Dancing into maths learning

Sinapi Taeao loves the traditional Samoan dance sāsā. And she loves teaching maths. So when she began her Master of Education at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, it just took a hint from her supervisor Associate Professor Robin Averill to help her connect the dots.

“I wanted to do something with my Pasifika students and maths. I described my maths classes to Robin and described the difference in energy between Poly Club (Polynesian dance club), and maths class. I’d try to get them to settle down to learn, but they’d stop after five minutes and start the hand-clapping actions and movements from the sāsā. So I thought instead of stopping them, why don’t we use that?,” says Sinapi, who has become a whānau head (pastoral dean) at Naenae College since completing her Master’s.

Associate Professor Averill says, “When Sinapi came to me with this idea, I had just finished a literature review looking at storytelling and signing and metaphor as rich ways of teaching mathematics. And at the end of the presentation someone noted ‘you should have included dance,’ so when Sinapi came to me, it was at the top of my mind.”

After completing her Master’s at the University, Sinapi was able to put her research into action and led an enquiry into the sāsā in her Year 9 class at school.

“In leading Poly Club,” says Sinapi, “I always use maths language. I tell them ‘you need to turn 45 degrees,’ because the sāsā is all about angles, how straight your arms should be in relation to your body, to execute certain actions that depict daily life in Sāmoa.

“So it was reasonably simple to bring the sāsā into my Year 9 geometry unit. I introduced the unit with photos of myself in different sāsā actions, getting each group to get a ruler and work out the shapes and angles, see what geometric transformations they could see. Then we watched examples of sāsā on YouTube, we talked about the axis of symmetry and reflection, translation, and actions, for individuals and across the group.”

The groups were then set a task of coming up with their own routine within certain criteria which met the key competencies and achievement objective of the unit. “I didn’t limit it to the sāsā, as some were from other backgrounds, so my Pasifika students did use sāsā, but others used TikTok and other dances.”

Associate Professor Averill can see several key competencies being met when teaching in this way, noting that in traditional text-book-oriented maths classrooms, the ‘participating and contributing’ competency is not met at all.

“Having ways for students to work together purposely with mathematics, and being able to contribute things that they know about and are really strong in is so valuable. Maths is compulsory most of the way through school, and many of those students don’t think they are good at maths but want their teachers to know they are good at something else. And perhaps they are experts at sāsā—so they can become a resource in the classroom in this type of teaching,” she says.

When Sinapi conducted an ACE (achievement, critiquing, and evaluation) form with her students after the unit, she noted the high level of engagement from Pasifika students and students who weren’t usually engaged with maths. The majority of them completed the task.

“Interestingly though, I got reluctance from the more able students, they felt uncomfortable and asked if they could ‘opt-out’ and do normal work instead. But it will be uncomfortable initially, anything new is, and the more tasks we do like this, the more used to them we will get. The kids said it helped them understand geometry better, and opened their eyes to learning in a different way, helping them to retain concepts better.

“They never thought there was maths or geometry in dance—they thought it was just a formula to work something out. That was an enormously positive outcome.”

Sinapi has shared these results with her department, and there are some palagi teachers in there who are considering how they would teach it. “We are looking at implementing it for seniors in the transformational geometry unit. My main advice would be seek your cultural experts—this could be teachers or families—and do it with respect. This is a good opportunity to reach out to your families.”

Associate Professor Averill learned from Sinapi’s methods. “I am learning from this and other research with Pasifika teachers, how connected they are with families and communities on a deep level. Sinapi drew from her networks, and there are connections teachers can draw on in a reciprocal way with people in your friends network. This enables these links between community and school.

“We have this eurocentric mindset of what school looks like—but why should we deny children the pleasure of being involved in something that is fun and that they can learn from?”

Sinapi comes from a family full of teachers—her granddad was a School Inspector in Sāmoa, her aunty led the Samoan Qualifications Authority, her mum was a primary school teacher in Sāmoa and is now an early childhood teacher. Her brother is a qualified music and maths teacher. She also has many aunts, uncles, and cousins on both sides of the family that are teachers.

“But I didn’t want to teach when I was young. I wanted to be an archaeologist, then a musician. Then in Year 12 there was a careers expo in school and I went along with mum and she suggested we go to the education stall. I resisted but she said ‘you’ve got it in you.’ I was always mentoring and tutoring my friends and younger siblings.

“So I did my Diploma of Teaching after my degree, then left for Japan on the JET programme. I did five years there, then came back because mum said we needed more Pasifika teachers.”

The encouragement Sinapi’s mum gave her to teach mirrors what Associate Professor Averill sees as necessary to get more Pasifika students into teaching. “Teachers in schools need to identify these leadership capabilities and ask students ‘hey have you thought of teaching?’.”