culture icon

Culture and Identity

This writing explores some aspects of culture and disability.


What is Culture? 

What does Culture mean? 

This YouTube clip provides some ideas about culture. 

Culture - 

  • is complex and difficult to define
  • means different things to different people
  • is a complex whole made of many parts
  • identifies different groups of people and defines their separateness
  • includes tradition
  • is a set of attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviours shared by a group of people, but different for each individual, communicated from one generation to the next
  • and people are inseparable
  • can be defined by shared experiences 
  • can be defined by shared values that reinforce a sense of community

Culture flower

A ‘culture’ is a history and set of deeply-held values, beliefs, norms, systems, language, practices and experiences that are shared and lived by a group of people.
We can understand ‘culture’ as a broader concept than ‘ethnicity’. Sometimes a culture is related to a shared experience rather than a physical place. Disability, spiritual beliefs and practices, age, gender, sexuality and common interests are all examples of cultural groupings that allow people to identify with each other in relation to shared experiences. Individuals are members of many cultural groups simultaneously, but the importance of a specific cultural identifier depends largely on context and the situation. Full participation within a culture cannot happen without a sense of belonging to it. That sense of belonging to a culture is essential for every person’s health, well-being and identity.

Schools and all institutions and groups can be viewed culturally. They develop dominant cultural norms, values and practices. Acknowledging the inherent complexities and fluidity of culture is the first step to understanding that not everyone thinks the same way or values the same things. Part of creating an inclusive school involves working on school culture and helping teachers, students, families and the wider community to listen, engage and contribute and to identify and negotiate their values and aspirations.

Connected aspects of culture: 

values attitudes beleifs customs

Activity: Reflective questions

  1. What groups and cultures do you identify with?
  2. What groups of people, cultures and ideas would you like to learn more about?
  3. How might you go about learning about people and experiences that are different from yours?
  4. What are some important things you are learning or thinking about from listening to the young people in the Voices project?

Culture and Education

What do we mean by culture and Education? 

New Zealand is a nation of many cultures.
Cultural diversity is a valued aspect of community.

NZ diversityaction


The excerpts below were written by Maori educationalist Mere Berryman. They are important ideas about teaching and learning.
“As our education systems become more culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse, rather than benefiting and learning from each other, we expect students to be represented within the same policies, curriculum, pedagogy and testing regimens, or we form separate enclaves and the differences become more pronounced (p. 199).

Partnership with Maori

“The disparities that are associated with ongoing power imbalances as a result of ethnic, cultural and language diversity often means that including children’s with disabilities in education can be challenging at many levels” (p. 210).

“Kaupapa Maori requires forming and acknowledging relationships with others … This can only be achieved within “non-dominating relationships of interdependence” (p. 200).

Culturally-responsive teaching means power relationships must be disestablished so people can genuinely respect each other and work collaboratively ... Within the educational processes that occur,  it is essential that the wholeness of the child is not lost (2014).

“If the education system in Aotearoa New Zealand is serious about achieving the Ministry of Education’s vision of a fully inclusive education system (2014), then urgent attention needs to be paid to ensuring that Maori thinking and knowledge is central to  culturally responsive and inclusive policy development, and programme selection; not to be viewed as merely an add-on (by way of a cultural enhancement) to evidence-based programmes that emanate from another world view perspective. Only then will the policies of inclusion that underpin processes and practices be fully inclusive of, congruent and relevant for, Maori (Macfarlane, Macfarlane, & Gillon, 2014, p. 267).

Culturally Responsive Teaching 

Culturally responsive teaching is based on creating a culture of care and welcoming warmth in a classroom. A culture of care values each student of the class and the teacher regardless of their culture or way of being. In a culture of care everyone’s strengths come together to support a classroom culture as well as each student’s learning (Bishop & Berryman, 2006; Monchinski, 2010; Noddings, 2012).
Evidence shows Maori students are marginalised when their culture is not prioritised in all aspects of the school curriculum. Building a partnership based on understanding and respect between teachers, parents, whānau, hapū and iwi will support all Māori students to achieve success as Māori. You can learn more by exploring this link here.

