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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Our Honolulu
Cooperative learning like a canoe

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

HILO, Hawai'i — Master navigator Mau Piailug is the focus here this week of an experiment in merging timeless ancient wisdom with high-speed modern technology for high school science teachers. Here's an example of the challenge:

I asked Mau how he teaches navigation by the stars and the direction of ocean swells. He said he begins by stressing the importance of "family."

What has family got to do with astronomy or the ocean? What Mau means is that expertise in astronomy or oceanography is worthless on a voyage unless the crew works together. Fighting leads to disaster.

He views voyaging as a cooperative activity, not a competitive one. He said you can't teach navigation in a classroom (where students compete). He said you should go out in a canoe.

"Our Western culture doesn't have time to learn that way," said Dr. Alice Kawakami, head of the education department at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo and co-chairwoman of the teaching experiment. "What you find when you make contact with the land and people is how much you don't know.

"I've been studying cultural adaptations for more than 20 years and I'm just beginning to understand the universality and potential of what we don't address in education. We address it in hula halau, in canoe paddling, in some service organizations, but we don't address it in schools.

"We don't even know how to do it with adults. The men who have learned from Mau have done it in a totally different way. You don't get it in textbooks. It's not a lessons course with a quiz. It's a lifetime activity."

A Maori voyager from New Zealand, Hoturoa Kerr of the University of Waikato faculty, concurs. Kerr works in outreach programs for Maori communities that request them.

"The classroom sets up an atmosphere that doesn't work," he said. "Students are afraid to ask questions. We do everything outside — teach canoe lashing, the stars, Maori legends and history. Then we urge the kids to ask their kupuna for more information."

Part-Maori Pat Mohi is a course facilitator for the New Zealand Corrections Department. He teaches Maori culture in New Zealand prisons, a program he says is growing because of its success.

"We call them focus units for violent offenders," he said. "If you give up drugs and alcohol, you can learn your Maori culture and language. The program has been in the prisons for five years and it's paid for by the government. We go out together and sleep in the bush. We've never had an escape."

Damien High School teacher Mike Lee said, "Science was an important part of the life of our ancestors. They excelled in astronomy and engineering. Until we reclaim the stars, our mana will not come back."

Mau said, "The canoe is the classroom. On the land is only talking. On the ocean you can see everything more fast."