Te Reo Māori and children’s home languages.

Ngā Hononga/Relationships: There is an expectation that children learn and grow through reciprocal, responsive relationships with diverse and familiar people, places, and objects. Excursions to forests, beaches, libraries, and local places of significance to Māori, such as marae [Māori meeting houses], are opportunities for children to develop awareness and understanding of Indigenous protocols. Museums can provide an introduction to cultural partnerships between Māori and Pākehā through historical artifacts. Visitors to the center, both those familiar and new to the children, have the potential to support children’s diverse cultures, interests, and knowledges. These relationships have the potential to be both reciprocal and responsive.

The four principles of the early childhood curriculum described above form the warp of the flax from which to start weaving the whāriki. It is the strands that are the weft. Within the strands of Te Whāriki, the Māori concept of Mana is given prominence.


Mana Atua/Well-Being: The meaning of Mana Atua from a Māori perspective incorporates the spiritual and sacred, and this is expressed through greetings, farewells, and acknowledging spirituality before eating. The health and well-being of children are protected through both Māori and western perceptions, which is what early childhood teachers are expected to implement. From a bicultural perspective, teachers need to consider spiritual aspects of children’s well-being as well as consider customs for protection of themselves and the environment. Fostering of relationships between older and younger children is important in Māori culture, so children learn from role modelling to be caring and taking responsibility for each other.

Mana Whenua/Belonging: The concept of Mana Whenua has to be present not only for children but also for their families and communities. Children feel at ease and show a sense of belonging when teachers build strong relationships with their families and communities through collaborative and reciprocal planning with the people important to children. Parents and the wider family know they are welcomed and belong, through the actions of the teachers and the presence of symbols and language from their culture, within the environment. Children become familiar with the landscape and local area where the center is situated and are aware of the significant songs and stories for Māori belonging to that place. Caring for the natural environment, including animals and birds, is important.

Mana Tangata/Contribution: Each child’s contribution is uniquely valued as is their cultural contribution to the local curriculum. This is recognized in the whāriki that is woven for each child utilizing their unique contributions, such as their home languages. Teachers encourage children and their families to contribute expressions of their culture (music, art, stories, drama, symbols) to the program for all children to understand and enjoy. Events of cultural significance (such as Matariki, the Māori New Year) become incorporated into the program. Respect and reciprocity are integral to the program as partnerships are built and fostered between children as well as between their families. Families and children are encouraged to discover and contribute natural resources to science, nature, and art, for example.

Mana Reo/Communication: Language and symbols of both Māori and Pākehā should be promoted and protected. Visual displays of Te Reo Māori are common in early childhood services, as well as regular engagement with Māori songs and stories. Additionally, artifacts, poetry, art and language, viewing carvings and sculptures, and places of cultural significance can be promoted in the program. As teachers role model their growing fluency, children become confident in expanding their linguistic abilities and cultural knowledge. Older children will also role model their growing competency in Te Reo Māori and Tikanga to younger children.

Mana Aotūroa/Exploration: Exploring their environment is an essential aspect of what children do in the early years. Children have the opportunity to explore their local environment and can learn – even in early childhood – about the histories and the people who have gone before them. They explore ways to care for these environments, to learn about nature without destruction, and to begin to understand the connections to Māori concepts, protocol spirituality, and the arts.

Teacher Education

The Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand is the professional body for teachers, regardless of the affiliated sector (early childhood, primary, or secondary), which sets teaching standards and registers teachers, as well as sets the requirements for and approval of all Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programs. There are seven standards which new graduates need to meet in order to get provisional teacher registration and a practicing certificate. ITE programs are measured and approved to ensure their curriculum will enable graduates to meet these standards, including competencies in aspects of Tikanga and Te Reo Māori. Thus, ITE programs are required to ensure that their graduates are competent to teach the bicultural curriculum. These professional standards apply to all registered teachers – early childhood through to secondary school.

ITE programs generally have specific Māori language and culture courses as well as weaving bicultural teaching pedagogies into the experiences of student teachers. Early childhood student teachers are expected to demonstrate competency in these areas when on teaching placements. Further, once graduated, teachers are expected to meet registration standards in Te Reo Māori and tikanga which means ongoing professional learning.

The Challenges of a Bicultural Curriculum

There are, of course, challenges with implementation of the bicultural aspects of Te Whāriki. One challenge is that Te Whāriki is a complex and non-prescriptive curriculum; it more closely resembles a philosophy – or a broad approach to education. The 2017 revised version of Te Whāriki has 21 learning outcomes for children; however, these are quite broad, enabling space for professional interpretation. However extensive research and professional development are ongoing (see, e.g., Ritchie and Rau 2008). These indicate that bicultural delivery can be achieved by supportive management enabling teachers to work in teams to support each other, taking ownership of the challenge of a bicultural curriculum, and building on existing strengths within an early childhood community (Jenkin 2016).

Another challenge is that the bicultural curriculum is generally delivered by nonindigenous teachers. The depth of knowledge of tikanga and Te Reo Māori that can be obtained through ITE is limited, and thus bicultural competency requires personal professional commitment. However over time, the success of the bicultural curriculum will be the growing number of people arriving in teacher education with an existing depth of knowledge about Tikanga and Te Reo Māori, as well as the significance of Te Tiriti/The Treaty.

There are further challenges to consider when the bicultural curriculum is explored in contexts outside Aotearoa New Zealand. However, key aspects of the New Zealand experience may be relevant – such as identifying key Indigenous concepts – when working collaboratively with Indigenous communities to explore understandings about the nature of being human and the place of education. In the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, that concept was Mana.

However, what may be more difficult to replicate is the presence of a treaty between colonizers and the Indigenous people. In the case of Aotearoa New Zealand, Te Tiriti o Waitangi/The Treaty of Waitangi guarantees Indigenous rights and provides a template for partnership between the Indigenous people and colonizers including in educational settings – generations and generations after it was originally signed.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Auckland University of TechnologyAucklandNew Zealand

Section editors and affiliations

  • Sue Stover
    • 1
  • Valerie Margrain
    • 2
  1. 1.Auckland University of Technology, New ZealandAucklandNew Zealand
  2. 2.Faculty of Humanities and Social SciencesKarlstad UniversityKarlstadSweden