What is culturally responsive pedagogy? 

Culturally responsive teaching means the children’s diverse cultures are drawn on to make the curriculum meaningful and to help children engage in their learning (Macfarlane, Macfarlane, Savage, & Glynn, 2012).

Teaching Maori or Pasifika students with disabilities

The essence of good teaching for all students, including disabled students, is always built on quality relationships. Effective pedagogy and an ethic of care help shape the curriculum.
It is important we value cultural diversity and recognise and welcome different ways of being. Quality teaching cannot happen without quality relationships (MacArthur, McIlroy, & Howard, 2018; Macartney, 2008; McIlroy, 2017).
Quality teaching is the best evidence based teaching practice to enact the vision of the New Zealand curriculum for young people to be “competent, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 7).
You may like to read:
Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling: Best Evidence Synthesis (Alton-Lee, 2003)

The caring relation in teaching (Noddings, 2012). Click here to download the paper. 

Maori Students

Inclusive practice means Maori Students can learn as Maori students.

You can learn more about this topic at:

What is a culture of learning? 

A culture of learning is one where all members are valued as learners in a shared curriculum. In a school this means teachers and children learn from and with each other. Learning happens in the classroom, the playground and the community.(Morton, Rietveld, Guerin, McIlroy, & Duke, 2012).

Think about Kathrine's experiences at school as you reflect on these questions: 

  • How can we support whānau /families and “children to bring their experiences to the classroom and see that they are legitimate, official, acceptable and accepted?”
  • To succeed and achieve, do students fit in and leave their “culture at the door”? 
  • What happens to students who don’t want to or find it difficult or impossible to “fit in”?
  • Whose responsibility is it to change and how?

Disability as Cultural Identity

Disabled people, like ethnic and other social groups, share a set of experiences related to being a minority group which experiences exclusion and is at risk of being marginalised within our society. For many disabled people, their disability is an influential and important part of their identity, experience, relationships and life. Understanding disability as a cultural experience can open spaces for pride, celebration, positive identity, optimism, social action and change to grow.

Disability Culture is largely aligned with the principles and understandings of human and disability rights from a ‘social model’ perspective (MacArthur, 2009; Thomas, 2004; Tregaskis, 2004).

Disability represents a distinct and positive social identity.

Disability culture counters deficit beliefs and structures that oppress people labelled as ‘different’. Its core values include respecting and celebrating human differences, recognising human vulnerability, valuing interdependence, tolerance for unpredictability in life, and the use of shock and humour to challenge stereotypes and communicate disability rights messages.

What is Cultural Responsiveness? 

Cultural responsiveness involves looking at ourselves and our own beliefs and practices alongside learning from individuals and groups we experience as different from ourselves. Many of the central themes within culturally responsive practice are the same as those identified by the young disabled people in the Voices Project. Shared themes include human rights, identity and relationships.

Cultural responsiveness involves:

  • Respecting, listening to and learning from all individuals and groups
  • Working in partnership with children, young people, families and the wider community including cultural communities
  • Recognising and removing barriers to learning, partnership and participation 
  • On-going questioning and development of norms, assumptions, beliefs and practices
  • Supporting students’ belonging - mana whenua

What ‘belonging’ (mana whenua) looks like, varies for different individuals and groups. Within Māori society, belonging is related to connections between people and the land. Connections between people and to the land are based on tribe (iwi) and sub-tribe (hapū), kinship (whānau), history and whakapapa - genealogy of whānau, hapū and iwi.

All students need to hear and learn about local and national Māori and Pākehā history, people, places and events of significance. It is important for teachers to learn about and acknowledge the whakapapa of each Māori child in their setting. 

Maori Cultural Models

Below are some examples of approaches and resources to support educators. The models respond to aspects of Maori culture. They are a sample of resources available to provide teaching and learning support.


Ministry resource


Tātaiako is designed for teachers in early childhood education (ECE) services and in primary and secondary schools, it will support your work to personalise learning for and with Māori learners, to ensure they enjoy educational success as Māori.

You can explore more at:

Tuākana Tēina

Tuākana (‘big brother/sister’) / Tēina (little brother /sister) is a model that supports family/ whānau values. Practices are based on older and/or responsible children and young people caring and providing for younger members of their whānau and community.

