Navigating Giftedness and Cultural Diversity in Aotearoa New Zealand

“Kotahi ano te kohao o te ngira, e kuhu ai te miro whero, te miro ma, te miro pango.”
“There is but one eye of the needle, through which the red, white, and black thread must pass.”

We are all equal in the eyes of god. There is strength in Diversity and Unity.

To many, diversity means ‘difference’. It can be a euphemism for not fitting the norm in a gifted education context. The definition takes on a stronger potency when applied to diversity between cultures. It is this very cultural concept of diversity, which is about to take on an ever-increasing role of importance in the next couple of years. Nowhere will this be more visible than in Gisborne. This is because the foreshore is the landing place of two seafaring cultures navigated by two world changing leaders. The early Māori voyagers arrived on a canoe from distant Pacific islands and at the helm was Chief Kiwa. Hundreds of years later, the European explorers on the HMS Endeavour, captained by Lieutenant James Cook, sailed into the bay of Tairāwhiti from across the other side of the world. Landfall for both traditions of gifted navigators was on the beach head of Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, where modern-day Gisborne sits. The historic site represents the first coming together of the two cultures back in 1769. Tūranga-Gisborne is thus the birthplace of Aotearoa New Zealand.

This 250-year anniversary in 2019 will be an event extraordinaire marked on the edge of the world. It will be the definitive occasion in New Zealand’s past 50 years to memorialise the initial engagement between Western and indigenous ideologies. The First Encounters 250 marks the beginning of a cultural nexus, adding a special richness and flavour that difference brings with it. Acknowledging and respecting each culture’s diversity is the key ingredient to this watershed moment in history. Te Hā, meaning the “sharing of breath” in the traditional Māori hongi, is the Sestercentennial to commemorate Cook’s landing on the shores of Aotearoa New Zealand. But of equal significance, it signals the first meeting with the tangata whenua, the indigenous Māori settlers of Tairāwhiti.

You may well wonder how this impending commemoration, auspicious though it is in the history books, links into giftedness and our gifted young people? The answer is simple. Gifted and talented education is a strong, rich vein pulsing through many of the Tūranga-Gisborne region’s schools. So much so, seven schools work collaboratively in a cluster to recognise the importance for the diverse qualities and attributes of exceptional children. Their mission is to advance the well-being and future of their high ability, high potential students. Thinking innovatively, these schools banded together to establish the new “Aurora.” The entity is a pioneer for Tairāwhiti. This prototype now takes the form of a registered charitable trust, dedicated to improving the higher learning and achievements of local GATE students. But Aurora is more than an audacious community-based education model. Essentially, The Aurora Education Foundation reflects the future-focused vision of this special place and will be a catalyst to put diverse learners in the limelight at Te Hā.

Aurora aims to ensure the most talented learners can play their part in hosting a dual cultural spectacular on the world stage during early October in 2019. This will be their time to step up, proud in their cultural identity as inspiring leaders and rangatira. We hope that this golden moment will reflect a relatively recent and encompassing conceptualisation for gifted and talented students:

“Gifted and talented learners are recognised, valued, and empowered to develop their exceptional abilities and qualities through equitable access to differentiated and culturally responsive provisions” (Ministry of Education, 2012, p. 10).

However ambitious the intentions of this current concept, it is the expression of this culturally-aligned framework, which appears so problematic. Put more precisely, bi-cultural diversity, with its convergence of two world views, is one of the biggest challenges to the inclusiveness and integrity of the gifted education field across Aotearoa New Zealand. As an educationalist, Jenkins advocates in her research - enforced by swathes of literature – that Māori underrepresentation in gifted programmes is largely due to inappropriate cultural practices in mainstream schools, particularly around identification, programming, and evaluation (2004). The whole ‘kit caboodle’ in other words. “Gifted Māori children are rarely identified or provided for” (Rymarczyk, 2001, p. 95). This can largely be put down to attitudes associated with “cultural stereotyping” and a gap in professional knowledge from the predominant Pākehā perspective (Moltzen, 1999). Dr Jill Bevan-Brown’s seminal study (1993) on a Māori perspective of special abilities offers a significant contribution to the literature and is more specific: “Giftedness is widely distributed in Māori society. It is not bound by social class, economic status, lineage or gender” (Bevan-Brown, 2004, p. 173).

For so long now, the recognition of equity within duality has lagged in actual practice. Even though the Ministry’s strategic vision for Māori students achieving highly, Ka Hikitia– Managing Success for Māori, has been enshrined since 2007, there is still much room for improvement. This lack of progress is evidenced by researchers in the Ministry’s 2012 handbook, Gifted and Talented Students: Meeting their Needs in New Zealand Schools. Very little appears to have changed over the millennium decade. It reports: “Culturally diverse and economically disadvantaged students are often under-represented in programmes for gifted and talented” (p. 25). Earlier in 2006, Keen sums up a key finding from his study on talent according to ethnicity. Māori children “were identified as gifted and talented at about half the rate for New Zealand Europeans” (p. 89). Researchers, Riley and Bicknell, discovered as part of their latest national stocktake survey (2013) that developments in culture-specific identification showed a small lift from “43.1% in 2004 to 47.3%” (2013, p. 6). Although slight, any improvement over a decade is worthy of recognition.

