20 February 2020

Designing the future by sharing our cultures

Linley Boniface

Teacher Darren Ward uses Māori traditions and hands-on learning to teach his international students new design technologies.

Darren Ward is giving his design students a new perspective on the world by introducing them to New Zealand’s Māori culture.

At Wellington’s Te Auaha Institute of Creativity, students gain practical experience of Māori design traditions.

They’re also encouraged to use the latest technologies to explore their own cultures and stories.

Darren believes this exposure to new cultures and the practical, hands-on approach to learning is a distinctive part of a New Zealand education.

“A lot of my students are used to a very traditional lecture format, where you might be one of 300-400 students listening to a lecturer and taking notes,” he says.

In one of Darren’s courses, students design and construct a wharenui (a traditional Māori meeting house).

But first, they learn about the significance of wharenui for Māori.

“For Māori, a wharenui is not just a building – it represents an ancestor,” says Darren.

“Many of the artworks inside the wharenui symbolise our place in the world – our relationship with our ancestors, the communities around us, and the natural environment.”

In his course, Darren asks students to think about how they would represent themselves and their own culture symbolically. He then uses examples from Māori culture, like the kowhaiwhai (painted panel) shown in the image above, to show the students how that symbolism can be expressed through design.

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Their designs are digitised and turned into physical objects using a laser cutter, and all the artworks are brought together to form the model of a wharenui to represent the entire class.

The class also produces a virtual reality version of the wharenui, which features students reciting their own pepeha – a way of introducing yourself in Māori, and talking about your connections with the people and places that are important to you.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by what our students produce,” Darren says.

Darren says it’s exciting to be able to tell his students about his own culture and to learn more about their own cultures through a shared love of technology and design.

His students have many opportunities to have real-world experiences.

“We spend a lot of time out in the city, using Wellington itself as a classroom. For example, we visit New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, to see the wharenui that’s housed inside.

“Then we’ll head out to an island in the middle of Wellington harbour to learn about the landscape and the island’s own rich history, which combines Māori, European and even some Chinese stories.

“Ultimately, the past informs the future. Our traditions are really important and now we’re reinvigorating those traditions through new technology.”

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Linley Boniface

Linley Boniface is a contract writer for Education New Zealand. She is based in Wellington, her favourite city in New Zealand. A former journalist, Linley spent a year in Montreal, Canada, as a secondary school student.