Alternative Aotearoa

Pre-election events take a wide variety of forms. The Alternative Aotearoa seminar in July 2020 was a long day of speakers with visions for a new future. It was perhaps difficult to know the purpose of the day, as the speakers were preaching to the converted – the audience were already well aware of most of the issues. Yet there was a strong message of motivating people to take these issues and solutions, and amplify them out to the voting public, politicians and policy makers. We WANT change, we NEED change, our future depends on creating a world that is sustainable and socially just.

What were some themes of the day? Ranging from high-level to specific suggestions, here’s some of my take-aways:

  • There is money in Aotearoa, it is just not distributed fairly, and if there is political will then money can be directed towards improving our world.
  • Start with Housing. Safe, Affordable, Secure housing is a basic right, and should be provided for everyone. As long as it is viewed as primarily a wealth creation tool, then it will be priced out of reach of a large number of people. Build better houses, introduce a capital gains tax (countries that did that years ago have a more affordable housing than NZ does).
  • Take bold action to mitigate Climate Change and care for our environment. We have already run out of time, incremental change is useless.
  • Te Tiriti o Waitangi is a mechanism to address the effects of colonization on Māori, and social issues in Aotearoa cannot be improved without working in partnership.
  • Cultural backgrounds of the people of Aotearoa should be acknowledged as affecting our interactions with others, and this diversity should be recognized and celebrated.
  • The economy is the servant of the people, not the other way around.
  • Decent jobs – pay people a decent wage, treat workers decently, appreciate the different work people do.

Transformation was the catch-cry of the seminar: it is time to transform our world through collective action. Should be easy, shouldn’t it??

For more info, see:

The final report for political parties, and videos from the seminar

Dispatch from an alternative Aotearoa – Spinoff article by Laura O’Connell Rapira of Action Station

Qualitative Systems Dynamics: Causal loop diagrams

This is the first blog post of my project to explore gender equality in Aotearoa using systems thinking approaches – as a way of learning how to use those approaches. In this post I look at gender equality through the lens of Systems Dynamics, specifically the qualitative causal loop diagrams.

My first attempt at drawing a causal loop diagram was, naturally, a mess. ‘Gender Equality’ is a huge issue and trying to conceptualise the system that influences ‘it’ was too big a task. So I narrowed it down: I constructed a variable I’m calling ‘Gender Equality Attitudes’. It refers to the quantity of attitudes within the New Zealand population that positively align with gender equality – that is, the number of people who believe that there should be equality between genders. ‘Gender’ is taken to encompass those who identify as women, men, both or neither.

I acknowledge that individual attitudes don’t always lead to coherent or consistent behaviour, however the attitudes of the majority of the population influences what behaviour is tolerated or not in our communities, and influences the types of policies that government and governors at all levels implement in order to align themselves with society’s expectations.

For this example, I’m assuming that Gender Equality Attitudes (GEA) of the population can be measured* – say, on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest. I’m also assuming that the ideal is to maximise the population GEA (which would lead to greater gender equality overall).

The causal loop diagram, then, starts with the actual (supposedly measured) quantity of GEA in Aotearoa (between 1 and 10), which is compared with the desired GEA (maximum, i.e. 10) to produce a GEA gap of somewhere between 9 (no gender equality at all) to 0 (perfect gender equality). This gap causes actions to occur, which cause other actions to occur, some of which change the actual GEA. This can be shown in a causal loop diagram, which in Figure 1 has been drawn with the software Vensim.

In this diagram, I have included those variables that I have considered the most important influences on GEA. This is a rather arbitrary choice, as there are other factors such as having strong female roles models challenging usual gendered assumptions – such as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – which are also important. Creating a more complete causal loop diagram would require longer study and the input of many people to ensure that a wide range of perspectives are included.

Systems Dynamics emphasises change within the system over time, and a causal loop diagram is a visual representation of this. The variables have causal connections: e.g. the GEA gap causes gender equality advocates to act, so that the higher the gap, the more the advocates will work to decrease the gap (shown by a plus sign at the head of the arrow). Greater GEA activity causes an increase in actual GEA, but only after a delay period (shown by the double lines in the middle of the connection), as the impact of their activity only shows up after a while.

