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Professor Thaman’s Work on; “Disintegration of Traditional Knowledge in a Western Curriculum” By: Reema Alpana

Abstract: This paper will discuss Professor Thaman’s research on the issue of Language, Culture and Learning, and would briefly discuss her views on having a culturally undemocratic classroom. Furthermore, it would also outline the link between such issues in the Fijian education system and community as a whole.



Learning which once happened to be an act of acquiring worthwhile knowledge, that could be utilised in attaining survival, stability and cultural continuity in a society, is now no less comparable to the mass production of goods in factories. The introduction of formal education has modified this traditional approach of learning as such that it has become a key manufacture of educated individuals, who are then utilized in the economy to participate in the income generation process of this monetary ruled world. Westerners may have thought to have brought religion, civilization and education to the people of the Oceania Pacific. It happens to be surprising and rather disappointing to know that in actual fact these indigenous people had their own indigenous education system, spiritual beliefs and understanding, which guided and protected their families and clan, but modern Education, had turned a blind eye to such zealous knowledge of the Pacific people. Due to their ignorance; many aspects of this knowledge had been lost. However, recently, many concerns have been shown and issues being raised with regards to the disintegration of Pacific language, culture, and being taught in a Eurocentric curriculum. With reference to the work of Professor Thaman, this research will build up a strong discussion on these educational issues, and would furthermore attempt to co-relate them with the educational context of Fiji.

The views of Education from a Tongan Heart

Tongan language is a branch of the Polynesian language, which is spoken by the people of the Kingdom of Tonga. According to the South Pacific Phrase book, “there are approximately 100, 000 people living in Tonga, of which about 98% are the ethnic Tongans while the rest are the minorities (The South Pacific Phrase Book, 2008). To have educational theorist such as Professor Thaman, and most importantly if they are of a Pacific origin, is no less then a blessing to the Pacific people. There was a desperate need for researchers and educators to address the issue of cultural eradication and isolation, as well as design ways to promote cultural continuity through the formal education system. Professor Konai Helu Thaman, who is currently a Professor at the University of the South Pacific (USP), holds a UNESCO chair in Teacher Education and Culture at this institute (Germany, 2009). She was born and bread in Tonga and completed her Bachelors of Arts from  the University of Auckland, then received her Master of Arts in International Education from the University of California at Santa Barbara after which she completed her doctoral in Education from USP (Germany, 2009).

Her PhD  thesis, entitled ‘Ako and Faiako, Cultural Values, Educational Ideas and Teachers’ Role Perceptions in Tonga’, was based on studies of the relationships between cultural values and educational ideas and how these were reflected in teachers’ professional role (Germany, 2009). She is also well known among many academic institutes in the Pacific and is famous for her research work on culture, language and education as well as her wonderful poetries, which she uses as messengers to convey her messages to youths about their culture and cultural identities. These Pacific oriented poems have been used in many schools around the Pacific. Professor Thaman also actively engages in various committee and groups such as the International Network and many more (Germany, 2009).

Like any other Pacific Island nation, Tonga’s thinking is also right-brain dominated. This means that they live a creative, holistic and spatial lifestyle and are divergent instead of logical. In their culture, inter-dependence and communal life style is most suited and their skills, knowledge, as well as ideas are expressed vocally rather that in written (Taufe’ulungaki, 2009). A common example is that, youths do not have the freedom of expression and are expected to abide by the ground rules laid by their elders.

Moreover, according to Professor Thaman, Tongans make a clear distinction between knowledge (‘ilo) which is acquired through learning (ako) and wisdom (poto), which is the “beneficial use of ‘ilo of knowledge” (Thaman, 1988). Having their own cultural organisation of knowledge and education means that these people also had their own cultural ways of determining role and behaviour expectations. The blending of western culture brought up numerous role conflicts in the Tongan societies and people were force to transform their lifestyle in a Eurocentric one.

A clear demonstration of a shift in cultural role in Tongan Education system is shown in Professor Thamans’ “Kakala Philosophy of Education”. It shows that in a Tongan community, knowledge is a divine power and it grows upon sharing, but it has its specific means which has to be followed in order to pass in to the future generations (Thaman, 2009). She claims that, specific “kakala” is made for specific people and in specific ways designed by its relevant specialist and the distribution of knowledge follows a similar path (Thaman, 2009). This shows how precious knowledge was for the community.

