“At an Auckland secondary school this month, I asked a group of eight Māori and Pasifika students to try sitting with Asian and Pākehā students, and come back a week later with their findings. All, except one, got more attention from their teachers,” writes Anton Blank.


In the 1960s, American psychologist Robert Rosenthal conducted an experiment with a group of teachers, in which he tested their students’ IQs at the beginning of the year, and then again at the end of year. 

Rosenthal told the teachers at the start that he expected the results of the second test to show that all of the students had improved — but, in each class, there would be a group of “late bloomers” with “unusual potential for intellectual growth” who would outperform the other students. 

The outcome was precisely as Rosenthal predicted. But what the teachers didn’t know was that there were, in fact, no late bloomers. These students were randomly chosen. And because the teachers were primed to expect high achievement from this group, they engaged differently with them. 

This is called The Pygmalion Effect. Put simply, students grow into their teachers’ expectations.

I became intrigued by this syndrome when I managed the communications team at the Ministry of Education 20 years ago. The ministry’s archives are full of research chronicling how the underachievement of Māori and Pasifika students is linked directly to teacher expectations of these groups. 

Of all students, teachers have the most negative views of Māori students, and consequently low expectations of their abilities. I’ve just looked at the most recent NCEA Level 3 results, and Māori trail behind all other groups, and the gap between them and other learners is increasing. 

My work with the ministry led me to engage a group of Māori teenagers, who I trundled around teachers’ conferences and hui to talk about their experience in schools. I thought this a novel way to open up a dialogue between Māori students and teachers. But when I returned to the ministry, I got a firm wrist-slap from the group manager of Māori education who didn’t want teachers disquieted and upset. 

The solution was instead a glossy communications campaign called Te Mana, which focused on developing skills in Māori parents to better support their tamariki through school. 

Perpetuating stereotypes of Māori students being good at sport and music — and by implication not academically inclined — there was much excitement when Tana Umaga became a champion of the campaign. The ministry was situating problems with Māori achievement in whānau, when it knew the issue was located very specifically at the point of engagement between teachers and students. 

Corrections minister Kelvin Davis’s approach to Māori in prison applies a similar template. Kaupapa Māori programmes to stop Māori reoffending. Police minister Poto Williams has just announced more funding for iwi and marae-based justice processes, as an alternative to court. 

Erudite scholars like Kim Workman and Moana Jackson have told us, mai rānō, that the issue is the criminal justice system which deals out punishment and custodial sentences to Māori at astronomically disproportionate rates. 

Consider this: 73 percent of residents in youth justice facilities are Māori teenagers. Can anyone call that fair? Who’s at fault here? 

These new strategies are focused at the wrong end of the justice process, and should more correctly address why Māori are disproportionately arrested in the first place. Reduce the arrest of Māori and rates of Māori offending will plummet.

Given the number of Māori MPs in parliament and the opportunity for radical reform, most of the solutions being coughed out are lame, expensive, and will have no comprehensive impact. 

Whānau Māori continue to be pathologised, now, by Māori decision-makers and leaders. This is when we know for sure we’ve been colonised — when we marginalise and stigmatise ourselves. 

I don’t think any of this behaviour is intentional, but I expect more. Given the profound opportunity that presents itself, I want more intelligent innovation, and courage, from Māori politicians — more getting to the heart of the issue.

Which brings me back to teachers. I’ve worked with more than 3000 in the last 12 months, and much of their behaviour is also unintentional. They’re attracted to teaching to make a difference and are horrified by the research I’ve discussed here. 

If we use the iceberg analogy, most of their behaviours and triggers sit below the level of their conscious awareness. They don’t realise they spend more time with Asian and Pākehā students. Māori students see it, though, and retreat to the back of the classroom, where they sit in groups and disengage. 

At an Auckland secondary school this month, I asked a group of eight Māori and Pasifika students to try sitting with Asian and Pākehā students, and come back a week later with their findings. 

All, except one, got more attention from their teachers. The student who reported no difference was already sitting with a diverse group of friends. He is also fairer than the other students in this experiment, which confirms recent studies that show the darker and more obviously Māori you are, the more exclusion and discrimination you will experience. 

No major kaupapa Māori intervention required here — just seat the students differently and the relationship with the teacher changes. 

In economic theory, this is called a nudge — an environmental change that encourages humans towards a desired behaviour. I was deeply moved by the outcome of the test, and the willingness of the students to rise to the challenge. Asking teenagers to break out of their in-group is a big ask.

If, therefore, we understand racism and bias as an aspect of the human condition, that we are all capable of these behaviours, we can make sense of the political and social world and navigate it more successfully. 

Post-colonialism and anti-racism create an unresolvable conflict. It is a very blaming discussion, and while I do sympathise with the approach, overall it has not been effective in creating more freedom and privilege for Māori. 

Working across health, education, justice and social services over several decades, my experience is also that, as Māori, we carry the same biases as everyone else — about our own people. 

So, there’s a tātou-tātou thing that needs to happen, where we recognise one another’s humanity across the ethnic divide, challenge ourselves to change, and create a new narrative. It is totally possible and it is the right strategy for right now. 


Anton Blank (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu) has an extensive history in social work, communications, Māori development, public health and literature. He has held senior roles in the government and not-for-profit sectors, and was the principal investigator of the 2016 report Unconscious bias and education — a comparative study of Māori and African American students. Anton now works across justice, health and education, developing strategies to mitigate unconscious bias and its impact on Māori. He is also the editor and founder of the Māori literary journal Ora Nui.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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