Unfortunately, the more GEA advocate activity there is, the greater the activity of the ‘trolls’ (to use the social media term for antagonistic commenters). Greater troll activity leads to a decrease in actual GEA (shown by a minus sign at the head of the arrow), after a delay (double lines).

The activity of GEA advocates and GEA trolls form feedback loops, which is a very important aspect of systems dynamics. This is the idea that an initial variable (such as the GEA gap) can cause things to happen which eventually change that initial variable. When an increase in the variable (GEA gap) causes a series of events that end up with the variable being decreased, there is a balancing feedback loop which acts to keep things stable (within a range). In this example, an increase in the GEA gap increases the GEA advocate activity, which increases the actual GEA and thus decreases the GEA gap – and the advocates who were concerned by the increase in the GEA gap can rest easy, knowing their work has been successful.

At the same time, the increase in GEA gap + GEA advocate activity causes an increase in Troll anti-GEA activity, which decreases the actual GEA and therefore increases the GEA gap. This is a reinforcing loop, where an increase in the GEA gap causes a greater increase in itself in a continuous spiral of growth – which in this case is not a good thing, if you remember that a growing GEA gap is because there is less and less actual GEA in the population and therefore less and less gender equality.

The other parts of the causal loop diagram show the impact of education on GEA (referring to education in formal institutions, on the subject of gender equality) and how it breaks down traditional stereotypes which work against gender equality; and the influence of the (traditional forms of) media which both reflects and modifies the amount of GEA in the populations.

Just for practice, this same diagram has been drawn using the Kumu web-based application. In both forms of the diagrams, things like colours, placement of the variables and curvature of the arrows are a matter of choice, and I have tried to use these to make the connections and implications clearer.

There are some things that might be concluded from the causal loop diagram, in the way that I have drawn it. One is the role of the media, which is in a reinforcing loop with actual GEA of the population. This is built on the assumption that the media tends to reflect the attitudes of the population rather than leading or creating change, yet at the same time the media has a large influence on the actual GEA. The difference can be formal education, which could influence those who produce media (and their editors/decision-makers) to support gender equality and refuse to perpetuate traditional stereotypes in their work. An issue here is the large delay in the impact from formal education, but an immediate impact from pre-existing stereotypes. This loop shows the importance of the level of GEA in media personnel.

Another point to be noticed in this diagram is the balancing GEA Advocate loop competing with the reinforcing Troll anti-GEA loop. Which one wins? Surely this would depend on the comparative strength of response from advocates and from trolls, and the length of the delay between their activities and the change in the actual GEA. A qualitative diagram like this can show the factors that might influence the system, but to see how the system would react over time, i.e. dynamically, then some numbers must be applied. This is what I will try out in my next systems thinking exploration: an attempt at quantitative systems dynamics.

*Gender equality attitudes have been measured in Aotearoa New Zealand, by Research NZ on commission from the National Council of Women NZ. This has not, however, been in the over-simplified form of a single number rating.

Systems Thinking: Dealing with complex problems

Recently I’ve changed research direction, from education to more general social science. In particular, I’m working with a team that uses systems thinking approaches to answering their research questions. Always up for a challenge, I’ve been finding out what this actually means and how to use the tools to make sense of our social world. From my education background, it makes sense to me that having studied a method, approach or tool, I have to try it out to more fully understand what it involves and how to use it.

Systems thinking focuses on the interconnected systems that we socially construct for ourselves. Such systems are more than the sum of their parts: they have emergent properties, which would not be there if it weren’t for the system. Systems are dynamic and change over time, but they also adapt to the changing environment so as a whole (constructed) entity, the system stays stable. If the people, organisation and processes only come together temporarily then it does not really meet the definition of a ‘system’.

Further, systems thinking recognises that our world is complex and that we can find ways to improve the systems, or leverage points where a little effort will have big benefits – but that these messy problems cannot be ‘solved’. There are too many viewpoints to consider, too many unforeseen events and reactions and environmental changes to ‘solve’ them once and for all. Improvement rather than revolution is the aim.

