Developed in collaboration with Emeritus Professor Russell Bishop and Cognition Education, Relationships First is the latest development for accelerating and sustaining achievement outcomes of indigenous and other marginalised students. In doing so, schools and schooling systems can maximise the achievement of all learners. Emeritus Professor Russell Bishop illustrates the history of this development; from concept to the globally recognised programme it is today.

I began my teaching career in 1973 in New Zealand, in a newly developed commuter suburb/city that was mainly populated by working class white people (Pākehā), Indigenous Māori people and recent migrants from the Pacific Islands. People here worked locally in a large car assembly plant or commuted to factories and low-skilled employment in the adjacent city Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. Their children attended the local public schools.

On arriving at the first of the two secondary schools that I was to work in over the next 14 years, I was surprised to find that despite high parental aspirations, most of the Māori and Pacific Island children consistently scored lower on standardised achievement tests across all age ranges than did the children of the Pākehā people. So it did not appear to be a case of socio-economic status determining student outcomes, for most of the families, (be they Pākehā, Māori or Pacific Islanders), were working class, and lived in similar houses provided by the government as part of New Zealand’s welfare state at that time.

I began to hear that the most common explanation for this differentiation among my peers was that Māori, and students of Pacific Island descent, were culturally deprived; there were few books in their homes, they were not read to from an early age, there was limited parental support for their learning, they did not strive in their learning and they were more interested in their own cultural activities than those activities that would promote their educational opportunities. Yet many of the Māori students at the College came from Takapuwahia Pa, a local area where Māori people have lived for many generations. Their families were mostly members of the LDS church and they were actively involved with their families and with their marae (meeting house), Toa Rangatira. This marae featured a magnificently carved meeting house and dining room, and being near the capital city, was used often for hosting many groups from around New Zealand and overseas. I remember that one day David Bowie was welcomed on to the marae. Prince Charles also visited at some point as did many other dignitaries and Māori peoples from other districts. This marae and its people was a very significant feature on the cultural landscape of the whole region. I spent lots of time at the marae myself and was surprised that these people could be regarded as being ‘culturally deprived’. David Bowie had been in their midst – how more culturally cool could they be! Yet their children were consistently missing out on the benefits of schooling. I felt professionally limited and frustrated, unprepared by my pre-service teacher education and curious about why these phenomena could occur.

However, I did gain an understanding of what was happening in the schools from the students’ perspective, for as time went on they told me that most of their classrooms relationships were toxic, their subsequent learning experiences were mostly negative, and this had been the case for their families for generations. In effect, they understood that they were the recipients of their teachers’ ‘cultural deprivation’ theorizing about them and they had not found it to be an enlightening experience.

What followed was a long period of time when I transitioned from being a secondary school classroom teacher to a university-based academic. This involved my undertaking a doctoral study[1] into what constituted effective ways of undertaking research into Māori people’s lives. This study involved an in-depth analysis of my mothers’ Māori family and the reasons for their dispersal throughout New Zealand following the civil war of the 1860s and 70s. I learnt that researching into Māori people’s lives involved the researcher establishing an extended family-like relationship prior to and during the data-gathering and analysis phases of the research in such a way that these phases were conflated. This way of undertaking research allowed the culturally-generated sense-making processes of the research participants to be engaged at all times in a way that was different from and less impositional than traditional ways of undertaking research.

In 2001 I returned to my concern about the achievement of Māori learners. Extrapolating from the understanding[2] about the fundamental importance of relationships I had identified in my doctoral study, I hypothesized that if teachers were able to establish extended family-like[3] relationships within their classrooms, Māori students would then be able to interact dialogically within this context for learning and their learning outcomes would improve. As part of this process, during that year, I led a group of researchers in a systematic examination of Māori students’ schooling experiences[4] in order to identify what they understood about the learning contexts that were currently being created in their classrooms and what impact these were having upon their learning and achievement. Suffice it to say that the interviews with Māori students in the early 2000s revealed that, to them, the same cultural deficit theorizing and consequent negative relationships that had been revealed to me in the 1970s and 80s remained dominant in their teachers’ explanations of Māori student progress.

