ECE Resources

Exploring Samoan epistemology and pedagogy for culturally responsive practice with infants and toddlers

In a webinar with The Education Hub, Dr Jacoba Matapo from The University of Auckland, Dr Salā Faasaulala Tagoilelagi-Leota, Principal Analyst in the Ministry of Pacific People, and Dr Tafili Utumapu-McBride from Auckland University of Technology share insights from the second stage of their TLRI (Teaching and Learning Research Initiative) study that aims to develop New Zealand’s first Samoan Indigenous framework for Samoan infant and toddler pedagogy in early childhood education. The second stage of the project is focused on supporting the implementation of Pepe Meamea across the ECE sector. Here are the key insights from the webinar:

The Pepe Meamea project brings culturally responsive theory together with Samoan epistemologies. The research involved aoga amata teachers, elders, and researchers in exploring and unpacking 89 concepts related to a Samoan perspective on infant and toddler pedagogy. These were condensed into five integrated themes:

  • Tofāmanino: Samoan indigenous knowledge and philosophy
  • Faiva o le fa’atufugaga: Samoan pedagogy, cultural practices, language, and Samoan relational ethics
  • Agatausili: Samoan values like alofa│love, fa’aaloalo│respect, and tautua│service
  • Paepaega: The context and relational ecologies of the ECE setting
  • Fa’asinomaga: Cultural identity, spirituality, genealogy, and connection to land

The exploration of culture and meaning in this research involved a great deal of talanoa│discussion and revealed many layers of complexity. For example, concepts of the infant or toddler, or of the family, were far from unitary and often contested and deepened through discussion. Another complexity related to the way that, in Samoan epistemologies, there are sacred knowledges that are not documented or spoken openly about in a research forum. Teachers should bear in mind that indigenous knowledges are often sacred, and to act carefully when families share their ideas, beliefs, and aspirations for infant and toddler care. Words can travel and have an impact, and there is an important relationship of care necessary when engaging families in cultural discussions.

The fala pepe is a key cultural artefact for understanding Samoan infant and toddler pedagogy. The fala or woven mat is used to mark different milestones in the Samoan human lifespan and the fala pepe marks the milestone of childhood. When a mother finds out that she is expecting, the entire family begins working on the baby mat. As they weave, the family revisits ancestral stories, songs, and connections to places in the land where the plant (pandanus) grows, as well as the roles of different people within the village in gathering the leaves and preparing for the weaving. The fala pepe holds many spiritual connections for pepe meamea, and all the hands and love that go into the mat envelop the child going forward. This means the fala pepe as a cultural object is much more than a display object, as it is enmeshed in relationships, and represents and enacts the holistic pedagogies of infant and toddler care in a Samoan context.

The cultural mentoring that took place between Samoan aoga amata teachers and teachers in mainstream ECE settings was conceived through the metaphor of fenū. Fenū are strips of laufala or pandanus leaves that are interwoven in the weaving process and are used to join a strand that will soon end. The fenū strengthens the strand that is going to finish, and the mat cannot be completed unless the fenū is used. In the mentoring relationships of this research project, aoga amata teachers found it helpful to see themselves as the fenū for the teachers in English medium settings. The concept of fenū in mentoring involves reciprocal obligations, so rather than seeing the mainstream teachers in a subordinate or novice position as in traditional notions of ‘mentor and mentee’, the Samoan teachers held expectations for their partner ECE teachers to fenū them back. Both mentor and mentee are viewed as strong and as having knowledge to contribute about infants and toddlers.

Weaving provides a wealth of metaphors for pedagogies within Pepe Meamea. For example, there is much preparation that goes into every strand to be woven, so every strand takes care and collective effort. The strands come together through the relationships between people, through the talanoa, and through the stories shared. This is intentional and purposeful, reminding teachers to be highly intentional in their plans to support pepe meamea. Timing is also important: it is necessary to fenū the strand while it is still strong and, if the strand is already weak, it is too late to fenū. This means teachers need to provide culturally responsive contexts for Samoan pepe meamea from the beginning. The weaving metaphor also emphasises early childhood care and education as a collaborative endeavour, with an idea that both Pasifika and mainstream teachers are weaving the children of Aotearoa. The Pepe Meamea framework is intended to work alongside existing ECE frameworks, offering another set of ideas to be interwoven with Te Whāriki, Tapasā, and Tātaiako to ensure children have a strong sense of wellbeing.

The Pepe Meamea framework can support teachers to decolonise their thinking about infant and toddler pedagogies. The Pepe Meamea framework offers teachers other ways of framing infant and toddler pedagogies than what is predominantly taught in initial teacher education and ongoing professional development. Calling assumptions and bias into question can open teachers up to new practices and understandings, and enable them to do justice both to the framework and to pepe meamea.

Personal reflection in which teachers unpack their own identities and create their own links to their genealogy, land, and place can support culturally responsive practice. Teachers are then positioned to get to know families and to find out about their cultural values and aspirations, which are often carried from generation to generation. A key aspiration arising from the research is that Samoan children in mainstream education maintain their sense of cultural heritage and identity, as they are the carriers of Samoan culture into the future. Teachers can also explore families’ and communities’ finer understandings of concepts, such as the family or the infant and toddler. This research uncovered particular understandings of the concept of family in terms of the Samoan collective-self, while engaging with identity and genealogy revealed a particular significance for connections with land and place in Samoa.

An interchange of knowledge in which teachers respect cultural differences is another important step for teachers wishing to be more culturally responsive to Samoan pepe meamea. Teachers from minority cultures should be able to share their cultural knowledge in regard to infant and toddler care with confidence that their knowledge is equally valid as dominant perspectives and an important source of enhancing practice and pedagogy in infant and toddler care in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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