Lastly, since everything in our social world is theoretically connected, systems thinking requires a definition of the boundaries of the system that is being studied. What lies inside and outside of those boundaries is a matter of choice and based on the purpose of analysis as well as our underlying assumptions. Critiquing those boundaries is part of critical systems analysis.

Therefore I’m embarking on a little project to analyse one of the complex societal problems I am passionate about improving: gender equality. I am going to do this by using each of the system thinking tools I’m finding out about and applying it to some aspect of the gender equality ‘system’ in Aotearoa NZ. The approaches I will be trying out are Systems Dynamics – causal loop diagrams (a qualitative approach), Systems Dynamics – stock and flow models (a quantitative approach), Agent modelling, Viable System Models (VSM), Strategic Options Development and Analysis, Soft Systems methodology, and Critical Systems Heuristics.

None of this will make me an expert in these approaches, but I hope that I will have a better understanding at the end of this project – and for those who are new to systems thinking, perhaps my journey will be of interest to you too.

One book that has been helpful for me is:

Reynolds, M., & Holwell, S. (Eds). (2010). Systems approaches to managing change: A practical guide. Springer.

The Learning for Sustainabilty website also has an explanation of systems thinking and a list of other resources.


During the current Covid-19 pandemic response we are experiencing at the moment, many people are referring to the ‘lockdown’ as a ‘rāhui’. This is not just a change of word, it is a change of worldview, offering a different perspective on our experience.

When we refer to a ‘lockdown’, the English word carries a law enforcement association. Our rights are being curtailed, our freedoms limited – albeit with a high degree of willingness and compliance.

The Māori word ‘rāhui’ places the focus not on the individual and their freedoms, but on the collective good, and the recognises the rights of the environment. Just as the Whanganui River has been granted legal personhood status, and the National Policy Statements on Freshwater Management include protection of ‘te mana o te wai’ (the mana of the water), a rāhui recognises our interrelatedness with our environment.

According to the Māori Dictionary, a rāhui is ‘a temporary ritual prohibition’ of an area or resource that has been polluted or for some reason needs to be separated from people. An area that is ‘tapu’ or sacred can be subject to a rāhui until the tapu is deemed to have dispersed. A common example is where death has occurred, making the area tapu. In that case the mana whenua (the iwi who are acknowledged as having authority in that area) may declare a rāhui. This will be initiated by someone of mana, placed and lifted through karakia, and marked by a visible sign or post (often painted red).

The placing of rāhui is being more commonly reported in the media in recent years. An example is the rāhui that Te Kawarua ā Maki placed on the Waitākare forest in December 2017, to save the forest from kauri dieback disease. The continued movement of people through the Waitākare forest was seen to be contributing to the disease and therefore a rāhui was placed on the area to prevent people from going there and allow time for new and better management to be developed.

A rāhui was placed on Tongariro for three days after someone died on the mountain. The iwi explained their action with this announcement:

He aitua! He aitua! Ka papaki te tai o te atarau, ka huri aku kamo ki te tihi o Tongariro ki nga hihi o te ra e piata mai ana. Aue taukuri e!

It is with great sadness that Ngāti Hikairo ki Tongariro and Ngati Tūwharetoa acknowledge the recent death in Tongariro National Park. 

With the support of DOC, NZ Police and LandSAR a rāhui has been placed on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing for three days from today Friday 14 February 2020 and will be lifted at sunrise on Monday 17 February 2020.

A rāhui (physical and spiritual protection mechanism) sets a temporary prohibition around the rāhui area and limits access for that period in order to acknowledge the death and to express our sympathy to the whānau of the deceased. It provides time for tapu (sacredness) to dissipate following the death allowing time for healing and recovery of the natural elements at place as well as the people; in particular the grieving whānau. To show respect all hikers in the area are asked to consider using alternative tracks during the rāhui.