This understanding was confirmed when, as part of this process, we spoke to a large number of teachers in a range of school settings about their experiences when working with Māori children. As we interviewed these teachers, we heard them recount time and time again exactly the same kind of explanations that I had heard in the 1970s and 80s. They told me of their high aspirations for all of their students, including Māori. Yet on the other hand, they produced the same ‘cultural deprivation’ explanations that I had heard many years earlier. Essentially, they told us they felt that their ability to make a difference for Māori students and by extension, Pacific Island students, was being compromised by forces beyond their control, primarily by the culture or the behaviour of the children and their parents. Most spoke of their feeling isolated, and professionally bereft of solutions, yet expected by society to provide them; while they often felt that society was creating situations that they could not address. They told us of their frustration at not being able to reach Māori students and make the difference for them that, by and large, they were able to make for their other students.

In order to understand what was happening here I found the work of Jerome Bruner[5] particularly helpful where he identified that teaching occurs, progress is evaluated, and practices modified as “a direct reflection of the beliefs and assumptions the teacher holds about the learner” (p. 47). This means that “… our interactions with others are deeply affected by our everyday intuitive theorizing about how other minds work” (p. 45). In other words, our actions as teachers, parents, or whoever we are at the time, are driven by the mental images or understandings that we have of other people. For example, if we think that certain other people have deficiencies, our actions will tend to follow from this thinking and the relationships we develop will be negative and our subsequent interactions with them will tend to be negative and unproductive. No matter how good our intentions may be, if our students sense that we think they are deficient, they will respond negatively. We were told time and again by many of the students we interviewed in 2001 and again in 2004/5, that negative, deficit thinking on the part of teachers was a fundamental cause of negative student–teacher relations and this had an adverse impact on their (Māori) student attendance, engagement and achievement. The students told us of their aspirations to learn and to take advantage of what the school had to offer, yet they found that negative teacher theorizing about them, and negative actions towards them, came across as an all-out assault on their identities as Māori and their need to be accepted and acceptable. The end result was that despite teachers’ aspirations to the contrary, students were being precluded from participating in what the school had to offer by the very images that teachers had of these students in their minds.

Such understandings have major implications for teachers hoping to be agentic in their classrooms and for educational reformers. As Elbaz[6] explains, understanding the relationship between teachers’ theories of practice about learners and learning is fundamental to teachers being agentic because the principles they hold dear and the practices they employ are developed from the images they hold of others. According to Foucault[7], the images that teachers create when describing their experiences are expressed in the metaphors found in the language of educational discourse. What happens is that teachers are able to draw from a variety of discourses to make sense of the experiences they have when relating to and interacting with Māori students. Most importantly for our desire to be agentic, some discourses hold solutions to problems, and others don’t.

This was exciting stuff because it explained that it was the discourses that teachers drew upon that kept them frustrated and isolated. It was not their attitudes or personalities, [8] nor was it the fault of the children and their parents. It was what Foucault termed their “positioning within discourse”. That is, by drawing on particular discourses to explain and make sense of their experiences, they were positioning themselves within these discourses and acting accordingly in their classrooms. The discourses already existed; they have developed throughout history and exist in conflict with each other. It was just that the dominance of the ‘cultural deprivation’ discourse among teachers was having such a negative impact upon Māori student engagement and achievement. Ironically, despite teachers’ own aspirations for their students, they were unwittingly creating negative relationships with their students with consequent negative implications for teaching interactions and learning.

