Beneath the layers of learning: stacking up the plates of Mātauranga Māori and geology

Beneath the layers of learning: stacking up the plates of Mātauranga Māori and geology

Deep beneath the foundations of  Te Papa, the Pacific Plate plunges beneath the Australian Plate. Below the surface of the Earth, the god of earthquakes and volcanoes, Rūaumoko, trembles, rolls and kicks without warning. Earthquakes and volcanoes are the result of unstoppable motion, friction and violent release. We may not choose to have them, but without earthquakes and volcanoes, Aotearoa New Zealand would not exist and would simply sink into the Pacific Ocean.

Our Learning Team has an obligation to create learning programmes that celebrate the unique mix of cultural perspectives in Aotearoa New Zealand. Here, Learning Innovation Specialist Donald James discusses how we integrate multiple perspectives, disciplines and approaches to develop programmes that benefit all our learners.

Top-down photo of several children with their hands all pointing towards a map outline of New Zealand
Te Aro School, exploring Te Papa, 2021. Photo by Jo Moore. Te Papa (171504)

How do we develop learning programmes at Te Papa?

Our learning programmes are designed to give learners the opportunity to explore their own connection to taonga (treasures) and exhibitions. We work to extend the learning potential of the galleries with object-based learning, learner inquiry, and a focus on developing skills.

Through collaboration and user testing with school groups, we create flexible programmes that can meet the needs of learners at many different levels.

What skills are developed in a Te Papa learning programme?

Our educators encourage learners to discover their own answers to their own questions through collaboration and by responding creatively to problems and provocations. This supports learners to develop their understanding from wherever their knowledge comes from.

The educator does not necessarily need to be a world expert to facilitate a process of inquiry, as long as they can help learners to understand what a good question is and to identify gaps in their own knowledge.

One of the approaches we use for this is visual thinking strategies which employ open questions and supportive language to generate discussion between learners. It rewards close observation, good listening skills and makes engaging with taonga accessible to learners of all ages. These skills are as important for engaging with science as they are for art or any other discipline.

Children playing with a large map jigsaw
Reignier Catholic School in the Awesome Forces exhibition, 2012. Photograph by Kate Whitley. Te Papa (33049)

Understanding the process of science is crucial for learners to understand its value. The recent reports (April 2021) from Te Ihuwaka, regarding the teaching of science across ECE, primary and secondary schools, highlighted the value to learners of integrating science and focusing on meaningful learning rather than scientific facts.

Our learning programmes can help learners understand the processes involved in many different disciplines and by integrating subject areas together, the content and learning becomes richer.

How do we integrate science with other discipline areas?

Our Te Taiao | Nature exhibition showcases taonga and stories of the natural world and the human impact on it, both positive and negative.

It was designed and realised with the help of internal and external specialists who work in mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and the natural sciences. Weaving these knowledge systems together enables the exhibition to communicate a richer and deeper narrative about our natural world and specifically the natural history of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Whakarūaumoko | Active Land is one area in particular that combines the relatively recent scientific theory of plate tectonics with the complex mātauranga associated with Rūaumoko, atua (god) of earthquakes and volcanoes. This is the kaupapa (purpose) of one of our newest and most successfully integrated programmes, Active Earth.

A sign in a museum with the main words saying Active Land
Meet the Scientists Teacher PD, 2021. Photo by Jess Dewsnap. Te Papa (168320)

What is the Active Earth learning programme?

With the support of EQC we developed the Active Earth* learning programme that could be delivered at Te Papa or as an outreach programme to schools inspired by the content from the Whakarūaumoko area of the Te Taiao exhibition.

The Whakarūaumoko area is filled with stories, interactives and information but we wanted to have access to hands-on activities that supported collaboration, inquiry and an object-based learning approach. To this end we developed and acquired:

  • a large scale puzzle of the 15 major tectonic plates
  • foam globes that can be separated to reveal the layers of the earth
  • modular ‘recipes’ for creating 5 common igneous rocks
  • a kit set to explain the process of triangulating the epicentre of an earthquake
Small cards with scientific information on them alongside types of rocks
Rock recipe resource and handling collection objects, 2021. Photo by Donald James

A key learning outcome from the ‘rock recipes’ is the traditional uses of the rocks. Māori have an understanding of the different material qualities and what that enables the different rocks to be used for.

For example, rhyolite is used as hāngī stones for cooking in the ground, pumice as pōuto (fishing floats) or kumete (bowls); andesite as patu muka (flax pounder); obsidian as kōripi (blades) and kota (scraping tools). This mātauranga is contrasted to the contemporary uses of most of the rock types as roading aggregate.

The physical resources and hands-on activities allow learners to ask their own questions and work together to figure out their own answers. This has made the programme easy to adapt to the level of the learners, whether they are new entrants or NCEA.

As an outreach programme, we can take the same kit of resources around an entire school and modify our delivery and language to suit any class.

Foam globe showing layers of the Earth, 2021. Photo by Donald James

What are the benefits of outreach programmes to schools?

