Story: Māori education – mātauranga

Page 1. Education in traditional Māori society

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Process of learning

In traditional Māori society, all important aspects of life had systems of knowledge transfer and skills acquisition that had been refined over the centuries. The learning process began in the womb, with mothers chanting oriori (lullabies) to their unborn children. When a child was born, tohunga would undertake rituals to prepare them for their future role within the iwi.

As children grew, it was crucial to the survival and success of the hapū and iwi that they learnt a positive attitude to work, and practical activities such as gathering, harvesting and preparing food, and weaving, carving and warfare. For such activities there was a mixture of on-the-job training and formal learning, similar to an apprenticeship. Games that mimicked adult activities were an important part of the learning process.

Rituals and transmission

A ritual marked each step in the learning process, including some form of test for the student. Group learning and cooperative teaching was the norm, with uncles, aunts and grandparents all playing important roles. In a society in which the main form of social control was tapu (religious restrictions), a respect for tapu and knowledge of its operation was an essential aspect of the education process. In an oral culture, waiata (songs), whakataukī (proverbs), kōrero tawhito (history), pūrākau (stories) and whakapapa (genealogy) were important educative tools for transmitting an iwi’s history, values and models of behaviour.

Whare wānanga

The whare wānanga (house of learning) was a traditional educational institution reserved for a select few with the proper chiefly lineage. Students also had to have the mental aptitude to retain the vast repertoire of waiata, karakia, whakapapa and other kōrero tawhito that prepared them for the role of tohunga.

Ngā kete wānanga – the baskets of knowledge

Knowledge was divided into curriculum areas according to the three kete brought from the heavens by Tāne. Te kete aronui contained religious, ceremonial and other advanced knowledge relevant to the enlightenment of people, and to the preservation of physical, spiritual and mental welfare. Te kete tuauri represented knowledge of benign ritual and the history and practices of human lineages. Te kete tuatea was the repository of evil knowledge.

According to Ngāti Kahungunu tradition, the god Tāne ascended to Te Toi-o-ngā-rangi, the 12th and topmost heaven, and returned with three kete wānanga (baskets of knowledge) and two whatukura (sacred stones). The kete came from a house named Matangireia and the stones from another named Rangiātea. Tāne then descended the heavens and suspended the kete along with the stones in Wharekura, a house in Rangitāmaku, the second heaven.

The first earthly whare wānanga was said to have been constructed by Ruatepupuke (who represents knowledge) at Te Hono-i-Wairua, and was also named Wharekura. Perhaps the most well-known whare wānanga in New Zealand was Te Rāwheoro at Ūawa (Tolaga Bay).

The operation of whare wānanga

Most tribes had a comparable institution, although they were known by different names in different areas. In addition, there were a number of other more specialised and practical learning institutions, including whare pora (weaving), whare mata (bird-snaring and fishing) and whare tātai (astronomy).

Participants were carefully selected and learning was conducted in a state of tapu, away from the village. Instruction took place from dawn until midday through the winter months. Whakapapa, religious and mythological information was recited by the tohunga, who was assisted by other teachers, and students had to memorise the information. The last traditional whare wānanga were held in the second half of the 19th century.

How to cite this page:

Ross Calman, 'Māori education – mātauranga - Education in traditional Māori society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Ross Calman, published 20 Jun 2012