You can explore more at:

Te Whare Tapa Whā

Sir Mason Durie developed Te Whare Tapa Whā in 1982. Itis based on a Māori cultural view of health and wellness centred around four dimensions. Te Whare Tapa Whā provides a framework for a holistic view of a child and their whānau and can be applied to develop culturally responsive and inclusive pedagogy.

You can learn more at:


Te Wheke

The Te Wheke model was developed and published by Tūhoe educationalist and leader Rose Pere.

Traditional Māori health acknowledges the link between the mind, the spirit, the human connection with whānau, and the physical world in a way that is seamless and uncontrived.


Rose Pere uses Te Wheke - the octopus- as a metaphor for understanding and representing personal and whānau/family health and well-being. The head of the octopus represents te whānau, the eyes of the octopus represent waiora (total wellbeing for the individual and family) and each of the eight tentacles represents a specific dimension of health. The dimensions are interwoven and this is represented by the close relationship of the tentacles.                                          

You can learn more about Te Wheke at:

Educultural Wheel

The Educultural wheel


The Educultural Wheel shown above (Macfarlane, 2004) offers a framework for introducing culturally inclusive classroom strategies premised on five core values that underpin an Indigenous Māori world view.

These values will also contribute to creating and maintaining a culture of care in classrooms that include students from many different minoritised cultures.

These core values are:

  1. whānaungatanga
  2. rangatiratanga
  3. manaakitanga
  4. kotahitanga
  5. pūmanawatanga

Acknowledging these cultural values will signal to Māori, and to students from other cultures, that their culture matters.

Whanaungatanga is based on kinship, common locality and common interests. Teachers can engage in whānaungatanga by getting to know each student as an individual, and by generating opportunities to build mutual trust and respect.

When whānaungatanga is alive in a classroom, teaching recognises individual needs and strengths.

Rangatiratanga refers to taking responsibility for becoming an effective and competent teacher.

Rangatiratanga also includes the teacher’s ability to include Māori language and cultural knowledge and opportunities for students to contribute to knowledge construction in the classroom. Teachers demonstrating rangatiratanga communicate high and clear expectations for academic learning to students and whānau.

Manaakitanga is a cornerstone of a culturally responsive pedagogy. It is about care, respect and kindness. Manaakitanga in the context of education entails deep reciprocity.

Kotahitangais a core value where a sense of unity and inclusiveness is created within the classroom and school by recognising the mana of every person. It is about power sharing through exercising reciprocal rights and responsibilities.

Pūmanawatanga means a beating heart, and involves enlivening (breathing life into) the other four core values and sustaining their continued presence (Macfarlane et al., 2012).

Te Kotahitanga

Te Kotahitanga is a research and professional development programme developed by Russell Bishop that:

  • supports teachers to improve Māori students' learning and achievement, enabling teachers to create a culturally responsive context for learning which is responsive to evidence of student performance and understandings
  • enables school leaders and the wider school community to focus on changing school structures and organisations to more effectively support teachers in this endeavour.

You can learn more about Te Kotahitanga at:

Ka Hikitia

Kahikitia Accelerating sucess2 

Ka Hikitia - The Māori Education Strategy: Accelerating Success is the Ministry of Education, Māori and the education sector’s strategy to improve and change how the education system performs so that all Māori students gain the skills, qualifications and knowledge they need to learn, enjoy and achieve education success as Māori (2013a).

You can learn more about Ka Hikitia at:

Kei Eke Panaku

Kei Eke Panaku is a project and website focussing on secondary school reform and practices that gives life and meaning to the Māori Education Strategy, Ka Hikitia. The videos and materials on this site support schools to be responsive to the aspirations of Māori communities by supporting Māori students to pursue their potential.  In Kia Eke Panuku, culturally responsive and relational pedagogy is understood to be contexts for learning where learners are able to connect new learning to their own prior knowledge and cultural experiences. Each learner's 'cultural toolkit' is accepted as valid and legitimate (Bruner, 1996).