More examples of rāhui being placed on an area, because of death causing the land and water to become tapu, followed the tragedy caused by the eruption of Whakaari/White Island in 2019. Each of the Eastern Bay of Plenty Iwi declared a rāhui over coastal areas where they held mana whenua. Radio NZ reporters Māni Dunlop and Te Aniwa Hurihanganui quoted the words of Ngāti Awa rangatira Te Kei Merito:

There are a number of reasons to place a rāhui, and in this case the purpose is to acknowledge the fact that multiple people have already lost their lives as a result of the eruption. The application of rāhui in this instance is very much a sign of respect to those who lost their lives, and to their families.

When it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are being asked to temporarily put ‘business as usual’ on hold, and to keep a physical distance from everyone except a few people we are close to. This has been declared by our democratically elected Prime Minister, a woman of mana and status in this country. These factors mean that the term ‘rāhui’ could be applied, although the fact that we are allowed to go walking and to supermarkets does not quite fit the strict nature of a rāhui. Ngahiwi Apanui from Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, the Māori Language Commission, said that the words noho taratahi (self-isolation) and taratahi (quarantine) were more appropriate.

A sign for a rāhui in place following the Whakaari / White Island eruption. Photo: Supplied to RNZ by Craig Te Kaha

Rāhui are being used to support the taratahi, however. The NZ Herald announced that a rāhui had been placed on the Huka Falls Scenic Reserve on 25 March, the eve of Alert Level 4:

Te Kotahitanga o Ngāti Tūwharetoa Trust made the announcement on Facebook last night saying the reserve would closed, effective immediately. They said in a statement that they doubted many would visit the site due to the lockdown restrictions, but it was a “precaution to protect the community from potential transmission of COVID-19.” The Department of Conservation has implemented the closure on behalf of the trust.

The worldview associated with the concept of rāhui – that enforced separation is sometimes necessary in order to restore the world to a state of normality, allowing the tapu to dissipate – is one that I prefer to that of being ‘locked down’. It focuses on the world outside of me, and my place in the world, giving me a sense that respecting a rāhui is a positive thing; instead of words that suggest my personal rights and freedoms are being negatively affected. Perhaps the end result is the same, yet to me, words and worldviews make a difference.

First published in the National Council of Women NZ Circular, May 2020, 632.

Listen then, if you have ears

The Bible reports that when the apostles complained to Jesus that they didn’t understand the meaning of the stories he told, he replied “Listen then, if you have ears.”

From a Pākehā (my) perspective, this approach can be very frustrating. In my experience, a typical Pākehā learning style involves asking for clarification, to see the words written, to be given a translation. The message seems to be “I don’t want to misunderstand you, so tell me exactly what it means, and then I can learn it.”

But my experience in Māori learning environments has suggested to me that Māori learning and teaching is far more implicit than that. “Watch!” I am told in response to my questions. “Just follow.”

Several times I have heard a similar answer to a (Pākehā) question about the hongi at a pōwhiri:

Pākehā: “How do you know the ‘right’ way to hongi?”

Māori: “Don’t be first! Copy what the person in front of you does.”

These different styles have implications for teaching in a bicultural setting, both when actively facilitating a learning event, and when being a role model at meetings. If I am committed to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, I should be using te reo Māori – but should I translate what I say, or let people take the obvious meaning from the way I say it? If I leave the meaning implicit, am I hindering the learning for the learning for the Pākehā participants? Yet if I always translate, is that, for Māori participants, akin to someone always explaining the punch line of a joke? Does this emphasis, yet again, that this is a Pākehā environment, even when I am trying to follow bicultural processes?

I believe that as a step on a bicultural journey, educators in Aotearoa should recognise the implicit/ explicit styles of learning and be comfortable to accommodate both in our learning and teaching. We need to understand that an educator promoting implicit learning – for example, through role modelling, through deliberately not translating other languages, or through not explaining the meaning of stories- is not doing it ‘badly’: simply doing it ‘differently’.

  • This reflection was originally published in 2009 in the Playcentre Journal 136, p.13.
  • For those who wish to translate the Māori words used, the Māori Dictionary is a great resource.

