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  • Rainbow Clouds

    Refraction and diffraction of light through ice crystals in the clouds

  • Philippa On The Ice

    Philippa On The Ice Philippa Werry at an Antarctic research camp 2016

New Zealand Science Teacher


The science of Te Reo Māori

The Pounamu science communication game sparked some interesting conversations between New Zealand thinkers. One such conversation began: What if all science was taught in te reo Māori? JO TITO explains.

fern smallRead more about the Pounamu science communication game.

This article by Jo Tito first appeared in New Zealand Science Teacher's 2013 print edition. Download an e-copy.






I remember trying to explain to someone that the Māori word for tree – rakau – contains the science of photosynthesis. You should have seen the reaction. How could that possibly be science? That is ridiculous. Are you kidding me? There is no way that that is science!

And so I continue to explain:

rākau is the Māori word for tree. What is a tree? What does it represent? How is a tree made? What is its form, its structure? What makes it grow? How does a tree contribute to the whole? How can it be used when it is living? How can it be used when it is dead? How does a tree support the land? How does the land support a tree?

rakau – RA is the Māori word for sun. The sun enables growth. Without the sun, that tree can’t grow. Without light (sun), photosynthesis cannot take place.

rakau – AKA is the Māori word for vine or roots. The roots of a tree bring water to the other parts of the plant that enable it to grow. The roots also bring stability to a tree.

rakau – U is to be firm or fixed like a tree. A strong foundation. It also means to arrive by water (a vessel) just like the vines are vessels that carry water to the other parts of the plant.

rakau - AU is Māori for I, me. What is my connection to that tree? How does the tree and me fit into the whole? Connection.

So all this contained in one word! And this is just the short of it.

What if science was as simple as this? What if science embraced curiosity and questions as a way to the answers? What if science embraced the conceptual Māori language as a science itself? What if we all spoke te reo Māori and understood science in this way? What if all scientists could speak te reo Māori? What if all science was taught in te reo Māori?

These are the questions I had as I dived into the world of Pounamu. I was curious to see what sorts of conversations would emerge.

It's nothing new to Māori that science is embedded within te reo Māori, but it's hard to convince people otherwise. My putting it out there in Pounamu both last year at Transit of Venus and this year was to generate conversation and get people's views. As those involved may have seen, some interesting conversations emerged. I must add it is quite a sensitive subject for me – something that I believe in and want to protect – but at the same time, I want people to at least see this perspective.

Some people during the game were actually shocked at some of the things I was posing. But that is the beauty of te reo Māori – it is really as simple as a rākau standing there in the landscape and asking all those questions that come up, and acknowledging the curiosities of our tamariki – that they have value, that those questions they ask as young as two or three are not dumb questions and could actually one day – be the catalyst to change within the science world down the track somewhere.

Last year during the Transit of Venus, a player emailed me when it was all over and we had conversations for a while about te reo Māori and issues facing all New Zealanders. He was a Pākehā middle-aged male, now retired, and I am a Māori artist from Taranaki and Te Arawa with a passion for te reo Māori and science.

Change takes time and I see conversations like this and things like Pounamu as wonderful ways to bring together people to share conversations. People don't have to agree. But if we can meet in the middle somewhere and at least take a look at the other's view point, then that is progress. Some people are not ready for that, others are. 

So where's all this leading? What I want is for this world view to be recognised within the world of science. Not just as an appendage, or an add on, a bit like ‘dial a pōhiri’ – you know when Māori are called up to carry out the ritual of an event – but something that joins other fields of science like biology and chemistry and physics, earth science. Why not Māori science or te reo Māori? The knowledge is all there and there are so many examples out there.

I worry about our tamariki – Māori, especially, because the current education system is not a good fit. In fact it’s not just about Māori – there are plenty of non-Māori kids who do not fit into this system. We need to make science accessible. It needs to be simple, easy to understand, and meet all learning styles. It has to be visual, creative, tactile, aural – all those things. I also believe that science needs to be learner led. 

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