The crucial implication of this analysis is that it is the discursive positions that teachers take that are the key to their being able to make a difference for Māori students and by extension, other marginalized students. For us, this meant that before we began any in-class professional development, it was important to provide teachers with learning opportunities in which they could critically evaluate where they discursively positioned themselves when constructing their own images, principles, and practices in relation to Māori students. Further, it was also important that these learning opportunities provided teachers with an opportunity to undertake what Davies[9] called “discursive repositioning”. This meant our providing teachers with opportunities to draw upon explanations and practices from alternative discourses that offered solutions instead of problems and barriers. Hence, at the commencement of the professional learning opportunities for teachers, we offered them a collection of narratives of Māori students’ learning experiences[10], in this way providing them with vicarious experiences of what it was like to be a Māori student in classrooms dominated by ‘cultural deprivation’ theorizing, the impact such theorizing has upon student participation and what an alternative learning context might look like. What is fascinating is that most teachers were horrified by the picture painted by these students’ stories and more importantly for the future of the students, they vowed to do something about it. They quickly removed deficit explanations from their vocabulary and sought recourse in discourses of potentiality. A major step towards including Māori students in the statistics of success was made.

From these early developments grew a large-scale educational reform project, called Te Kotahitanga that ran for some 12 years in 50 secondary schools in New Zealand from 2001 to 2012. Of course, there is more to educational reform than examining teacher theorizing, providing alternative discursive positionings and developing extended family-like learning contexts in classrooms and schools. Nonetheless, the development of positive relationships through a discursive analysis is of such fundamental importance that it should be considered prior to any other activity provided for professional learning.

As part of the implementation of the Te Kotahitanga project, we were able to test the hypothesis regarding the fundamental nature of relationships for learning from a detailed analysis of classroom observation data that had been collected for formative purposes. These observations were a central part of the project aimed at supporting teachers to implement effective culturally responsive pedagogies[11]. We were also able to use this data in aggregate form. In this form, we identified that where teachers are adequately supported to create extended family-like relationships in their classrooms, they were enabled to implement effective dialogic interactions that we know improve student learning. These effective interactions include, using students’ prior knowledge, the provision of feedback and feed-forward, co-construction of learning and power-sharing strategies. It is the implementation of these effective interactions within the context of a secure, caring and learning relationship that sees improvements in Indigenous student (and by extension, other marginalized students), engagement with learning and achievement. Of crucial importance also was the finding that the probability of this occurring grew exponentially as teachers gained more skills and knowledge about how to create an extended family-like context for learning in their classrooms. Hence the hypothesis that creating effective caring and learning relationships within an extended family-like context for learning is fundamental to subsequent educational interactions and improved student achievement outcomes was proven to be sound.

Following on from the cessation of the NZ Ministry of Education funded project, Te Kotahitanga, I began working with Cognition Education[12] to develop a further iteration of the education reform process, based on the theory that relationships are fundamental to learning. We created a scalable PLD Programme that became accessible for all schools across New Zealand. Following this, we continued to review the effectiveness of the dual relational and interactive approach that underlay the Te Kotahitanga project, which has led to our new programme iteration Relationships First. The need for this review was generated by my ongoing concern about the need for a sustainable model, because data from Te Kotahitanga showed that, despite the best efforts of the project implementation teams, most teachers and schools did not sustain the practices necessary to see continued gains being made in indigenous students educational outcomes. Part of the problem was that the data showed that while most teachers changed the way they related to Māori students; they did not take the opportunity afforded by their creating extended family-like contexts for learning to use effective dialogic pedagogies. It seemed to me that for teachers to ensure that they both created relationships and used dialogic interactions to ensure sustainability they needed a means of continually evaluating and modifying their teaching practices in a way that responded to the learning needs of their students. These modifications to teaching practice would be possible through teachers continually monitoring the progress learners were making and the impact of learning processes on their learning. Monitoring student progress and the impact of learning processes would include assessing how well learners are able to: set goals for their learning; articulate how they prefer to learn; explain how they prefer their learning settings to be organized; participate in leadership roles and functions; include others in learning; provide evidence of how well they are progressing on AREA measures and where to next; and taking ownership of and responsibility for their own learning, that is moving towards being self-regulating and self-determining learners.