Citavi and Me: A love affair

Back in 2014, my laptop was stolen, along with the memory sticks I used as back-up. Given I was in the middle of my PhD at the time, this was quite devasting. I was particularly gutted that I lost all the academic papers I’d downloaded, and the notes I had made on them. The reference management software I had been using was Citavi, and although I could install it again on a new computer, I had lost my entire database.

At the time I was doing an online course through the University of Auckland, to introduce researchers to the use of social media and online tools. So I blogged about my loss, as one of the ‘assignments’. It didn’t help me recover anything, but it did make me feel better.

As a classic example of how anything you put out on the Net can come back to you even years later, in 2018 I was contacted by Citavi with condolences on my loss! Even better, they offered me a new free license so I could upgrade to the newest version which was cloud based. Excitement+ 😊. Not only could I continue to use Citavi for free (my original license was only for the older version), but the cloud-based way of working meant that my database was not located solely on one computer, which can be stolen or broken. I threw myself into learning how to properly use the new version, even how to say the name (Si-taa-vee), and trying to realise more of its potential. Thank you, Citavi, for the opportunity!

This has been part of my recent tech learning around using cloud-based apps and storage. I know there can be issues around security and being able to access data offline. Yet I weigh that against the insecurity of data located on a single device. Most of my data is important to me but not confidential, and I’m sure that marketers know more about me from my use of Facebook than they would ever know from the notes o the papers I read. The outcome is that I’m happily settling into cloud storage as a way of life.

Further, it is opening a new way of working. I know other people have been using document sharing apps for a while now, but it is new to me. And similarly to the idea of using technology in the classroom, this is opening a new way of collaborating online and not simply a new tool for doing things the same way as before (as I have reflected on in a previous blog post). The issue for me is that the groups I work with, where I could be using these new tools and new ways of working, are of mixed technological abilities. To collaborate effectively, every member of the group needs to be able to participate, so technologically speaking, we have to cater to the lowest common denominator (LCD). The potential of the tools, then, are only realised by persuading, educating and supporting the LCD to adopt the new technology.

In other words, in order to effectively use new technology, people skills are required. Not rocket science perhaps? Or maybe, people skills is rocket science…

I am not a Marxist

I gave it a good go, though. Since my political leanings are towards socialism, an international education conference run by radical Marxists seemed like a good idea to see whether this would be my intellectual ‘home’. Although the conference was a relatively good experience, it confirmed for me that no, I was not a Marxist!

The main issue was what I felt was the narrowness of societal critique. Although the emphasis on the harm caused by inequality was something I could relate to, the analysis was almost entirely economic. Agreed that such analysis is a traditional Marxist approach; but I had thought maybe in a modern world, more intersectionality would have crept in. Despite a little bit of race/culture and gender analysis, the intersectionality was predominantly absent. The discourse was centred on fixing the system, and not so much on supporting human rights and addressing people’s attitudes and biases. For me, this is an incomplete picture.

There was new language to learn, too. I found that this conference was run by Revolutionary Marxists, who believe that equality cannot be achieved without radically changing our whole economic situation. Some speakers were very clear “capitalism is the enemy”. Looking back on an old blog post, Apple Brand Activism, I see that Russell Brand encapsulates a revolutionary Marxist viewpoint. He refuses to vote, for example, because that would be participating in (and therefore condoning) a system he disagrees with. In contrast, Michael Apple represents the Reformist Marxists, who advocate for changes within the system. Karl Popper would call this ‘piecemeal social change’, where incremental changes are made and evaluated. Incremental changes are much easier to evaluate, as opposed to radical overhauls. A classic example is the New Zealand switch to neoliberalism – twenty five years later the National government was still telling us that this switch would pay off, if only we give it enough time. Apparently when the economy grows, and everyone, even the poorest people, will benefit from the ‘trickle down’ effect, despite the evidence of the past quarter century.

I think I will stick with incremental change, reformist Marxists, and sociological analyses that incorporate wider diversity and inclusion lenses.

