Associate Professor Jill Bevan-Brown


Bevan-Brown recognised for work with gifted Māori children

Massey University education researcher, Associate Professor Jill Bevan-Brown has been recognised for her work on increasing understanding of gifted and talented Māori learners.

Dr Bevan-Brown will be presented with the inaugural Te Manu Kotuku award later this month at the first conference of giftEDnz, the Professional Association for Gifted Education.

The University will also be recognised for its leadership in the field, with Associate Professor Jill Bevan-Brown to be awarded the inaugural Te Manu Kotuku award for her work into understanding gifted and talented Māori learners.

GiftEDnz chair Associate Professor Tracy Riley, also from Massey's College of Education, says Dr Bevan-Brown is "the leading light" in this area of research. “She has contributed the greatest amount of research into our understanding of Māori gifted and talented learners.”

Dr Bevan-Brown describes what she says is relatively common scenario of a quiet, well-liked, sociable Māori school pupil with a recognised ability to gather other children around themselves and bring out the best in them in class and in the playground. A confident leader but the child does not seek recognition and, despite being liked by teachers, is overlooked when it comes to recognising the pupils who are gifted.

It’s a common and complex problem, Dr Bevan-Brown says. "In New Zealand schools we tend to focus on academic things – and that is perfectly valid for Māori students – but giftedness in Māori students is broader. Social giftedness is just as important. Being outstanding in manaakitanga [hospitality] for example, is just as important as being gifted in maths.”
But those skills are harder to recognise, particularly by teachers who are not aware of what to look for or who are culturally remote from their Māori pupils. And because there is a shortage of Māori teachers, and even fewer who specialise in special needs, Māori pupils may not be getting the support they need.
Dr Bevan-Brown says her research with Maori pupils has found that giftedness can manifest itself in groups, as well as individually. She uses a musical analogy to explain how this works: Individually a musician might be recognised as talented but when they come together with other talented artists, the results are brilliant.

Typically though, teachers will try to identify the gifted individual within the group “who’s done all the work, who’s provided the spark of genius. But there could be three Māori children working together, uplifting each other’s talent to produce something great. If you separate them out, then you lose that spark.”

Dr Bevan-Brown is quick to point out that group giftedness is not instead of individual talent – it can be in addition to. “Māori preferences for working in groups can’t be at the expense of looking for individual talent," she says.

"There is an erroneous belief that Māori children won’t want to stand out so are uncomfortable with their giftedness. But if Māori children are in a supportive and valuing environment they are quite happy to exhibit their ability. “Individual success is celebrated. If students feel safe and understood they won’t feel whakamā [shy, inadequate] about showing their skills, because they know that they wont be perceived as being whakahïhï [arrogant or conceited] and that others will celebrate their success.”

She cites her own experience: There’s no chance that her nephew Tamati Ellison is going to be able to let his national and international success on the rugby field go to his head. His whānau are proud, and Tamati’s skill and success are celebrated and supported but if he was to become whakahihi he would be quickly pulled into line, she says.
While there are Māori, Pākehā and other teachers all over the country doing a wonderful job to provide that supportive environment, she says, the shortage of Maori teachers does make it harder for students.

“Research shows that Maori feel more comfortable working with other Maori. Just seeing another brown face makes Maori more likely to engage, for example,” she says.

She says the issues that the shortage of Maori teachers create for gifted students apply to all special needs students. ”Maori teachers working with Maori special needs students will most likely have greater understanding of cultural implications of their special needs and they can often interact with whanau more effectively to provide better service to the students and their families.”

Massey University, in collaboration with the University of Canterbury, offers a Post Graduate Diploma in Specialist Teaching, which she would love to see more Maori students enrolling in. “We have some excellent Maori students doing this Diploma but we need lots more.”

Again, she says, it comes down to providing a supportive, caring classroom environment. “If students are having difficulty learning and don’t feel comfortable about showing they are struggling it is easier to be disruptive. They lose less face by being removed than staying in the classroom and admitting they can’t do it.”

Dr Bevan-Brown says a lot of behavioural problems occur when pupils don’t feel safe being themselves in class. But if teachers get it right and set work at appropriate levels then performances will match expectations. “If you don’t expect them to perform, then they won’t.”

Feeling liked and valued is particularly important for Māori children because they are from a minority group “and there is always the potential to be disadvantaged – and children realise that".

She says that despite her concerns, there is a lot to celebrate. “Many gains have been made in recent years, and I feel real aroha for those teachers that are doing a wonderful job. There is lots of really good work being done by Pākehā teachers in this area, but we need more Māori teachers – not instead of, but as well as

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