10 May 2022

Classroom conversations creating cultural competency 

People & Culture

For Ninitha Koya, education is all about conversations. Listening and learning from other people’s life journeys.  

The former international student to New Zealand is now teaching business communications to richly diverse classes at Wintec in Hamilton and truly believes there is so much that that her students can learn from each other if they are given the space and confidence to share their personal experiences.  

And there is plenty for Ninitha to share with her students. She was born in Kerala, south India, and has travelled the world. As a working public relations professional, she moved to London with her husband where she completed her Master’s in Public Relations. They then moved to St Lucia, in the Caribbean, with his job before she committed to undertake her PhD.  

“We were keen to explore a new country. We were looking for one that was peaceful and offered a vibrant multi-cultural context, and we hit upon New Zealand.” 

‘Cultural awakening’ began in New Zealand 

She describes her arrival at the University of Waikato in 2015, and her work with supervisor Professor Juliet Roper, as the beginning of her “cultural awakening”.  

“Never once during the four years of my PhD did I ever think I shouldn’t speak up. That is the culture I was exposed to in New Zealand and what I take to my class too. I am incredibly lucky with the education experience I had here.” 

Having completed her PhD in Management Communications at the University of Waikato, she secured a teaching role at the Centre for Business and Enterprise at Wintec where all new teaching staff journey through Wintec’s Tōia Mai framework, to learn and incorporate mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge)and understanding of Te Tiriti principles in their teaching practice. 

“The framework focuses on inquiry, understanding that each student learns differently, and each student comes loaded with cultural knowledge that other students might not be familiar with, but should respect.” 

The aim is to raise equity and enable all learners in an inclusive way, allowing them to share their many cultural influences and to deepen the cultural competency of their classmates. 

“The teacher-centric model is just not practical any longer. It’s not about me as the source of knowledge standing in front of a class and directing them,” Ninitha says. “It’s about me learning as much from them as they learn from me. We’re all learners and we’re co-creating knowledge together.” 

Ninitha starts each of her classes with a weekly whakatauki (proverb) related to the subject the classis learning about. “The idea is to highlight the fact that age-old cultural wisdom and new developments in the field are still connected. It makes the students realise that our ancient wisdom is just so relevant today.”  

Creation of knowledge a ‘shared experience’ 

She says that when thinking about how Māori cultural competencies could be included in her class, she gave a lot of consideration to how the learning would be made relevant to international students, but in the end “it just happened organically”. 

“It was always a shared experience,” she says. “There were times when international students recognised a proverb as being similar to one from their own culture and they would teach us theirs. Or I might share a proverb from my own part of the world.”  

She incorporates a new te reo word or phrase each day, with international students easily relating it to words they would use in their own languages. “There are many similarities in language that we aren’t always aware of. And there are the funny moments, when they say ‘oh, that’s what we call it too’.” 

There is a relaxed atmosphere in Ninitha’s classes which can be unfamiliar territory for many international students used to a more hierarchical structure in education. She often initiates free-flowing discussions about a range of topics and her students quickly understand they are in a safe space to express their views.  

“We are raising cultural awareness through student-led conversation in class. We’re understanding the differences and commonalities between our different cultures. Even simple conversations about how you cook rice. You will get a million different ways to cook rice! 

“So, culture is deeply embedded in the class without it being a conscious effort. The basis of the cultural competency framework is to ensure that each student’s cultural knowledge is validated, that it is heard and seen.” 

International students embrace te ao Māori 

Pre-Covid, Ninitha’s classes were 80-90 percent international students. She initially worried they might not understand her approach, but they embraced it. She is looking forward to welcoming them back and enjoying the “vibrant” exchange of ideas they bring to her classes. 

“I think bonds are formed, not because they’re all in a class together, but because they’re having open conversations about themselves. There’s a lot of whakawhanaungatanga (relationship building) happening and it’s very empowering for international students.” 

As for her own life journey, Ninitha says the bonds she has with her own culture and language have deepened since arriving in New Zealand.  

“When I was studying in England, I felt a strong need to assimilate, to shed certain elements of my culture. I credit the focus on Māori and Pacific culture here for showing me that every culture has a space and that cultural competencies around the world have so much in common.  

“A colleague said to me that it’s like we’re all long-lost brothers and sisters and New Zealand has just brought us all together.”  

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