‘What’s the Problem Represented to Be?’ A policy analysis tool designed by Carol Bacchi and some recent applications in the area of early childhood education policy

Ipu Kererū

Dr Suzanne ManningWhitireia NZ / University of Auckland

Many ‘problems’ seem resistant to change, despite a plethora of policy. Carol Bacchi insists that this is because of the way that ‘problems’ are represented in policy. She says that to create real change, the representation of policy ‘problems’ needs to change.  Her policy analysis tool, called “What’s the problem represented to be?” (WPR) provides a guide for examining and disrupting problem representations. This tool could be useful for educational policy researchers yet is relatively unknown in Aotearoa New Zealand. This post introduces the WPR tool and gives some examples of its use in relation to early childhood education policy.


Emeritus Professor Carol Bacchi, originally from Canada, taught and researched in the area of feminist political theory for many years at the University of Adelaide before retiring in 2009. She has written three books explaining her ‘What’s the…

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Caring Conferences

In Aotearoa NZ, we have become more conscious of the bicultural origins of our country. Recognising this, conferences will now start with a pōwhiri or mihi whakatau (both are forms of welcome). Māori people, however, will often get miffed at the ‘dial a pōwhiri’ attitude that Pākehā people can have. Some of this relates to a difference in ideas of what it means to welcome manuhiri (visitors) with a pōwhiri. For Pākehā, it can be a ritual that is separate from the ‘real business’ of the conference. For Māori, it entails taking responsibility for the manuhiri, and this involves effort and a sharing of oneself – not something taken on lightly. In conferences I have been involved in organising, asking Māori to tautoko (support) the conference can mean a deeper involvement than simply turning up for a pōwhiri. One couple attended the entire conference; another kaumatua (elder) gifted his ceremonial stick as a taonga (treasure) to guide our conference now and in the future. To tautoko the conference in a Māori way is to be present, to be committed, to become part of the community.

I’ve been thinking about this over the last year or two as I attend academic conferences. As an example, a conference I attended last year in England. I have been experimenting with different ‘academic communities’, trying to find a place where I belong, since my research interests bring together policy, history and education. This annual conference was relatively small, many people knew each other and attended regularly, and I thought that I might find a welcoming and stimulating academic community here. Well, yes and no.

The numbers attending this conference varied hugely from day to day. So many people came for only one or two days of this almost-four day conference. Some people literally only came to present, and then they left. The last day was basically postgraduate presentations, and there were very few senior academic present on that day. I toyed with the idea of not going on that day, but I couldn’t get past the idea that I should tautoko these students, it really was my responsibility as a (temporary) member of this community. That did not seem to be the attitude of many others, a phenomenon I have seen repeated at many other conferences too (although this seemed more marked). Why do established academics not see it as their responsibility to tautoko others? As Spencer, Jacob and Leach (2015) say, “we might expect an educational community to be, by its very nature, a ‘caring community’”(p. 158) – and I tend to think of academic communities as also educational ones – was this an example of a caring community?

Further, I have dilemmas over which sessions to attend at a conference, resulting as much from what impact I think my presence will have, as from which topics I am interested in. Should I attend the sessions of people I have had conversations with, to show them that I meant it when I said ‘your topic sounds interesting’? Should I attend the postgraduate student’s session rather than the professor’s session in the next room, just so the student has an audience? Why is it such a problem for me, and not, seemingly, to others? Besides my personal values, I do think it can be attributed to the gendered way I have been socialised; as per Jennifer Nias, who suggests that understandings of care are often explained in terms of social conditioning with socio-historical roots (as cited in Spencer et al., 2015).

The feminine approach to caring is relational, and reciprocal (Delaune, 2017; Noddings, 2003). Perhaps the lack of reciprocity (very few people came to see my presentation) is what gave me a dissatisfied feeling at this conference. Here I was ‘caring’ for others, and where was the return? It shouldn’t matter, maybe, but it does.