Not every school has the time and resources to be able to make the trip to Te Papa. It can be easier and cheaper for schools to arrange a visitor to come to their school rather than go through the process of booking busses and arranging for permissions.

When we visit schools we can often see many more students with our time and with less disruption to their learning day.

Visiting schools also gives us the opportunity to deliver learning programmes in the environment most familiar to learners, where they may have resources or project work relating to the Active Earth programme.

When we leave, we leave them in the environment where the new information and skills are practiced which can increase skill and knowledge retention.

For some students, meeting Te Papa educators at their school and learning about the Te Taiao | Nature exhibition can encourage them to visit the museum in their own time with their whānau (family).

In those cases, they can be the expert in their family on that particular content. It is wonderful to see the traditional expectation of adults as leaders and children as followers flipped.

Three people looking at a map of Earth projected onto the floor in an exhibition
Te Taiao | Nature opening, 2019. Photo by Jeff McEwan. Te Papa (139191)

How do we flip the learning hierarchy?

Often learning is expected to be a one-way and hierarchical relationship. Teachers or adults have the knowledge and students receive it. That model doesn’t meet our expectations for learning in the museum.

We like it when curiosity and inquiry leads everyone to ask questions and help each other find their own answers. That is why we prefer a model of non-hierarchical learning relationships between kaiako (teachers), ākonga (learners), and whānau (family) with ako (learning) at the centre.

A diagram with the words ākonga, kiako, whānau, and Ako on it
Diagram of ako when teachers, learners, and their whānau interact in a Te Papa learning programme, 2021. Te Papa

In our learning programmes, we create opportunities for teachers to become learners, for students to teach their whānau and for whānau to get involved in the mahi (work) of figuring things out for themselves, collaboratively. All actors in this relationship can change roles constantly as they ask questions, offer ideas, and help each other to solve problems.

Our role as Learning Specialists is to understand the potential of these non-hierarchical relationships and to design programmes, activities and experiences that set up kaiako, ākonga and their whānau for success.

How do we create opportunities for ako?

To create opportunities for ako in our learning programmes we find ways to level the playing field or expectations across the whole group of learners. Collaboration and communication are core skills to enable good learning experiences. We want learners to listen to each other and help each other discover understanding.

In the Active Earth programme, we present learners with novel objects such as the tectonic plate puzzle or volcanic rocks and encourage them to use their senses and inquiry to test their understanding. We are there to guide their inquiry and inspire their curiosity by rewarding their questions with more questions.

This process develops learners’ critical and creative thinking and rewards the whole group for listening and sharing. We have particularly successful learning sessions when kaiako and whānau choose to contribute by offering their own observations and ideas.

People looking at a map on a wall in an exhibition
Te Taiao | Nature public opening, 2019. Photo by Jo Moore. Te Papa (137063)

How do we support all our learners to thrive?

At Te Papa we have a unique opportunity to design learning programmes. We are situated, literally, at the collision of two worlds. Science teaches us that the greatest diversity, and potential, occurs when cultures mix in what is known as edge effects. From mātauranga Māori, the concept of ako teaches us that, by sharing our understanding we develop our collective knowledge so that we all may thrive.

Nāku te rourou, nāu te rourou, ka ora ai te iwi. With your basket and my basket, we will sustain everyone.


*We are currently unable to run our Active Earth learning programme while we are at the Red | Whero setting in the Covid-19 protection framework.



  1. After a little more reflection I took note of the discussion of “how we integrate multiple perspectives, disciplines and approaches” while “Whakarūaumoko | Active Land” was presented in purely geological terms where the land is ‘active’ only in the geological sphere. This is a very traditional and essentialist view of the Earth, where geological process mold and create our world while the animals and plants are just passive inhabitants dispersing about here and there over the geological surface. This contrasts with the panbiogeographic research discipline where earth and life evolve together – not as separate spheres of existence. That is why animal and plant distributions track or correlate with Earth’s tectonic structure, both within New Zealand and globally. By linking complex mātauranga with geology only seems to suggest that Māori knowledge and understanding is to be tied to the essentialist doctrines that impose a separation between earth and life that fragments the evolutionary landscape (a procedure formalized under Imperial Roman administration). Why on earth (no pun intended), would Te Papa subordinate mātauranga to isolation and division rather than the biologically and geologically integrated ‘Active Land’ concept of panbiogeography? This is not posed here as a rhetorical question.

  2. Slight typo in previous posting. Please use the following:

    One aspect that has yet to be exploited by traditional science is the interconnectedness of place. which I understand is an important concept in Maori tradition. But through the science of panbiogeography places are interconnected by a shared history of geology and biology and this interconnection is empirically visible in the form of correlated patterns of distribution and tectonics. That should be the starting point rather than something to be ignored (or even openly suppressed as a secret panel of the Royal Society has recently determined is ethically acceptable). And when it comes to geology we may owe the existence of New Zealand more to the origin of the Hikurangi plateau than just miscellaneous earthquakes and volcanoes.

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