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Whale Rider  


Educational Themes in Whale Rider


     In Whale Rider, the illustration of education themes seems to run counter to conventional expectations. Paikea, the protagonist, is repeatedly rejected by her ‘teacher’, Koro, the tribe’s chief, because of her gender, and yet she goes on to achieve greatness. Koro makes no attempt to directly instruct Paikea; in fact, it appears that he would rather she not learn or even try. And yet, Paikea goes on to master all that is required of a strong leader in her community. Perhaps she was able to be so successful because she was able to marshal the cultural capital (Yasso, 2005) of her entire community, rather than because of the skill of her ‘teacher’.


Gender Bias

     Throughout the film, Paikea is repeatedly rejected by her grandfather solely due to gender. Despite the fact that scholars believe parental support essential for girls to go on to achieve success in male-dominated fields (Snowman & McCown, 2015), Paikea overcomes the odds and proves to her community that she deserves to be chief. Culturally, it appears that Māori tradition mirrors that of societies around the world when it comes to expectations of girls. Snowman & McCown (2015) cites a study conducted by the American Association of University Women in 1999 that concluded “boys are expected to be more impulsive and unruly and girls to be more orderly and obedient” (Snowman & McCown, 2015, p.140) Paikea, according to Koro, should be in the home and any attempt she makes to step into the realm of tribal leadership is discouraged. Meanwhile, the boys of the community are invited into the warrior culture and encouraged to learn the ways of chiefdom. Fortunately for Paikea and encouraged by her grandmother, her sense of self-efficacy gives her the strength to persevere and achieve what her grandfather tells her she should not (Snowman & McCown, 2015).

     Whale Rider, a great coming of age story, has universal appeal, not solely with regard to gender bias and not just in New Zealand. Around the world, people are forced to operate in cultures that do not accept them, and they are forced to work against social norms to earn their rightful place. Educators, however, can refrain from increasing the hardships by finding ways to reach all learners.


Funds of Knowledge

     Although all of the skills and knowledge Paikea needs can be provided by her grandfather, his refusal to instruct leads her to seek her education covertly. Moll, Neff and Gonzalez’s (1992) Funds of Knowledge are found though out the community. Moll et al (1992) describe the importance of bringing members of the community, traditions and customs, into the classroom to enhance learning. In Whale Rider Paikea moves the classroom to those possessing the knowledge. According to Vygotsky’s theory “social interaction is the primary cause of cognitive development” (Snowman & McCown, 2015, p. 52). She learns patience and empathy for her grandfather from her grandmother. From her male peers, she learns Māori warrior culture and the challenges Koro offers to them. Finally, from her uncle, Paikea learns to use the taiaha, a weapon sacred to the Māori. In fact, her uncle practically rejoices in the fact that he gets to secretly teach Paikea without his father knowing. All of these various funds of knowledge allow Paikea to reach her goal despite the shortcomings of the ‘teacher.’

     In formal recitations, lead by the village teacher, cultural knowledge (Brown University. n.d.) is included to meet educational standards. Māori themes, dress, and chants are successfully presented by all the children, together. The village children, of all ages and abilities, are able to present a culturally relevant performance to their community. In contrast, only moments before, the children sang a popular song but unable to stay in unison - in movement or in song.


Authoritarian, Permissive and Authoritative

     Whale Rider presents viewers with all three of Baumrind’s approaches (Snowman & McCown, 2015) to educational management: authoritarian, permissive and authoritative.

As an authoritarian educator, Koro has a set of rules that must be obeyed (Snowman & McCown, 2015). His unwillingness to see beyond his rules prevent him from being able to see Paikea as the star pupil, the future chief he so wishes to find. Educators should note the consequences of Koro’s model; his tribe is unmotivated, his own children do not try to live up to his expectations, and all the male students fail at his tasks. Koro’s inflexibility prevent the unification of effort and purpose he is trying so hard to achieve.

     According to (Snowman & McCown (2015) Baumrind’s permissive teacher provides advice or assistance only when asked. Paikea’s uncle, Rawiri, illustrates the permissive approach. Desiring to learn the traditional skills Paikea, at the suggestion of her grandmother, requests instruction from Uncle Rawiri. Her uncle that has a more open, free-form approach to the lessons he offers.

     The third approach, authoritative, is best illustrated by Paikea’s grandmother, Nanny Flowers. Nanny does not wait to be asked, she is not too rigid, she simply offers Paikea information. Her explanations provide Pai with perspective for; her culture, her family history, community, and her grandfather’s rejection. Additionally, Nanny offers Paikea and alternate leadership dynamic, where Koro isn’t the leader she lets him think he is. It is Nanny that encourages Paikea to find her own answers, pointing her toward those who might possess them. Nanny’s approach provides Paikea with needed encouragement as well as the resilience and motivation to persevere.



For More Information




Brown University. (n.d.). Teaching Diverse Learners. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from


Snowman, J.  and McCown, R.  (2015).  Addressing cultural and socioeconomic diversity.  In Psychology Applied to Teaching (pp. 150-190).  Stamford, USA: Cengage Learning.


Yosso, T. (2005). Whose culture has capital?: A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69-91.

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