What is ako and why is it important?
Ako is a Māori concept that refers to the reciprocal relationship between teaching and learning. It emphasises the idea that teachers are also learners and can learn from their students. In order to be an effective teacher, we must also be open to learning. The New Zealand Curriculum promotes this concept within their framework as a way to encourage all teachers to learn from their students and build positive relationships. In English, the words ‘teach’ and ‘learn’ are often used separately, which implies a teacher only ‘teaches’ and a student only ‘learns’. The concept of ako realigns that perspective and changes our approach.
In a traditional teacher-centred environment, the teacher is considered the master of all knowledge and the deliverer of content for students to accept and retain. Students would sit in rows of desks and passively listen to their teacher talk. However, in a learner-centred environment, ako positions the teacher as a guide, who can learn and grow along with the students. As guides, we can seek to inspire learning through discovery, inquiry and shared learning experiences. Students have opportunities to work together with their peers, share and express their opinions, expand their knowledge and be active participants in their own learning process. The Maori concept of tuakana-teina (older person-younger person) also draws on this idea that we can learn from each other, whether it is between teacher and student or peer to peer.
Students come from different backgrounds and have their own experiences, knowledge and ideas, which should be utilised in the classroom. Giving students a voice allows them to feel a sense of mana whenua (belonging). This approach acknowledges them as a valued member of the school community and an active participant in their own learning and the learning of others. This shifts the balance of power in the classroom. Students can teach the teacher or even teach their classmates. The teacher is not expected to know everything and should be willing to say ‘I don’t know but let’s find out together’.
Information is everywhere and can be easily accessed with a few clicks. In the 21st century, it has become increasingly more important to teach students how to navigate and process new information by giving them the tools to think critically and engage analytically with the information they find. The value of the teacher is not so much the content they can provide but the ways they can guide and navigate the learning experience. This can be done by asking essential questions to stimulate thought and discussion, elicit what students already know, draw connections to their personal experiences and the world around them, identify what they want to learn and provide opportunities for them to investigate, experiment and create.
2020 has been a year of change and uncertainty. Educators have had to adjust and be creative to support their student’s learning and wellbeing. During emergency remote learning, children may not have their usual opportunities to interact, socialise and engage with extracurricular activities. Keeping them motivated to learn from home during this period of time can be challenging. Home is generally associated with spending time with family, playing games, sleeping, eating, watching television or relaxing. They have suddenly been asked to think of home as a place where their formal education takes place too. This psychological leap can be difficult to make. Building positive relationships using the ako approach will help to make children feel valued, connected and immersed in the learning environment because their contributions and their voice will be heard and respected. In a moment when we feel we do not have much control of the events unfolding around us, providing a sense of control and autonomy over our own learning can be powerful.
At New Zealand School Jakarta, we are building a culture of learning amongst our teachers and staff by providing opportunities to share ideas and teach each other. We all have our own strengths and interests, so it is important to utilise this the best we can and set an example of what it means to be a lifelong learner in a collaborative community. For our students, whether we are with them in the classroom, online via video call or a combination of both, applying the ako concept will help to keep them engaged and motivated to learn. Moreover, it will nurture the idea that learning is a process instead of a result, that it is a journey instead of a destination. Ako is an ongoing exercise of teaching and learning and we believe it will bring out the best in our students and our teachers.
By Tim Maitland