By Ruby Watson co-founder of ĀKAU
ĀKAU engages taitamariki and their communities in real architecture and design projects, with a vision to create awesomeness in communities throughout Aotearoa. To ĀKAU, this is where every young person has a voice, a purpose and meaningful participation. This is our kaupapa; the driving force behind how and why we do things differently. 

Working with taitamariki in unique and real project environments has given ĀKAU an insight into how our taitamariki work best, and why the education system has failed our more creative and innovative students. Whānau, the environment and real projects are at the heart of what ĀKAU does.

At ĀKAU we base our education model on traditional Māori learnings, agreeing with Mason Durie ‘that education should be consistent with the goal of enabling Māori to live as Māori…. access to language, culture, marae (tribal or community cultural centres), tikanga , and resources such as land, whānau, and kaimoana.’ (Launching Māori Futures by Mason Durie, 2003).

Creating learning environments that use awa, maunga, moana, ngahere and other significant places help connect taitamariki to where they're from and form a strong base to develop their sense of belonging. ĀKAU insists that a relationship to the whenua is vital for the success for our young people.

Looking back to look forward has enabled ĀKAU to create a learning environment that is multigenerational, whānau-centric and encourages taitamariki, kuia, kaumatua and community to work collaboratively. This benefits both the project and the young people. In AKO, Concepts and Learning in the Māori Tradition, Rangimarie Rose Pere speaks of how “Whanaungatanga deals with the practices that bond and strengthen the kinship ties of a whānau. The commitment of ‘aroha’ is vital to whanaungatanga and the survival of what the group sees as important. Loyalty, obligation, commitment, an inbuilt support system made the whānau a strong stable unit, within the hapu, and consequently the tribe.” (AKO, Concepts and Learning in the Māori Tradition by Rangimarie Rose Pere).

The application of this learning, and the basis of our success with students who have previously disengaged from the education system, is the integration of learning with real projects. ‘Education should be as much about that reality as it is about literacy and numeracy.’ (Launching Māori Futures by Mason Durie, 2003). Young people working on real projects in their own community gives our taitamariki a sense of confidence and skills in a range of activities – from hands-on making through to marketing, communication and design. Taitamariki learn about collaboration, decision-making, time management and a raft of other great transferable skills. Real projects engage our young people.

The recent Hui Fono exemplified the fact that real learning and authentic, engaging education is not done in a traditional classroom setting. The visit to Hekenukumai Puhipi (Hector Busby), a navigator and traditional waka builder, was inspirational for the 150 adult Māori and Pasifika educators that gathered beside the ocean. Inside the grassy clearing, 32 carved pou were arranged equally to form a large circle 44 metres in diameter. Hekenukumai told of his navigation career that started at age sixty (it’s never too late!) from the centre of a giant star compass that he designed and constructed himself. 150 people sat wowed by the stories of navigating around the Pacific onboard a traditional waka using just the sun, the stars and the swells for navigation. All present were convinced that real, whānau-centric projects, executed in the great outdoors, are the perfect learning environment for the new wave of young waka builders and navigators.

Northland College students got a brand new modern learning environment building in 2017, with student Aroha Lawrence saying that she ‘liked that it was bigger to work in, more open… That's pretty much the only pro I have. It could be better if the acoustics were better and there weren't so many people in one space. There are at least 50-70 people in one space. A lot of people are doing different things at the same time. Sometimes it is good because you could see that everyone was working together and there was more space for that collaboration but when there's too many people in one space, then it gets quite disruptive.’ As a wheel chair user, Aroha acknowledged that ‘it was good for my wheelchair that the spaces were bigger and things. The old classrooms were hard to get around in and cramped.’

The recent trend of Modern Learning Environment (MLE) buildings cropping up around schools in Aotearoa has missed the mark in innovative learning environments. The Ministry of Education has appointed architects to design the space for taitamariki, with a token engagement process, if any. What if our taitamariki designed their own learning environments? What would that do for their education? If Aroha and her classmates had had the opportunity to design their own school, working with whānau and the environment on a real project, the school could have been so much more. ĀKAU believes that getting our taitamariki authentically engaged in designing their own learning spaces creates better educational outcomes and develops the skill sets of our young people. The design process is a powerful learning experience, where students develop skills like: problemsolving, communication, literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, budgeting, marketing and collaboration.

If we are to equip our young people, our whānau and our communities with a strong sense of belonging, the skills to problem solve and the ability to communicate ideas, we need to engage them with the environment and get them contributing to real projects. Amen.

Article from ACE Aotearoa Autumn Newsletter 2018.