Hence a new iteration of the notion that relationships are fundamental to learning was developed. This new iteration built on the fundamental importance of teachers and other Leaders of Learning creating extended family-like contexts for learning in classrooms and learning settings in ways that are culturally responsive. We understand that it is the creation of these supportive contexts for learning that then allows educators to interact dialogically with learners in ways that we know promotes learning and improves educational outcomes. The impact of the relationships and interactions that are developed and the progress learners are making is then monitored and relational and interactive practices modified so that further progress is ensured and sustained. Relationships First enables teachers and schools across New Zealand to actively and continually work towards this goal in a structured and effective way.

Teaching to the North-East where the ‘North-East’ is a metaphor for the location where effective teachers are positioned and sustained by their creating family-like contexts, interacting within these contexts and then modifying these practices by monitoring their impact on learners’ progress. The North-East is that location created on a scatter plot as in the diagram below, that is the combination of moving ‘East’ on a relational continuum and ‘North’ on an interactional continuum. Monitoring from the North-East position then responds to evidence of the impact of these practices on students’ progress, in this way, allowing relationships and interactions to be continually modified.

Diagram 1.

Teaching to the North-East Diagram 1 (Bishop, 2019)

(Source: Bishop 2019.)

Relationship-based Learning is a form of culturally-responsive pedagogy (CRP), that values that which currently marginalised students bring to the conversation that is learning. That is, they are enabled to bring their cultural knowledges, understandings and sense-making processes to the forefront. What is important for this understanding is that for teachers, CRP is a matter of a their implementing a dynamic, dialogic, relational pedagogy rather than their learning and/or transmitting the culture of their students which is often what is meant when CRP is promoted. To confuse CRP with a cultural competency approach is to expect teachers to learn about the culture of all their students, an impossible and really unnecessary task for the students are already ‘experts’ on how they see the world. A cultural competency approach produces anxiety among teachers of ‘getting it wrong’, promotes stereotyping, reductionism and mimicry, whereas a responsive approach includes learners in their own determination and supports teachers to become even more professional and productive. [13]

Teaching to the North-East is proposed as a means of improving educational outcomes for Indigenous and by extension, other marginalised students; these are all those students currently not benefiting from their participation in modern education systems. These include Indigenous, migrants, refugees, faith-based groups, children with learning difficulties and children of difference/diversity. What these students have in common is that they are marginalised educationally by what they bring to learning settings being seen as deficiencies rather than these qualities being seen as positive attributes that can be built upon to promote their learning.

The key to teaching to the North-East is implementing a relational pedagogy supported by relational leadership (North-East Leaders) so as to increase equality of educational outcomes for all students. North-East Leaders replicate North-East teaching practices, creating the conditions[14] within which North-East Teachers can thrive. In this way North-East teachers and other educational leaders act as Leaders of Learning for learners they are supporting. North-East teachers are supported by North-East Leaders in North-East Schools. North-East schools are those where relationships matter, in fact creating a strong caring and learning relational context for learning is fundamental to everybody being able to do their jobs effectively, be they the principal, a middle manager or a teacher. In a North-East school, again using compass points in a metaphoric sense, you will see a strong relationship between the creation of caring and learning relationships at all levels of the school and the effective use of teaching and learning interactions that we know make a difference for learning of all learners, be they students, teachers or others. You will see these two variables, relationships and interactions, occurring at the upper end of two measurement scales as in the scatter plot in Diagram 1. For example, at a school or sub-school level beyond the classroom, you will see that when the occurrence of caring and learning ‘relationships’ is improving, the measurement will be heading ‘East’, and when the use of effective Interactions is improving, the measurement will be heading ‘North’. The combination of these two variables, the ‘North’ and the ‘East,’ locates the most effective schools in the ‘North-East’. And, it is when teaching and schooling are both located and sustained in the North-East that we see all students’ performance improving and disparities reducing.


The following is a brief overview of this new model.


North-East Leaders of Learning Profile. (For Teachers, Impact Coaches, Instructional and System Leaders (i.e. Leaders of Learning) who wish to impact Indigenous and Marginalised students’ educational outcomes).


