On my way back from EducampBOP yesterday afternoon I listened to the Mixtape on RNZ. I hadn’t realised that following on from Te Wiki o te Reo Māori there was a Māori Music Month. I can be forgiven for not knowing about it as this is its inaugural year and there hasn’t been a lot of mainstream media coverage about it. The guest on the Mixtape was Rob Ruha who “is from the East Coast, and is recognised as a leader of traditional Māori music. He has a unique style of which has been described as an eclectic mix of soul-roots-reggae with a touch of RnB, rock-blues and jazz” (see Stuff.co.nz article).
This afternoon I listened to the Mixtape of Moana Maniapoto and one of the things she said struck me – she introduced herself as a musician, a songwriter, always learning and she went on to say that her life has been about storytelling whether through music, documentary making or writing in general.
I have talked before about the power of storytelling for learning. Recently I was involved in a Facebook conversation about the relative merits of teaching handwriting in primary school. As usual, there were many opinions and I have written about this before too, so I am not going to revisit it. But one of the comments that was made was that learning how to read and write brought Europe out of the Dark Ages and another said that people will not be able to contribute to society fully if they don’t know how to read and write. It was also said that not knowing how to read and write would seriously hinder a person’s ability to learn.
So this is the nub of this post. Why do these people think this is the case? And how does the emphasis reading and writing meet the needs of all our learners? It is true that up until relatively recently, while reading and writing have been the main ways that we have accessed ‘knowledge’ in educational systems in western societies, there have been people who have struggled to learn and progress.
My contribution to the conversation was that for generations we learned through storytelling and song which developed active listening skills, the ability to communicate orally, articulate ideas and responses to stories and retell them. They were adapted and embellished on the way, maybe to fit the context of the situation or maybe because some details had been misinterpreted or misunderstood and people filled the gaps to make the story work. People learned how to craft language and think on the spot and they were creative, they used verse, songs, jokes and prose. The places we listened, often alongside a ‘master’ as he/she went about their trade, or around a fire or in the kitchen or in the fields meant that we spent time with our community elders and built connections and relationships, learned respect and shared ideas. And listening to stories helps our learning because it activates not just the processing language parts of our brains but the sensory and motor aspects too. And telling stories is just as powerful for learning as we have to articulate what we mean, we have to process our thoughts and organise them. I know we do that when we write too – I have edited and re-organised the paragraphs and my ideas in this blog post as I have written, but when we speak we have to do that on the go, dynamically as people listen to us and they can question and interrupt and ask for clarification.
Now I am not saying that reading and writing hasn’t enriched learning, it is an essential tool in the education box and we should make the most of what it offers us. However, the emphasis over the last century or two has been on the written word and the process of writing as a means of learning. And I think that it has been a barrier to learning in terms of how we measure learning for many people. Their learning in school, the ability to pass exams has been almost entirely predicated on reading and writing. So if we have a child in a class that finds it difficult to read or write, we make them do more of it so they can catch up. If they don’t reach a certain level of literacy they will not be able to access ‘learning’ across other subjects, even maths because they are all based on reading information and then writing about it. My boys are creative kids with heaps of ideas, they both struggled with the physical aspect of forming letters and making their writing legible. They were slow at writing so they stopped thinking up big ideas, or at least writing them down because it took too long. So they never really explored their ideas, articulated them, ordered them and crafted them fully to the satisfaction of their teachers in an essay format. Fortunately, my boys are ‘good’ readers so they developed a wide vocabulary, they identified how to form sentences and worked out how language works through the range of genres that they read. If they had greater access to typing and being able to use a computer for their writing the barrier for them may have been removed. If they had been able to record their voice and speak their ideas out loud rather than writing them, how might that have affected their learning?
Remember that the very first way of communicating was through gesture and voice, through songs and images. The rhymic nature of poetry and songs stimulates the brain but also the body so that we move and sway in time, the words somehow stick in your brain, just think how much easier it is to learn a poem with rhyme and rhythm than one without and how the words of catchy tunes rattle around your head without you even wanting them to! So my boys also loved listening to stories; we read often to them and they had tapes and CDs which they listened to in the car or at bedtime. The power of listening and how it impacts on the ability to memorise (I won’t say learn because they are very different) was reinforced once when I came upon my eldest at the age of 3 ‘reading’ Winnie the Pooh. He had memorised the words from the tapes he listened to regularly and from us reading to him and was ‘reading’ to himself, turning the pages as he went!
