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Culturally Responsive Instruction: Using Indigenous Principles in the Pacific Region

Pacific | September 01, 2022

At its heart, education is a deeply cultural endeavor, with important local connections and implications for students, communities, and societies. And for centuries, Indigenous communities across the Pacific region have valued local context, culture, and history as integral to the education its young people received.

Through colonization and globalization, across the Pacific and elsewhere, the major features of Western-style education1 were perpetuated and given priority over Indigenous knowledge systems, instilling Western values, lifestyles, and ways of living into Indigenous and Native populations. Scholars in history, psychology, and education have traced the harmful effects of Western schooling on Native American populations,2 such as the mental and physical harm endured by survivors of Native American boarding schools and the intergenerational trauma experienced by their children and descendants.3

Recently, my REL Pacific colleagues and partners have seen a revitalization of leaders incorporating culturally relevant, responsive, and sustaining educational approaches in schools across the region, embracing a diversity of knowledge, and promoting teaching and learning that is adaptive, innovative, and deeply connected to students’ identities. Drawing attention to the cultural practices of Indigenous and Native students, these pedagogies encourage educators to "support young people in sustaining the cultural and linguistic competence of their communities while simultaneously offering access to dominant cultural competence."4

What are some of the differences between Western educational approaches and the traditional approaches common across the Pacific? Western education holds many recognizable components, such as:

  • Learning as an individual activity. Schooling is primarily focused on each student’s personal learning activities and independent responsibility.
  • Use of standards-based assessment. Students’ competence is often measured by their performance on standardized tests aligned with statewide or nationwide academic benchmarks.
  • Emphasis on universal knowledge and applicability. The goal of learning is to understand facts, concepts, and processes that can be broadly used for career productivity and personal advancement in a variety of contexts and communities.

While these components are still the dominant features of education in the Pacific region, my colleagues and I are seeing more educators, schools, and systems modify these components to incorporate Indigenous principles of learning:

  • Viewing learning as a collectivist activity. Throughout the Pacific region, traditional ways of learning focus on collective societal accomplishments, interdependence, and mutual advancement.5 When working with schools in American Samoa, my REL Pacific colleagues have had the opportunity to see high school students building a traditional Samoan dwelling, or fale, as a class project. Working together under the leadership of a carpenter, the students complete every step of the process, from collecting and preparing materials to preparing the foundation, constructing the frame, and thatching the roof. The project directly benefits the students’ community and honors their culture, while also helping students apply their learning to real-life situations, deepen their understanding of academic concepts, and strengthen their collaboration and communication skills.
  • Use of alternate forms of assessment, such as allowing students to show their competence through demonstration connected to real-life experiences and/or project-based experiences.6 One example of an alternate form of assessment can be found in Hawaiʻi, where the state department of education’s Kaiapuni Assessment of Education Outcomes (KĀʻEO) framework for Hawaiian language immersion students places culture and language at the center of the assessment program and supports an approach that is "informed by Hawaiian knowledge, wisdom, and intelligence."7
  • Emphasis on place-based, local knowledge, specific to culture/people.8 For example, teachers in the Marshall Islands are taking advantage of the ocean as a natural and powerful classroom to teach about the environment, marine biology, and even human migration. Students build miniature versions of voyaging vessels, taught by elders who may one day allow them to learn navigation. And in Palau, where local culture connects deeply to the environment and ocean conservation, schools have integrated conservation topics and concepts into science, math, and social studies curricula from elementary to high school. For example, Palau High School recently changed its longstanding first-year science course from General Science to Environmental Science. As a final example, recognizing the cultural importance of both intergenerational learning and storytelling within collectivist cultures, one high school language arts teacher in Hawaiʻi assigned writing projects to students during the extended period of pandemic quarantine that were focused on their family history and genealogy. This assignment offered students and their families a way to meaningfully engage with each other and provided the teacher a deeper perspective of the students in their class.