Relationship-based Leaders of Learning;


  • Create a family-like context for learning by;

   – Rejecting deficit explanations for learners’ learning,

   – Caring for and nurturing the learner, including their language and culture,

   – Voicing and demonstrating high expectations,

   – Ensuring that all learners can learn in a well-managed environment so as to promote learning,

   – Knowing what learners need to learn.


  • Interact within this family-like context in ways we know promotes learning by;

   – Drawing on learners’ prior learning,

   – Using Formative assessment: Feedback,

   – Using Formative assessment: Feed-forward,

   – Using Co-construction processes,

   – Using Power-sharing strategies,


  • Monitor learners’ progress and the impact of the processes of learning by assessing how well learners are able to; (Using the GPILSEO model);

   – set goals for their learning, (GOALS)

   – articulate how they prefer to learn, (PEDAGOGY)

– explain how they prefer to organise/be organised in their learning/learning relationships and Interactions, (INSTITUTIONS)

– participate in leadership roles and functions, (LEADERSHIP)

   – include others in the learning context and interactions, (SPREAD)

   – provide evidence of how well they are progressing and what progress they are making, (EVIDENCE)

   – take ownership of their own learning. (OWNERSHIP)


Russell Bishop PhD ONZM
Emeritus Professor
University of Waikato
New Zealand





[1] Bishop, R. (1996) Collaborative research stories: Whakawhanaungatanga. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

[2] Bishop, R., & Glynn, T. (1999) Culture counts: Changing power relations in education.  Palmerston North: Dunmore Press. (1999)

[3] What this meant in practice was that the researcher worked within Māori cultural understandings by establishing an extended family-like relationship that preceded and contextualized all other activities and made the job of doing research (and by extension, classrooms relationships and interactions) possible. Whanau is a culturally appropriate location, characterized, as one of our most famous anthropologists, Joan Metge explained, by warm interpersonal interactions, group solidarity, shared responsibility for one another, cheerful cooperation for group ends, corporate responsibility for group property, material or non-material (for example, knowledge) items and issues[3].  In this way, the extended family-whanau is understood as an excellent location for communication, for shared decision making and problem-solving, for constructing shared understandings and meanings within a context that provided support and nurturing for all involved.

[4] Bishop, R., & Berryman, M. (2006). Culture Speaks: Cultural relationships and classroom learning. Wellington: Huia Press.

[5] Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[6] Elbaz, F. (1983). Teacher Thinking: A study of practical knowledge. New York: Nicholas.
Elbaz, F. (1981). The teachers ‘practical knowledge’: Report of a case study. Curriculum Inquiry 11, 43-71.

[7] Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. New York: Pantheon.

[8] Similarily, identifying teachers as being racist or having an ‘unconscious bias’ may well be correct, but what can a teacher do about it if someone identifies them as being racist of suffering from unconscious bias? All that happens is that there is an argument. Who are you to call me biased? Or racist? Most people don’t respond to this challenge quietly. Most resist and most just continue to argue. However, when educators are enlisted in the challenge of changing educational outcomes for marginalised students, we have found that changing language and actions (discourses) is far more productive.

[9] Davies, B & Harre, R. (1997). Positioning the discursive production of selves. Journal of the Theory of Social Behaviour, 20, 43-65.

[10] Bishop, R., & Berryman, M. (2006). Culture Speaks: Cultural relationships and classroom learning.  Wellington: Huia Press.

[11] Bishop, R. Ladwig, J., & Berryman M. (2014). The Centrality of Relationships for Pedagogy: The Whanaungatanga Thesis American Educational Research Journal, February 2014; vol. 51, 1: pp. 184-214.


[13] I am grateful to Professor Iribinna Rigney for this analysis of the dangers of a cultural competency in comparison to a responsive approach.

[14] Creating an extended family-like context for learning, interacting dialogically within this context and monitoring learners’ progress and the impact of the processes of learning on this progress.