I also found myself gravitating towards the other women at the conference, and towards the helpers and support crew. This was my ‘comfort’ zone: commonality in gender, commonality in caring and service. Amongst these people was a sense of commitment, of presence, for the conference. It wasn’t something just to dip in and out of. Matilda Keynes made a comment in a recent blog post that “My first impression was the uniquely congenial atmosphere of the workshop. The participants were exclusively female, emerging and established scholars. Our ways of interacting brought to mind an influential text I read as an undergraduate – Womens Ways of Knowing [1986]“ and goes on to say that the participants had a supportive-critical rather than deficit-critical approach to interacting. Sounds good to me!

Perhaps I might enjoy my conferences more if I stopped caring so much about others and worrying how to make them feel included, and instead looked out more for my own needs. But I doubt it; it is too much part of my values system. I would prefer that other people at conferences would tautoko the conference in a Māori way, and reciprocally care for others in a feminine way. Changing others, though, is not a productive use of my energy. In the future I will strive for a better balance between caring for me and caring for others.


Delaune, A. (2017). ‘Investing’ in Early Childhood Education and Care in Aotearoa New Zealand: Noddings’ Ethics of Care and the Politics of Care within the Social Investment Approach to Governance. Global Studies of Childhood, 7(4), 335–345.

Noddings, N. (2003). Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CZ: University of California Press.

Spencer, S., Jacobs, A., & Leach, C. (2015): Alumni voices: The changing experience of higher education. Winchester: Winchester University Press.

Personal metaphors to guide professional practice

A metaphor is a linguistic device to aid the communication and understanding of complex and things such as concepts or practices. Jensen (2006) uses the metaphor of a bridge to describe the work that a metaphor does: linking characteristics of a familiar thing (vehicle term) with something else (topic term), drawing on previous knowledge to aid understanding of the topic term. Knowledge of the specific characteristics being linked is often assumed. When this assumed knowledge is obvious, the metaphor is said to have high salience (Farquhar & Fitzsimons, 2016; Jensen, 2006). However the salient characteristics are culturally and context dependent (Farquhar & Fitzsimons, 2016). For example, Golding et al. (2015, p. 8) discuss metaphors for learning advisors’ practice, in the Association for Tertiary Learning Advisors of Australia and New Zealand (ATLAANZ) journal. One of the metaphors evaluated is that of a learning advisor (topic term) as a Teacher (vehicle term). In what ways is a learning advisor like a teacher? That depends on an understanding of what a teacher is and does. Golding et al. clarify their understanding of a teacher in this metaphor as an expert instructor or ‘sage-on-the-stage’, and discuss the weaknesses of this metaphor in relation to learning advisors. This is only one way of understanding Teacher characteristics, as Golding et al. acknowledge. The metaphor becomes ambiguous if there are differing interpretations of the characteristics that are being compared. The salience of such a metaphor cannot be assumed, especially when used across different cultures.

When a metaphor has high salience, and the people using the metaphor have a common understanding of what characteristics of the vehicle term are being compared to the topic term, then it is said to be an active metaphor (Jensen, 2006). An active metaphor is successful at being a bridge between the two terms. Where the salience is low, and it is unclear or ambiguous which characteristics are being compared, then the metaphor is said to be inactive (Jensen, 2006). Metaphors can be categorised as dead when “the saliency between the topic and vehicle terms are now inaccessible because of a lack of knowledge or experience with the characteristics of the vehicle term” (Jensen, 2006, p. 45). This is often the case with metaphors that relate to the experience of an older generation, but which are completely mysterious to a younger generation.

A fourth category of metaphor is the foundational metaphor, which “defines the centrally important features of the concept being studied” (Jensen, 2006, p. 45). Jensen (2006) gives the example of an organisation as a machine being a foundational metaphor. In the case of Golding et al., it could be said that the foundational metaphor is the learning-advisor-as-an-individual-worker, and all the suggested metaphors name and describe this worker. Such a foundational metaphor limits thinking about a learning advisor’s practice to that of individual professional behaviour, rather than other approaches such as learning advising as a relationship, or learning advising as an expression of values. These other approaches are more characteristic of Pacific and Māori worldviews, whereas the individual worker metaphor fits more within a westernised, Pākehā framework (Huffer, 2006; Johansson-Fua, Ruru, Sanga, Walker, & Ralph, 2012). The deliberate use of a foundational metaphor that steps outside a westernised framework could be a useful tool to encourage different ways of understanding the world and develop a more culturally responsive pedagogy. The metaphor used, however, must still have salience for the learning advisor, or risk being an inactive or dead metaphor because of a lack of previous knowledge and understanding. This was the starting point for my latest paper, submitted to the ATLAANZ journal for publication later in 2019. As part of my research for that paper, I investigated the unique aspects of metaphors used by Pacific peoples.