 But in the Eurocentric curriculum, despite the fact that similar mechanism is used to deliver knowledge, the safeguarding of knowledge has been deracinated. Nowadays, knowledge is not only transferred from specialists to the novices but individualistic learning now a common practice. Using books and internets source as a medium of information and communication has now transform the traditional superiority of knowledge sharing/distribution into today’s ordinary practice.

Professor Thamans’ Work in expressing the importance of Language and Culture in Learning.


Culture and language play a crucial role in learning. Usually, mixing of multiple cultures give rise to numerous confusions and conflict. According to Professor Thaman, culture is a way of life of people which includes their language, accumulated knowledge and understanding, values and belief (Thaman, 2009). In any Pacific society, culture shapes people’s beliefs, roles, and role expectations, and empowers their way of interpretation of their own and other people’s behaviour (Thaman, 2009). For example, in the Strategic Seminar Report of Tongan education system, it was pointed out that, the use of English as the medium of instruction was questioned, given that the main problem encountered by students in progressing to Form 6 was their lack of competence in the English language. Thus, it was suggested that vernacular language for instructions up to form 6 level should implemented to achieve the Ministry’s vision. (Bloomfield, 1997) Hence, this showed that even the students from higher forms faced difficulty in learning in a foreign tongue (Bloomfield, 1997).

Teaching and learning in a foreign tongue might be the strongest indicator of a culturally undemocratic learning environment, in the Pacific Islands it is the rule rather than expectation (Thaman, 2009).  Indeed, learning in a foreign tongue becomes difficult for indigenous people since it requires them to have the ability to translate the content into the own mother tongue in order to understand what is being asked or told. The disappointing thing here is that, these indigenous people are not being given the chance to promote and preserve their traditional way of life.

The introduction of formal education system brought independence and freedom of speech and expression which turns out to be opposing the indigenous cultural expectations. In many Pacific schools, the barrier of cultural silence still remains. Due to such cultural blunder, there happens to a lot of misunderstanding among the students and teachers. This silence which intends to be a sign of respect tends out to be assumed as a silence of disrespect or ignorance. For example; if a teacher asks a student to come up with an opposing idea as to what the teacher has brought up in class, if it’s a Pacific student, s/he would be silent. This is because they are culturally bounded by the barrier of silence which is constructed to show respect to the elders.

Another area of concern here is that, being fostered in a westernised school; many students tend to lose interest in their own cultures. Most surprisingly, many communities such as those of Rotumans for instance, encourage their children to become fully absorbed with the westernized lifestyle (Furivai, 2009). Thus, such negative enforcement from the families and communities strongly promote the disintegration of indigenous knowledge.

Moreover, it has been seen that formal education has changed the traditional definition of knowledge. As in many clans in the Pacific, the categorization of knowledge into an open and close system was designed to preserve and protect their ancestral wisdom as well as the identity of their clan. Modern education has uprooted this categorization. Knowledge and skills are no longer context based as it was in the past. Thus, indigenous knowledge has been overshadowed by the modern introduced knowledge. For example, traditional ways for predicting weather pattern or understanding climate instability is not practically used or acknowledge by the modern education when it attempts to educated the indigenous community about climate change. Using chemical, biological and geological aspects does not give such significant understanding as it would do if traditional aspects were used to demonstrate and accumulate understanding on it.

Indigenous Culture and Language in Fiji’s Education System

As Professor Thaman has portrayed in her numerous researches that modern/western knowledge dominates over traditional/indigenous knowledge, this is also evident in the Fijian societies. Like the Tongan societies, it also has its own tradition, cultural values and most importantly, its own indigenous language. These elements act as the key ingredient in identifying a native Fijian. Thus, their language and culture gives them their true identity. However, during the colonial period, the enforcement of a structured learning system or what is called “schools” brought numerous deformities in the traditional knowledge system. Fijians were being taught in languages that were foreign to them.

However, the life of a native Fijian can be interpreted in a number of ways. Performing of social obligations with in the mataqali (clan), or yavusa (the village as a whole) is some of the obligations the members of the Fijian society (Nabobo, 2009). Additionally, these groups are run by the elders of the clan who happen to be given distinct roles in the community according to their acquired statues. Thus, the Fijian way of life happens to be complex and its complexity can only be understood if one understands their tradition and culture. Understanding the Fijian culture would enable one to understand their behaviour as well, since in the Pacific societies it is the culture which shapes people behaviour. (Williams, 2000) The exposure to foreigners had disturbed the Fijian communal lifestyle as well as brought new rules regulations and laws into practice.

