wood carve mask face
Lessons from the Past
by Joanne McEachen

s a Māori woman, my experiences and understandings have been shaped by the knowledge passed down by indigenous people before me. They offer perspectives that a lot of the world has forgotten or overlooked for one reason or another. What we’re doing to our planet and what we’re doing to other people shed light on a troubling, tragic disconnection from others, our land, and what is best for humanity.

As a global education leader, I am always weaving indigenous knowledge and understandings into my day-to-day interactions, with the hope it will help to re-ground the current population and our next generations’ education toward people, planet, progress, and prosperity.

What we’re doing to our planet and what we’re doing to other people shed light on a troubling, tragic disconnection from others, our land, and what is best for humanity.
The Past Shapes the Future
Take the Māori word “ako.” A simple translation would be “learning,” but its meaning is closer to “reciprocal learning”—for Māori, learning and teaching are one. We don’t just learn for our own sake; we share what we learn with others.

What would school systems look like if contribution was the learning? It’s a question whose answer I’m hopeful to see.

People Are What Matter Most
From the moment we’re born, we learn from those around us. Our parents or caregivers, our extended family and friends, and our environments teach us how to live and behave. Some of the things that we do are instinctual, but the rest is a product of life and experience—most importantly, of the people who help shape our lives.

The fundamental question we’re charged with as leaders in education is what we should teach. What do kids need to learn? The traditional view is that the subject or knowledge domains utilized are vehicles for delivering facts and information that lay the foundation for future pursuits. But knowledge alone can’t ensure that we use what we learn in the right ways, i.e., to find meaning and fulfilment. All the knowledge in the world, in the wrong hands, is dangerous. We have to use knowledge and learning for good. We all have to learn what it takes to contribute.

The Impact of Connections
With my mother’s recent passing, I’ve been thinking a lot about all she has added to my own life and the lives of others. It is more than I could ever find words to describe. When I think back on our time together, it is clear that she gave me the greatest gift anyone could ever contribute: she taught me to contribute, in my way, to the world. She did it by helping me learn who I am, what’s important, what gives my life purpose, and why. She taught me the power of connecting with others and helped me seek knowledge that would add to my life. She showed me how to communicate and collaborate with others, think critically and creatively, and stay committed to my goals. She gave me the tools to put good in the world, and to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life.

My mother didn’t work from a curriculum, nor a set list of goals and objectives to meet. What she had was a real, profound understanding of what it means to succeed and how to help people do it. She provided a loving, supportive environment with high expectations for me and my siblings. She let us make choices and set our own goals, and then guided the way on our paths to achievement. Hers was a human, contributive curriculum—it continues to teach us to add to the world.

I’ve been reminded that people are what matter most: who they are, not what they know. We’re put on this earth to make people’s lives better. My mother lived up to the challenge and more. She helped us find self-understanding, connection, knowledge, and competency—a meaningful life. These are the things others want for the people they love; this is the answer to what we should teach in our schools. A school that guides students to success and well-being is a school that is well versed in my mother’s curriculum.

Meaningful Actions
One theme ties the whole set together—contribution. It means impacting someone or something for the better. It can happen on a grand scale, when we search for solutions to global problems, or on the smallest interpersonal and individual levels, when we contribute to our own or another’s well-being. Some students like math, others science, others writing, etc. Their interests will lead them down various paths. If they use what they like (math, science, writing) to improve people’s lives, that’s the ultimate contribution. In fact, it’s the best we can ask for from anyone.
I’ve been reminded that people are what matter most: who they are, not what they know. We’re put on this earth to make people’s lives better.
So, my ask of leaders in the education space is simple: lead, teach—and learn—to contribute.
Embracing Wisdom
Globally, we are moving toward enabling equity and celebrating diversity. As part of this process we must recognize, celebrate, and embrace the ancient wisdom of our oldest living civilizations—First Nations knowledges, practices, and ways of being. Incorporating this wisdom will enhance our modern, predominately western approaches and practices, and will prove integral when we consider the challenges of global pandemics, mental health, climate change, or even the frustrations of our education systems.