Pacific metaphors     

Sanga (2014) analysed Pacific metaphors in educational settings. He noted that the metaphors were often visual, and used a concrete object (e.g. a fale/house, a kakala/flower necklance) that could be seen to explain a more abstract concept (wellbeing, the process of research). Further, the metaphors often referred to things that people co-created in context, where process of creation and the context of the creation were both important. Consider the metaphor of the tīvaevae quilt, which is made in the Cook Islands through a collaborative process, with set stages that nevertheless allow for creative variation. Further, the reason for making the tīvaevae and its presentation to the recipient are as important and as much a part of the process as the actual creation (MaUa-Hodges, 2018; Te Ava, Arini, & Rubie-Davies, 2011)

The coconut or niu is an example of a universal metaphor because of its significance to all of the Pacific islands (Albon, 2015). Leautuli’ilagi Sauvao, a tutor at Whitireia NZ, uses the niu as a metaphor for a well-constructed assignment, by linking it with the proverb O le popo e pa’u toe ola (L. Sauvao, pers. comm, 22 August 2018). This is a variant of the proverb listed by Shultz (1949) as “O le pa’u a le popo uli – The falling of a ripe coconut: a ripe coconut that falls off the tree strikes root and grows” (p. 181). In this case, to understand the metaphor fully it is necessary to be acquainted with the particular proverb (both its literal and figurative meanings), be familiar with the vehicle term (the niu/coconut) and its significance to Pacific people, and be aware of the epistemology or production of knowledge that makes the metaphor an active one. This background knowledge can be learnt, but the resonance of the metaphor to one’s own practice would be limited for those people not of Pacific origins. At the same time, making an effort to understand such a metaphor can lead to broadening thinking beyond a Palagi (Pākehā/western) perspective.


Albon, G. (2015). Pasifika Leadership Programme: Unpacking a cultural metaphor. Retrieved from

Farquhar, S., & Fitzsimons, P. (2016). Seeing through the metaphor: The OECD toolbox for early childhood. Semiotica, 2016(212), 97–110.

Huffer, E. (2006). Regionalism and cultural identity: Putting the Pacific back into the plan. In S. Firth (Ed.), Globalisation and governance in the Pacific Islands (pp. 43–58). ANU E Press.

Jensen, D. (2006). Metaphors as a bridge to understanding educational and social contexts. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 5(1), 36–54.

Johansson-Fua, S.’u., Ruru, D., Sanga, K., Walker, K., & Ralph, E. (2012). Creating mentorship metaphors: Pacific Island perspectives. LEARNing Landscapes, 6(1), 241–259.

MaUa-Hodges, T. (2018). ‘Aere! ‘Aere! ‘Opara ki mua! Teaching Cook Islands Māori to adults in New Zealand: A critical review of literature (Masters of Professional Practice). Whitireia NZ, Porirua.

Shultz, E. (1949). Proverbial sayings of the Samoans. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 58(4), 139–184. Retrieved from

Te Ava, A., Arini, & Rubie-Davies, C. (2011). Akarakara akaouanga i te kite pakari o te kuki airani: Culturally responsive pedagogy. Asian-Pacific Education, 23(2), 117–128. Retrieved from

This post contains some of the material that was not included in my paper published in the Journal of the Association for Tertiary Learning Advisors of Australia and New Zealand (ATLAANZ), titled “Please bring a plate”: A metaphor for learning advisor practice based on Pacific values.