Bevan-Brown issues a provocation in her giftEDnz Te Manu Kōtuku lecture, Digging Deeper, Flying Higher (2012). She counters the pleasing increase of Māori tamariki being included in gifted programmes with the rider that if these provisions do not account for students’ culture, then the reason to celebrate is mitigated. Dr Bevan-Brown goes on to emphasise the ultimate is a truly equal partnership, whereby Māori learners’ gifts must not be at the expense of their culture. Rather, their diversity should be an essential part of their development in which “the content and context is Māori-relevant” (p.12). Bevan-Brown’s warning that all gifts and talents valued by Māori are important, not just those that align with the Western concepts of giftedness has pertinence for all educators. But on the proviso, they must be forward-thinking attributes for a rapidly changing world. This caution is reinforced by her Māori colleague, who said, “If we just think of our culture in terms of traditional knowledge being applied only in traditional ways, we are on the wrong waka!” (p. 12).

This wisdom is echoed in the Aurora Higher Learning Programme, created to mirror the cultural values patently significant to Tūranga-Gisborne. The local-based initiative is designed to look past the Eurocentric construct of giftedness to a more all-embracing template. This is characterised by a holistic view of entwined interpersonal relationships inclusive of a broad range of talents. Identification and programming does not centre on a purely academic or intellectual focus. The driver for Aurora is to grow community-minded and socially aware children. These young people are urged to look to the past in the light that the unique history of their home place can inform their actions as citizens in tomorrow’s world. The notion of commemorating a common history, while navigating the future is summed up in the catchphrase chosen to represent the vision and enact the spirit of Te Hā: “Dual Heritage – Shared Future.”

The ethnic mix of Māori and Pākehā children makes for an exciting and colourful group of aspiring leaders. Where possible and appropriate, Māori tikanga is integrated into the one-day workshops with karakia and mihi playing a crucial part. Manaakitanga (caring, honouring, and helping others) is expressed through the making and sharing of kai at a communal lunch, along with protocols on welcoming and thanking guest specialists. The leaders from full immersion school classes are encouraged to speak and write in te reo Māori to align with their dominant culture. In other words, “the Māori child, who is the rangatira (leader, chief) in a group situation [and] has a good knowledge of Māoritanga and traditional arts and skills.” (Rymarczyk, 2001, p. 96). At Aurora workshops, there are always stand-out students enacting such culturally specific values. This is the leader demonstrating a sense of justice and fair play, who can speak te reo Māori (Cathcart & Pou, 1992). Aurora leadership is an open concept, predicated on important qualities marking cultural diversity and the essence of being an outstanding Māori role model. Here the words of the renowned African American writer (a recipient of Obama’s Presidential Medal of Freedom), Maya Angelou, have special resonance: “We should all know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must all understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their colour.”

The Aurora learning intensives are made up of promising school leaders, who come together to engage in a rich variety of specialised activities. They are challenged to “step up” to greater heights of personal performance, but also urged to remember the worth of giving service back, or “tuakana,” to the local community. Dr Jill Bevan-Brown pinpoints the paramountcy of including these social and cultural qualities. She alludes to Renzulli (2002) theorising about the importance of expanding the definitions of giftedness to involve “co-cognitive conditions” like courage and sensitivity to human issues. At the heart of Renzulli’s Operation Houndstooth programme is social capital. This emphasises the importance of open interaction within equitable human relationships. Renzulli propounds we ignore our humanness and acknowledgement of our diversity at our peril. But Bevan-Brown believes that we have recognised the relevance of culture, especially as “we have already done this in NZ with our Māori concept of giftedness” (2012, p. 13). Furthermore, she notes that where Renzulli brings in the service learning initiative to his theory, this ‘giving back’ component is already an inherent and integral part of Māori giftedness.

For Aurora, leadership is the flagship programme; the touchstone to all that Aurora and its young leaders are known for within Tairāwhiti. Our Aurora leaders exemplify Renzulli’s premise that the leadership education must include community-mindedness and a moral impetus for working towards a kinder, more caring world. Fundamental to the identification of students for the Aurora programme was the overriding need for leaders to encompass a wide range of abilities and attributes. This array of talents fits with the multi-categorical diversity of revered skills inherent within a holistic Māori paradigm, and a place-based concept of all-rounded leadership so valued in the historic frontier town of Gisborne. There is an explicit focus on a ‘rounded’ leader showing empathy and ethics, who empowers others in their service to humanity. In designing the Aurora framework, the community learning activities took the shape of humanitarian leadership.