This knowledge is not new knowledge or knowledge that has been revived. This knowledge has been practiced in some countries for tens of thousands of years, with generations supporting individuals, communities, and land. Applying practices of caring for land and storytelling will build sustainable connections through thoughtful and intentional leadership. Adopting this way of being provides opportunities for learning and growth both individually and systemically, ensuring our footprints contribute to the world and humanity in a positive manner. It is a way of being that needs to be adopted by the many. Consider Corporate Social Responsibility, particularly social (and environmental) sustainability or caring for our planet.

A great example of indigenous leadership stems from the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who reference Country as a living, breathing entity, encompassing the cultural, social, physical, and spiritual connections that exist with the lands and waters, and extending to all within it. Country references the connection and custodial rights and responsibilities of First Nations peoples, but also the role that all people have in making fundamental change. Aboriginal lore ensures that we only take or consume what is needed, nothing further, yet the modern approach of consumerism polarizes this very concept. If we nurture and harness the relationships with Country, particularly its people—young and old—then we can build upon our ideas and actions in a more intentional, socially responsible, and sustainable way.

The Currency of Storytelling
This interconnectedness of systems means that there is not a disconnect between people and place. When our actions negatively impact our Country, they also negatively impact people. As leaders, how do we collaborate with First Nations people respectfully to adopt collaborative ways of ensuring our teams care for Country and exercise Corporate Social Responsibility? When we as individuals know and understand our place and purpose, then we can illustrate and model these ideals to those around us, day in, day out. Caring for Country isn’t just about adopting sustainable environmental practices, but about caring for all within Country, particularly our people.
different textures such as plants, rocks, woven basket
Individuals, teams, organizations, and systems cannot grow without foundationally seeking truth or knowledge.
Indigenous people and knowledge-holders utilize storytelling to transfer knowledge and build relationships among people, a means to also transform and strengthen Country. Ancient knowledge systems have continued, standing the test of time, because of the currency associated with storytelling. Knowledge, a recognized commodity, is worth nothing if we don’t share it. Individuals, teams, organizations, and systems cannot grow without foundationally seeking truth or knowledge. Our challenge as leaders is to intentionally grow strong individuals who can then share and harness truth through telling their own stories and connecting their journeys. Only then we will be able to form a strong collective that advocates for change in our systems, for positive change or contribution in our world.
Harnessing a Journey’s Truth
Individual strength—resilience—can only be attained when we know our own stories. Collective strength is born from self-understanding. Knowing the individual journey walked, one with its own ups and downs, provides experiences and opportunities to learn, to grow, and to add value to others. As First Nations authors Paul Callaghan and Uncle Paul Gordon put it in their new book, The Dreaming Path, “living a good story means no one gets left behind.” The question is, Do we have the confidence and knowledge to discover and tell our own stories so that we can contribute to Country and all within it?

When we adopt these indigenous ways of being, we accept diversity as a platform for unity. We recognize we are the custodians of our world and all within it. We cultivate leaders who wholeheartedly embody and embrace themselves, who in turn make intentional decisions to positively contribute to a world in which our children’s children would be proud.

Learning who you are, how you fit into the world, and how you can contribute to humanity, at any age, at any stage—we call that Contributive Learning.™ It is best cultivated in three ways:

  1. Develop self-understanding.
  2. Cultivate knowledge, foster competency, make connections.
  3. Don’t bring people down, lift people up. Don’t subtract from the world, add to the world.

Learn to contribute, in your way, every day. That’s what true leadership is—at any age.

Joanne McEachen headshot
Joanne McEachen, Waitaha, Ngāti Māmoe and Ngāi Tahu, CEO and founder of The Learner First, a global education consultancy operating in three countries. She is a bestselling author with more than 35 years of experience as a teacher, principal, Ministry of Education countrywide leader in New Zealand, and now a globally recognized pioneer in the fields of educational design, assessment, and well-being.


Founder: Kia Kotahi Ako Charitable Trust | Contributive Learning
Fellow: Salzburg Global Seminar | Edmund Hillary Fellowship (EHF)
Advisory Board Member: Education New Zealand | Manapou ki te Ao | People for Education Canada
Executive Karanga: Website | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIN