The Marshallese have long been innovators and experts in knowledge systems that have contributed significantly to the international disciplines of science, math, and literature.1, 2 Marshallese stick charts, for example, illustrate ocean swell patterns and the locations of islands and atolls. Such stick charts (see figure 1) eloquently weave together deep cultural connections to the ocean and oral traditions to strengthen both visual literacy and navigational wisdom.
Figure 1: This rebbelib stick chart used by Marshallese navigators indicates sailing directions for atolls and islands in both the Ratak (eastern) and Ralik (western) chains. Seashells depict the atoll and island locations. Straight sticks represent regular currents or waves around the low-lying atolls while curved sticks depict ocean swells.
Despite these significant contributions, Marshallese culture and context have limited representation in the public education system’s current curriculum. There is a profound disconnect between the traditional Marshallese ways of learning and current western-based expectations of students and teachers in the classroom setting.3 Understanding that students’ learning is enhanced when their culture and context are represented in learning environments,4, 5, 6 education leaders in the RMI have aimed to systemically integrate Marshallese culture and context into educational practices. This partnership with REL Pacific is building on these collective efforts within the RMI education systems.
The RMI Ministry of Education, Sports, & Training (MOE), which oversees the Public School System (PSS), has acknowledged a need to strengthen students’ foundational learning opportunities. MOE, PSS, and the College of the Marshall Islands (CMI) leaders have partnered with REL Pacific to develop a culturally relevant and sustaining education framework that is grounded in Marshallese culture, language, context, and ways of knowing. The purpose of the culturally relevant and sustaining framework is to provide educators in the RMI with a research-informed model that outlines culturally relevant and sustaining educational practices. In doing so, this work aims to support partnership members in pursuing the long-term goal of developing a systems approach to culturally relevant and sustaining education.
“Guided by Marshallese approaches to qualitative inquiry, this research aims to empower the Marshallese community by supporting educators in bridging the gap between traditional teaching and students’ cultural needs.”
–Excerpt from the partnership’s research purpose statement.
Training and Coaching on the Qualitative Investigation of Marshallese Ways of Knowing
Core partnership members expressed a need for deeper understanding of Marshallese ways of knowing in order to develop a culturally relevant and sustaining Marshallese education framework. They requested training and coaching support on collecting and analyzing qualitative data so that they may leverage local expertise in Marshallese culture to further investigate Marshallese students’ ways of knowing. At the writing of this blog, project members have developed their research questions and a working draft of the purpose of their research, which is to:
“support the development of a culturally responsive and sustaining education framework that is grounded in Marshallese culture and context. In doing so, it seeks to contribute to a limited research base on Marshallese ways of knowing to better understand how Marshallese students acquire new knowledge so that educational practices and interventions can further enhance Marshallese students’ critical thinking skills, academic engagement, and academic performance. Guided by Marshallese approaches to qualitative inquiry, this research aims to empower the Marshallese community by supporting educators in bridging the gap between traditional teaching and students’ cultural needs.”7
Developing a Marshallese Culturally Relevant and Sustaining Education Framework
A second training and coaching project planned for 2024 will use learnings from the the qualitative investigation to inform the evidence base on culturally relevant and sustaining education and lead to the development of a culturally relevant and sustaining Marshallese education framework. During this project, project members will also develop a classroom rubric that instructors can use to reflect on their own understanding of the framework and for identifying their own strengths and growth opportunities in implementing the framework.
To support the implementation, scalability, and sustainability of the framework, education leaders in the RMI requested that REL Pacific support the development of two resources to be shared with teachers, educators, and school staff. The first resource, an infographic, would include information about the importance of culturally relevant and sustaining education in improving student learning outcomes, as well as the key components of the framework and their definitions. The second product is a video that both describes the framework and provides examples of how elements of the framework can be applied in classroom settings. In addition, to support the scalability of the framework, RMI education leaders further suggested that the video show examples from primary, secondary, and higher education settings.
Educators in the RMI have a strong commitment to serving their students. REL Pacific is honored to be a partner in their efforts and to contribute to the wealth of cultural knowledge and educational expertise in the RMI. Our hope is to be a support for our partners in reaching their mission of ensuring that students are “independent, literate critical thinkers and problem-solvers, and be culturally and globally competent and responsive in order to reach their greatest potential” (read more about PSS), and that partners “provide [the] community with access to quality, higher and further educational services, prioritize student success … and be a center for the study of Marshallese Culture” (read more about CMI).
REL Pacific would like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr. Irene Taafaki (1946–2023) to the foundations of this partnership. Recognized as a leader and prestigious scholar within the RMI and across the Pacific, Dr. Taafaki was a strong advocate for educational equity and cultural integration into school policy and practice. Her voice is reflected in the goals of this partnership—particularly in its intent to authentically integrate the lived experiences of Marshallese individuals into the work. The partnership aims to continue her legacy of elevating the place of cultural education across students’ learning opportunities.
2 Jetnil-Kijiner, K. (2014). Iep Jaltok: A history of Marshallese literature. University of Hawai?i at Manoa. https://scholarspace.manoa.hawaii.edu/server/api/core/bitstreams/6dd5bba3-6307-4bd1-a66b-a91bdebd3d8f/content
4 Resnick, M. D., Bearman, P. S., Blum, R. W., Bauman, K. E., Harris, K. M., Jones, J., & Udry, J. R. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. Jama, 278, 823–832.
5 Sampasa-Kanyinga, H., Chaput, J. P., & Hamilton, H. A. (2019). Social media use, school connectedness, and academic performance among adolescents. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 40, 189–211.
6 Wang, M. T., & Holcombe, R. (2010). Adolescents’ perceptions of school environment, engagement, and academic achievement in middle school. American Educational Research Journal, 47(3), 633–662.
7 This research purpose statement was developed by participants of the October 2023 session of the first training and coaching project. The term, “traditional teaching,” refers to teaching practices that reflect Western values and epistemology.