To this end, Rosie, a gifted young woman spoke to the group on her eventful and sometimes terrifying experience caring for and teaching children in war-torn South Sudan. Her work for Iris Ministries left a huge imprint on our leaders. They went back to their schools and fundraised to send money for student learning resources, like small individual whiteboards. Another interesting session was their time spent with two Otago Medical School Trainee Doctors on community placement in Gisborne. The exercise with stethoscopes created much laughter, and learning how to put patients into the recovery position was made even more memorable, when a boy in the class came quite close to fainting! Correspondingly, the panel of prefects from local schools across the region proved a favourite. These older role models urged our youngsters to use their gifts to help and benefit others. Throughout all three community-based experiences, the intertwined strand of service was picked up as a key ingredient to make a ‘good’ Aurora leader.

More explicitly though, last year’s Aurora leaders were chosen with a specific purpose in mind. This was the brief to represent the new organisation as “Ambassadors of Aurora.” These selected students required very competent oral communication skills and the aptitude to readily connect with people. Assured self-confidence was another preferred strength, especially in relation to public speaking roles within the wider community context. The focus on excellent oratory talents were well suited to the high percentage of Māori leaders selected for this accelerate group. Mature interpersonal abilities were particularly desirable to fulfil the high expectations of everyone working within the Aurora leadership model. In 2016, the first year of operation, these multi-talented students were ‘polished’ in preparation to play a key role at the official launch of Aurora. The delivery of the presentation on their leadership experiences was the pinnacle of the programme. Such a splendid highlight became one to be shelved under the title of ‘unforgettable’. This was namely because their Aurora leadership journey was performed in front of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. Bill English, only a few days before he became the New Zealand Prime Minister!

The bi-cultural side of the Aurora leadership programme was to challenge children to research how the historic sense of place impacted on local identity for both ethnicities. The student-designed “Tūranga Tiki Tour” was a half-day pictorial trip around all the iconic heritage attractions of Gisborne city. This was a close-up inspection on the significance attached to the key landing sites on the shore, tying into the navigation stories of both peoples.

There was moral outrage that the original landing site for both the Māori and European cultures was not sacred. Indeed, this symbolic icon is far from honoured. It is now an ignominious storage space for stacking logs for the Port of Gisborne! There was even talk of letters to the newspaper editor in protest. The fermenting social awareness is perhaps one of the strongest, most far-reaching developments for Aurora leaders. It sets them on the path to acknowledge their dual birthright of Tūranga-Gisborne. Like the hope entrenched in the Te Hā vision, the exchange of breath symbolises a future sharing, an equality nearly 250 years later from the fateful first encounter of two contrasting cultures. These young Aurora role models should have the early experience to lead the way; to walk with pride and ease in both worlds. Diversity in this gifted education context is not about difference. Instead, cultural diversity is branded as a merging, a blending of cultures promising a more enlightened future.

In Tūranga-Gisborne, those working together to advance diverse gifted and talented children want nothing more than that they grow up as culturally enlightened and caring young citizens. To bring this ambition to fruition, we would do well to heed the words of Maya Angelou: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style.” Yet, with true Aurora flair, perhaps our leaders say it best in their own slogan, “Why just shine, when you can sparkle!”


Bevan-Brown, J. (2004). Gifted and talented Māori learners. In Gifted and Talented: New

Zealand Perspectives, 2nd ed., ed. D. McAlpine and R. Moltzen. Palmerston North:

Kanuka Grove Press.

Bevan-Brown, J. (2012). Digging deeper, flying higher. APEX: The New Zealand Journal of Gifted Education, 17(1). Retrieved from

Keen, D. (2006). Talent in the new millennium and tracking talent. Paper presented at the Rising Tides: Nurturing our Gifted Culture Conference. Wellington.

Ministry of Education. (2012). Gifted and talented students: Meeting their needs in New Zealand schools. Wellington: Learning Media.

Riley, T., & Bicknell, B. (2013). Gifted and talented education in New Zealand schools: A decade later. APEX: The New Zealand Journal of Gifted Education, 18(1). Retrieved from

Rymarczyk Hyde, C. (2001). Māori Children with Special Abilities (MCWSA). Recognising and providing for: “Ngā pohutukawa roa - tall pohutukawas”. In Above the Clouds: Ka rewa ake ki ngā kapua. Identifying and nurturing Maori students of promise. Christchurch: University of Canterbury.

Karen (Sunny) Bush

Executive Director: The Aurora Education Foundation

giftEDnz Board Member

Posted as part of the 2017 New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour #NZGAW, run by the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.

Created By
Sunny (Karen) Bush


Created with images by Sean Tiernan - "through the eye of a needle" • zimpenfish - "Threads" • Cool kids use APNK by People's Network.

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