You can learn more about Kei Eke Panaku at:

Pasifika Culture

Pasifika Values2


ThePasifika Education Plan (PEP)is the Ministry of Education, Pasifika communities and the education sector’s strategy to improve and change how the education system performs so that all Pasifika students gain the positive identity, skills, qualifications and knowledge they need to learn, enjoy and achieve education success as Pasifika peoples (2013b).

The PEP puts Pasifika learners, their parents, families and communities at the centre of education. The purpose of the plan is to ensure Pasifika students are provided with and experience an education that is responsive to their identities, languages and cultures.

You can learn more about The Pasifika Education Plan and teaching at:

Deaf Culture 

Among the many cultures in New Zealand, you can learn about the Deaf culture.


NZSL is the language of New Zealand’s Deaf community. It is a visual language created by and for Deaf people. NZSL became an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand in April 2006. Children and adults who do not use spoken language may use sign language as it is more accessible. NZSL is a natural language. It is complex, dynamic and evolving. 

Many educators bring sign language into their teaching programmes

A useful place to learn new signs is:

The New Zealand Sign Language Dictionary at

The Right to Communicate

Communication is a right, not a privilege. 

Bill of rights2

Katherine's Story

Katherine Christie copy

In her film, Katherine identifies as a Deaf person. At the time of filming, she was doing well in her nursing studies at Polytechnic, but school was not a good experience for her.

In her film, Katherine talks about how communication and relationships with teachers, teachers’ aides, whānau and friends have strongly influenced her feelings of self-worth, belonging, identity, learning, achievement, life path and choices. At about 6 or 7 years old, Katherine was fitted with hearing aids but she didn’t wear them to school because they were big and she felt embarrassed to use them. Below are some powerful statements that Katherine makes about herself and her experiences in education, followed by some reflective questions.

It made it harder for me at school because I wasn’t wearing my hearing aids, it meant that I wasn’t taking in any information from school, from the teachers, classmates or anybody. It was really very hard…

Teachers always knew that I was Deaf but they didn’t really consider what it actually meant…I don’t really remember any actual teachers (at school) being helpful.

I just got into the habit of (thinking): “If they’re not going to speak loud enough for me to hear them, then I’m not going to pay attention” so I didn’t.

Going to high school, it was awful. I just never went to school…I had some good teachers but as I got older the teachers changed so I wasn’t able to maintain that stuff with the teachers that were nice to me… As I got older, the help just disappeared …

Having the actual teachers just not taking in what I was going through was just so hard. Nobody understood and nobody wanted to understand what I was going through…

Everyone thought I was dumb. Because everybody thought I was dumb, I thought I was dumb, but I’m not. …

Here (Polytechnic) the tutors know I’m Deaf so they go out of their way to let me know, that if there’s anything I need just to ask them and they’re quite happy to do what they can to help me…here, I have all the support that I need… I’m doing well in all my courses (smiles)

At Polytech, any help that I want I can just ask and not feel afraid to ask for help…being able to actually interact with the tutors…that whole attitude of: “No answer is the wrong answer” …your opinion matters…you have a voice. I’ve done wonders here, it’s just been great!

If I had the same schooling system that I have here (at Polytechnic) … I think I would have done so amazingly well… I would have been a nurse…a social worker, ages ago…and its purely because of the system that they have going here …

Reflective questions

  • What barriers did Katherine experience at school and how did they influence her capacity to feel good about herself, communicate, learn and succeed?
  • What could have been different? How could school have ensured Katherine had equal access to communication, relationships, learning and success at school? 
  • What does Katherine say about what she needs from teachers to learn and participate on an equal basis to others? 
  • Why do you think Katherine experienced exclusion in her schooling and nobody seemed to notice or do much to change it?

Treaty of Waitangi 

The Treaty of Waitangi is New Zealand’s founding document, first signed, on 6 February 1840. The Treaty is an agreement, in Māori and English, that was made between the British Crown and about 540 Māori rangatira (chiefs).

Three important principles of the Treaty of Waitangi are partnershipparticipation and protection. 

Learn more about this at:

A useful book for older students learning about the Treaty of Waitangi is  ‘The Story of a Treaty’ by Claudia Orange  (2013).

