University Of Tasmania
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An investigation of the intersection of Tongan Culture and the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga's education system

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posted on 2023-05-27, 09:45 authored by Phelps, WJ
This thesis is part of my own story and that of the people with whom I worked and researched in Tonga. The research paradigm is action research and both qualitative and quantitative techniques have been used to distil an understanding of education change in Tonga. In essence, there are cultural factors which make educational change difficult to enact and from an outsider's perspective this can be difficult to comprehend. From an insider's perspective, however, cultural identity and cultural roles have helped to define and articulate Tongan values and to describe who the Tongan people are. Culture has also provided a rich social network which has helped to sustain the Tongan people as they transition and interact with the wider world. There are, therefore, elements of historical research (such as that by Campbell) and ethnographic research (such as that by Thaman) embedded in this semi-longitudinal study of education and leadership in Tonga through my work with teachers and school principals. This thesis, therefore, does not follow the traditional positivism model that is more linear in focus; rather it follows the action research paradigm that knowledge formation is iterative and that investigators need to explore the narrative and the discourse from a number of perspectives and over time. In part, this action research study tells of my growing awareness that, if the people of one culture (in this case, Tongan) wish to make changes in a facet of its society, it is by no means assured that somebody outside that culture can contribute significantly and directly to that change. In 2009, as a volunteer education consultant with an Australian non-government agency, I was invited by the head of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga Education System to 'improve' the classroom skills of its teachers and to design a five-year strategic plan for the System. So, the first major question I addressed is: 1. What changes might be suggested to the leaders of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga Education System which could enhance the quality of education in the System? The answer starts with a description of Tonga ‚Äö- its geography and its history, its social and hierarchical structure and various facets of its culture, including two key facets, religion and education (Chapter 2, Part B). There is limited academic literature related to Tongan education but there are historical documents and policy statements to which reference is made throughout the thesis. This action research takes into account the experiences and understanding of the stakeholder teachers, school principals and education officers. The description of Tonga is followed by an outline of my own experience during five, three-month visits which I made to the country over five years (Chapter 3, Part A). Among other things, this experience led me to conclude that the issues I had been encountering could be addressed in a descriptive research thesis. During those visits, various aspects of Tongan culture were acting both for and against the so-called 'improvement' sought by the senior officers of the education system. Therefore, a second question emerged: 2. What cultural factors affect the degree to which changes are implemented? A culturally appropriate process of ascertaining the desired knowledge and views was designed and carried out. Chapter 3, Parts B to E to and Chapter 4 explain the method and the results of this process which included interviews with nineteen education officers, school principals and deputy principals. The results include interview responses which demonstrated a deeper knowledge and understanding of the issues involved and an implied preparedness to be involved in the changes many of the interviewees regarded as desirable. Most of the telling comments were about attitudes, hierarchy, limited resources to implement change, leadership that was linked to Tongan values and an economy that struggled to sustain its people using Western criteria. Thus, the final question I address in this thesis is: 3. What are the most realistic strategies for improvement and how might the System implement them? Chapter 5 addresses this question. For the most part, the answers came from the leaders of the education system ‚Äö- the principals, the deputies, the education officers and the people who have cultural 'authority' to bring about change. A problem is that they are in a tension. Do they look to an education system that is modelled on Western values and expectations or do they keep with a Tongan education system which respects the past, hierarchy and traditional teaching methods focussed on drill and examinations? Tonga is in transition and the tensions of that transition are reflected in the voices of the participants in this action research study. It appears that schools are struggling to construct 'relevance' for their students, as more of them leave the kingdom for work and other opportunities in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. The evidence from this study suggests that the solution to the teaching problems perceived by the education leaders in the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga Education System lies within themselves. Outsiders have a role to play but it is, at best, a secondary one. The Western system cannot be imposed and Tongans are unlikely to accept a solution that is inconsistent with their values. Western ideas and resources may be offered to the Tongan education leaders but they are empowered to select from this array and, in the end, work together with a range of stakeholders to find the best fit that respects their values and provides opportunities for the future of their young people.


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