As a language teacher, I have frequently bemoaned the paucity of listening skills amongst the young people coming through to me in my classroom as well as the unwillingness of students to articulate their ideas orally unless they have had time to craft ideas in written form first. As we have assigned more emphasis to reading and writing, to decoding words on a page we have neglected to understand the power that the spoken words has on children’s ability to learn. When children come into a school they have spent 4-5 years listening and developing oral language. They have amazing memories, they can retell stories, they are good active listeners and mimickers. They have learned as they have watched their parents, elder siblings, caregivers, and asked countless Socratic questions about the world, life, and the meaning thereof. So,what do we do? We put a pencil in their hands, we sit them down, we tell them to be quiet and we teach them to read and write. I am being harsh. I know that primary schools do so much more than that and I am well aware of the constraints that schools are under to ‘deliver’ the curriculum and ‘meet the standards’ and I am not going to go into any of that now. But I think you get my meaning. They get out of the habit of ‘listening’ and speaking and they become over-reliant on reading and writing.
From symbols painted on cave walls, on skins, carved into wooden posts and stone pillars to the artistic calligraphy on vellum of the monks, to the printing press and then to typing and word processing, language and, more importantly, communication have informed the way humans have lived, adapted, survived and flourished in an unpredictable world. But language developed orally, it was honed and refined by people talking to each other. As we have travelled more widely, explored new places, tasted new foods, seen spectacular and interesting new sights and immersed ourselves in different cultures, our vocabulary has grown to reflect those new experiences. Language absorbs and assimilates new words to represent new inventions forming them from old words, trying to capture the spirit of the object and how we interact with it and the affordance it has with our lives.
When we listen we hear nuances; tone of voice, feeling, volume, accent, we can sense mood and emotion, we can also see the facial changes and the gestures that people use when they speak and we make connections. When we talk we have to think on our feet, search for words sometimes or explain our way around a word that we can’t quite remember or that we don’t know. We adapt our own tone for the context, for our audience, and we make eye contact and build connections. We also have to listen actively so we can recall what has been said, interpret it and respond. ‘A picture paints a thousand words’ and listening conjures up a million images and feelings and emotions. So why would we limit ourselves to writing and reading? Why would we limit our learners to a narrow range of ways of learning?
What is exciting today is that our means of communicating are becoming richer at an exponential rate. The technological advances that brought us Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1400s and disrupted the world of learning and acquisition of knowledge have continued apace, and now we have a range of different media that we can use to communicate and be creative.
It is important that we start to ascribe a more equal importance to all means of communicating so that all our children can learn in whatever way works for them. We have a responsibility to provide them with all the tools at our disposal, let them make their own choices and not hinder their learning because we are fearful of change. Just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean that it is the best way. Equally, it is important not to adopt new ways of doing just because they are new. We should question and reflect, consider what they add to the mix, use them with caution but embrace the opportunities they offer for learning. It is not the tool alone that helps us learn, it is choosing the right tool at the right time for the right purpose. But the toolbox needs to be full and it needs to be open and accessible.
So, to go back to the start and Te Marama Pūoru Waiata Māori – just as with many cultures the habit of storytelling through song, waiata, chants, stories and poetry has been an important way of passing knowledge and cultural ways of being and doing down through the generations. Language is a key component of the sense of identity because language can never be truly translated word for word into another language. Māori, like many languages existed for generations only in its oral form, passed on and enriched through song and stories. My strong belief is that it is important that we do not lose our oral languages, or we lose sight of who we are and where we came from. So embrace storytelling in all its forms – written, visual and oral and why not listen to a few waiata and find out more about Te Marama Pūoru Waiata Māori.
This waiata called Rariri from Rob Ruha is very powerful and retells historical accounts of the East Coast forces that supported the Kingitanga, the Pai-mārire faith and the people of Tauranga-Moana in the battle of Pukehinahina (Gate Pā) and Te Ranga from the perspective of the families, hapū and iwi that stood against the crown and its Māori allied forces.