Below is a link to Treaty of Waitangi and education information and resources on the NZ History website for teachers and students. The webpages contain visual, video and text-based resources and information about the Treaty. They include frequently asked questions about the Treaty and responses; the history and relevance of The Treaty of Waitangi to education in Aotearoa New Zealand; and a guide for early years school teachers about the Treaty aligned with the New Zealand Curriculum.

Links to The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) 

The eight principles of the NZC embody beliefs about what is important in the school curriculum and underpin all decision making (Ministry of Education, 2007). The principles are intended to position students at the centre of all teaching and learning decisions.

The Treaty of Waitangi is one of eight principles. Enacting The Treaty of Waitangi principle means students should experience a curriculum that engages and challenges them, is forward-looking and inclusive, and affirms New Zealand’s unique identity.

Learn more about this at:

Inclusion is a principle of the NZC.

The principle of inclusion states “The curriculum is non-sexist, non-racist and non-discriminatory; it ensures that all students’ identities, languages, abilities, and talents are recognised and affirmed and that their learning needs are addressed” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 9). You can learn more about this at:

Universal Design for Living (UDL)

Universal Design for Learning has been described as an educational paradigm for inclusion. You can learn more in this TED talk

 UDL supports teachers to develop their curriculum in a more personalised way as they notice, recognise, and respond to the needs of all their learners and their communities. UDL put students at the centre of teaching and learning. It aligns to the New Zealand Curriculum and supports students belonging and success at school.

These sites have information about UDL and are linked closely to the New Zealand Curriculum (2007):

A reflective exercise: 

Think about universal design for living as you watch Katherine’s story

Katherine Christie copy2

In her film, Katherine talks about how her view of herself as a learner was so different at school compared to Polytechnic where she is studying nursing and doing well. At school she felt angry towards the teachers and felt like she wasn’t academically capable. At school, the teachers expected her to fit in and do things like ‘everybody else’. When she couldn’t do that, they didn’t try to do things differently so that Katherine would have access to communication and learning. At Polytechnic she gets what she requires to communicate, learn, participate and succeed in her Nursing course.  

Reflective questions…

  • What could Katherine’s school could have done to support her to learn, succeed and develop a positive identity?
  • How could Katherine have been involved in this process?
  • How did and could other people have supported her to develop and feel a sense of belonging at school like she does at Polytech? 
  • What would you do if you were Katherine’s teacher or friend at school?

Index for Inclusion 

index for inclusion

The Index for Inclusion is a comprehensive English resource designed to support schools to become more inclusive (Booth & Ainscow, 2011). The index is not intended as an extra initiative; but can be used to support any school to self-review, challenge, and further develop their own inclusive practices. It involves school community members looking together at ways barriers to learning and participating can be reduced for any student. It is a practical resource helping schools to think about what inclusion means in the playground, the classrooms and in the staffroom.

This link takes you to the Index for Inclusion should you want to explore further:

Creating an inclusive cultures at school is intertwined with building community. The Index for Inclusion describes an inclusive school as one where:

  1. Everyone is welcomed.
  2. Staff co-operate.
  3. Children help each other.
  4. Staff and children respect one another.
  5. Staff and parents/carers collaborate.
  6. Staff and governors work well together.
  7. The school is a model of democratic citizenship.
  8. The school encourages an understanding of the interconnections between people around the world.
  9. Adults and children are responsive to a variety of ways of being a gender.
  10. The school and local communities develop each other.
  11. Staff link what happens in school to children’s lives at home.

(Booth & Ainscow, 2011, p.14)

Summary Messages

Key Messages:

  • Disability is a natural part of the human experience. It’s perfectly normal for humans to be diverse
  • We focus on difference a lot, we all have more things in common than we have differences
  • I have the same dreams for my daughter as I do for my son
  • The way to live those dreams might be different, but the dreams themselves aren’t: happiness, health, growth, education, travel, meaningful employment, community contribution, friends, family, love, home, belonging
  • Disabled people don’t need fixing
  • No-one needs to feel broken, especially not a child
  • A child needs to feel loved exactly as they are.

kids talking