As mentioned earlier, the blending of several different cultures ignite numerous confusions and conflicts especially when it comes to role expectations. For example, modern education strongly changed the role of women in the Fijian society. Women who were once expected to serve within the boundaries of their household and play the role of a mother or wife are now becoming educated and getting white collar as well as trade jobs. Thus, to the older generation of the community, this becomes a disheartening sight as they clearly see that their culture is slowly melting away. However, unlike Tonga, Fiji happens to have a multicultural country. Thus, this means that it compromises of multiple languages as well. Being inhabited with Indo-Fijians, Rotumans, Banabans, and many more Pacific islanders, Fiji is famous for its multiracial composition.

Surprisingly, despite its multilingualism, more emphasis is laid on western language i.e. English. This has also become a medium of instruction in Fiji as in Tonga and many other Pacific Island nations. For example, according to Esther Williams, “many primary schools is Fiji also feel that teaching in English is sometimes difficult and they frequently recite to Fijian, and due to this they strongly suggest to use Fijian as a medium of instruction in their schools” (Williams, 2000).

As William further elaborates in her report, that “there is a need to make Fijian language compulsory in schools from class one till form four, this will enable student to develop understanding of their own languages while trying to blend in to the western curriculum” (Williams, 2000). Being well versed with your own identity will prevent the indigenous students from being forced to adapt to the western language. In many secondary schools in Fiji, it has been seen that using vernacular as a medium of communication is restricted. These students are forced to adapt to English for their academic and social dialogue. Having such rules and regulation are mostly misinterpreted my students, and many tend to reject their vernacular as they feel it is inferior to the universal language.

Nevertheless, to construct a culturally democratic curriculum, the Ministry of Education needs to plan a curriculum that ensures that the Fijian perspective and indigenous knowledge reflects in it. Indigenous knowledge and language needs to given more emphasis, and student should be able to culturally reflect what they have learnt in schools with that of their community. However, western knowledge gives students exposure to the modernized and technologically equipped world. Teachers and students should not fully dissolve in this western lifestyle, but instead absorb all ideologies to upgrade their knowledge and apply it in their communities. Through this, knowledge and ideas will grow and cultural aspect will also be preserved.


Having a culturally undemocratic curriculum is not just the concern of Tonga, but is also a concern for Fiji as well as many other Pacific Island nations. As expressed by Professor Thaman, language and cultural is an important element in the life of Pacific island national as it depicts their true identities. Due to having a Eurocentric curriculum, this identity is being eclipsed. It is believed that the curriculum needs to be reconstructed and modifies in the favour of indigenous knowledge to prevent the eradication of the Pacific’s uniqueness. Moreover, using vernacular as a medium of instruction should be implemented in school as it is believed that students tend to understand better in their mother tongue. Finally, western knowledge should be used as a guide rather then a rule or regulation.


Bloomfield, M. S. (1997). Strategic Planning Seminar Report, Tongan Education for the 21st Century. Nuku’alofa, Tonga: The University of the South Pacific.

Furivai, P. (2009). Rotuman Educational Ideas. In K. H. Thaman, Educational Ideas From Ocenia (p. 99). Suva, Fiji Islands: The University of The South Pacific.

Germany, B. (2009, March 31st). United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Orgnisation. Retrieved October 1st, 2011, from UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development: http://www.esd-world-conference-2009.org/en/international-advisory-group/members.html

Nabobo, U. (2009). Indeginious Fijian Educational Ideas. In P. K. Thamna, Educational Ideas Form Ocenia (p. 81). Suva, Fiji Islands: University of The South Pacific.

Taufe’ulungaki, A. M. (2009). Vernacular Language & Classroom Interaction in the Pacific. In P. K. Thaman, Educational Ideas From Ocenia (p. 15). Suva, Fiji Islands: The University of The South Pacific.

Thaman, K. H. (1988). Ako and Faiako. In K. H. Thaman, Cultural values, educational ideas and teachers role preceptions in Tonga, PhD Thesis. Suva, Fiji: University of the South Pacific.

Thaman, K. H. (2009). Educational Ideas from Ocenia. Suva, Fiji: Institute of Education, University of the South Pacific.

The South Pacific Phrase Book. (2008). Victoria, Australia: Lonely Planet Publishers.

Williams, E. (2000). Facing Challenges in Fijian Education: Planning For The Future. In G. O. Fiji, Learning Together: Direction for Education in the Fiji Islands (p. 203). Suva, Fiji: Pio B. Tikoisuva.


October 10, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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