REL Pacific partnerships prioritize these local principles as partners collaborate to develop research projects and training/coaching sessions, seeking to learn from, and honor, the Indigenous knowledge systems that are woven into the fabric of life in the Pacific Islands.

Educators who work with Pacific and other Indigenous communities in diaspora (for example, in the continental United States) may also consider drawing on these concepts as they engage with students in their schools. This could mean exploring students’ cultural values in more detail, and how that might influence student behavior; rethinking teaching strategies to incorporate additional activities; or designing activities for students to connect to their cultural communities in meaningful ways.

REL Resources

Through this brief overview, REL Pacific hopes to broaden the acceptance and use of Indigenous principles of learning. The REL program has produced several resources that may be of further interest to educators interested in adding Indigenous principles of learning and culturally responsive practices to their toolbox:

Supporting Pacific Island Communities Through Place-Based Education
This blog post from REL Pacific provides insights and information on the use of place-based education practices to personalize student learning and strengthen their relationships with their communities.

Working Respectfully with Indigenous Communities Around Data, Research, and Evidence
This resource from REL West is intended to support state education agency staff members as they build partnerships with tribal leaders to improve educational outcomes for Native students through the use of data, research, and evidence.

Understanding the Needs and Experiences of Alaska Native English Learner Students
This infographic from REL Northwest presents information that may guide future policy and research to ensure that Alaska Native EL students receive culturally sustaining, high-quality education to support their academic progress, as well as the development of both their heritage and English language skills.

Culturally Responsive Assessment: Goals, Challenges, and Implications
This infographic from REL Pacific presents key considerations for designing and selecting assessments that promote student equity as part of a balanced system of assessments.

Culturally Sustaining Teaching Practices for Multilingual Students
This REL Pacific infographic describes a few culturally sustaining teaching practices to assist teachers in creating an environment that critically engages students and empowers the cultural knowledge they bring to the classroom.

Implementing Inclusive Education through Culturally Responsive Practices
This "REL Corner" resource from REL Appalachia shares resources to support educators’ and school leaders’ understanding of cultural responsiveness to create more inclusive experiences for students and families.

Teaching Diverse Learners Using Culturally Responsive Pedagogy
This fact sheet from REL Mid-Atlantic speaks to how culturally responsive pedagogy is defined, what practices are considered culturally responsive, and considerations for implementing these practices.

1 By the "West" or "Western," we refer broadly to the system of education that evolved in Europe, was replicated and formalized in the United States, and is undergirded by principles of scientific inquiry and European and North American civilization, arts, and culture.

2 Spring, J. (2016). Deculturalization and the struggle for equality: A brief history of the education of dominated cultures in the United States. Routledge.

3 Bombay, A., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2014). The intergenerational effects of Indian Residential Schools: Implications for the concept of historical trauma. Transcultural Psychiatry 51(3), 320-338.

4 Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher 41(3), 93-97.

5 Merriam, S. B. & Kim, Y. S. (2011). Non-Western perspectives on learning and knowing. In Merriam, S. B. & Grace, A. B. (Eds.) The Jossey-Bass reader on contemporary issues in adult education, 378-389. Jossey-Bass.

6 Preston, J. P., & Claypool, T. R. (2021). Analyzing assessment practices for Indigenous students. Frontiers in Education 6(1), 1-11.

7 Hawaii Department of Education. (n.d.) Kaiapuni Assessment of Education Outcomes (KĀʻEO). Retrieved from

8 Thaman, K. T. (2014). No need to whisper: Reclaiming indigenous knowledge and education in the Pacific. In Suaalii-Sauni, T. M., Wendt, M. A., Mo’a, V., Fuamatu, N., Va’a, U. L., Whaitiri, R., & Filipo, S. L. (Eds) Whispers and Vanities: Samoan Indigenous Knowledge and Religion. Huia Publishers.


Natasha Saelua

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