Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters


  • Sione Tu’itahi
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_14

Central to the theory and practice of Tongan education is the notion of poto, the ultimate outcome of learning, from a Tongan perspective. So what is poto? This entry describes poto and explores its many forms and uses in education and other fields within a Tongan context. The Tongan knowledge system, tala-e-fonua, is discussed to explicate further the notion of poto.

Poto means wise, discerning, intelligent, and clever (Schneider 1977; Rabone 1845). Churchward (1959) refers to poto as “to be clever, skilful; to understand what to do and be able to do it.” In her study of Tongan education, Helu-Thaman (2001) identified three basic educational ideas: ako, ‘ilo, and poto. She elaborates:

Ako is used to denote learning as well as searching, and in the early part of the nineteenth century it was also used to mean teaching. Later when schools were introduced, the term faiako (making learning) was used to refer to a school teacher. ‘Ilo denotes knowing, knowledge and information and implies learning and/or searching. Poto refers to one who is wise or learned and is used to describe a state of being or mind, and implies the use of ‘ilo for the benefit of the group and wider society. (Helu-Thaman 2001, p. 53)

As indicated by the definitions above, poto has at least two major dimensions. The first one is the spiritual intelligence or the wisdom of the spirit. For example, when a learned person makes a wise decision for the betterment of the community, she or he is referred to as a tokotaha poto/wise person. The second element is the cognitive intelligence. For instance, a very knowledgeable person is referred to as tokotaha poto/knowledgeable or skilful person. The former is associated more with the loto/heart, whereas the latter is more concomitant with the ‘atamai/mind.

To understand poto in the Tongan educational context and at its spiritual level, the concept of loto is further explored. Loto has a range of meanings that are closely related. Loto denotes the heart, soul, will, inner being, core, and depth. Tokotaha lotopoto is a term used to describe a person who makes wise decisions, based on the promptings of his heart and spirit, for the betterment of the community. A person who is courageous is called lotolahi or lototo’a/brave heart, while a coward is called lotosi’i/fainthearted or lotofo’i/vanquished heart. A loving person is referred to as loto’ofa, whereas a heart full of envy is called lotokovi. On an abstract level, the concept of loto means interior such as lotofale/interior of a house. When reduplicated, it means depth as in moana loloto/deep ocean. In all these examples, loto means the interior, the heart, and the essence.

To gain a fuller comprehension of the cognitive and intellectual element of poto, the concept of ‘atamai/mind is further explored. While it usually means the mind, the term ‘atamai literally means to reflect or to project forward. It is made up of two morphemes, ‘ata/reflection and mai/to make something come to the fore. ‘Ata means reflection as seen in terms such as mafoa-‘a e-ata (the breaking of dawn), ‘ata/reflection in a mirror, and tauata and ataata – the emergence of ideas in one’s mind or thinking. Mai means to bring forth.

A metaphor that is used to describe the ‘atamai/cognitive intelligence is mata. Mata has a number of meanings that include eyes, face, representative, surface, point, green, and unripe (Schneider 1977; Rabone 1845). The term matapoto is often used to describe a person who is intelligent and quick to observe potentials and convert them to advantages and opportunities.

At the social level, mata not only means the eyes or face of human beings, but it also stands as a symbol for the character of the individual. A person who loves and cares, for instance, is referred to as tokotaha mata’ofa/loving face, while an uncaring person is regarded as mata’ita’e’ofa/unloving face. A person who cares for the well-being of her extended family and community is known as matakāinga/extended-family caring face. In the field of strategic leadership, a visionary and forward-thinking leader is known as matalōloa/long-distance vision.

Exploring connections between mata/mind and loto/heart can reveal the systemic coherence between them and their product of poto as cognitive intelligence and poto as spiritual intelligence. At the abstract level, mata means outside, exterior, or surface, whereas loto is interior/depth. In human and education terms, mata symbolizes the mind, while loto stands for the heart. Additionally, from a spiritual dimension, mata symbolizes the material, whereas loto refers to the spiritual. Furthermore, from a Tongan educational perspective, the ongoing interaction between mata/mind and loto/heart is central to the learning and development of a person. Whereas mata refers to cognition and knowing, loto is the spiritual center and driving force of poto/wisdom and has a central role in a person’s decision-making, such as translating knowledge into practical and positive outcomes.

To motivate a Tongan person to learn or act, the loto/heart or spirit is the key. This is best illustrated by the old Tongan maxim of “Tonga mo’unga ki he loto”/the mountain of Tonga is the heart. When the Tongan’s heart is motivated and moved, it will demonstrate qualities such as lototo’a/courage and lotolahi/determination, and that person is self-driven to achieve goals at high standards.

Lotopoto literally means wise heart. It refers not only to being intelligent and knowledgeable, but, more importantly, to using intelligence and knowledge under all conditions for the right purpose. Also, it points to a depth of wisdom that has intellectual and spiritual dimensions. Further, it indicates that a person who is lotopoto is one that acts wisely for the collective well-being rather for his personal gain and individual advancement only.

Through the social construction of matapoto and lotopoto, it can be suggested that the use of ‘ilo/knowledge for the benefit of society – a hallmark of being poto – is largely an outcome of educating the loto/heart rather than the mind only. In other words, central to the notion of Tongan education is a clear and dynamic coherence between teaching the mind and educating the heart. While matapoto focuses on acquiring knowledge and skills, lotopoto is more about embedding Tongan core values and principles such as fe’ofa’aki/love one another, fetokoni’aki/reciprocity, faitotonu/integrity, and fakapotopoto/wise, prudent, and judicious. Therefore, Tongan education is about educating both the mind and heart, and its purpose is to attain poto in both spheres. Additionally, lotopoto is of greater significance to Tongan education because knowledge is not only sought, but is also put to good use, thus completing the educational process and its purpose. This Tongan philosophy of education – the gaining of knowledge and translating it into action for the betterment of society and for the collective good – is aptly captured in the hymn number 510 of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga. The hymn was composed in the early days of Christianity in Tonga, a period when Tongan education and thinking were dominant:

Loto mo e ‘atamai/Heart and mind

ko Ho pule’anga ia/Thine kingdom

Fokotu’u taloni ai/Establish therein Thy throne

Tala ai ho fatongia/Therewith Thine dominion defined

Poto as wisdom can be seen in other Tongan contexts. For example, fuopotopoto/the poto shape is the Tongan term for the circle. This use of poto means that the shape of the circle represents balance, whole, and complete. In other words, fuopotopoto is the shape of wisdom because it represents being inclusive, equal, and fair to all parties. In traditional Tongan horticulture, the mature and best quality ‘ufi (yam) for seedlings is called ‘ufi poto or wise yam. As a third example, made up of a reduplication of poto, the term fakapotopoto not only means wise and intelligent but also refers to being frugal, prudent, and judicious. In fakapotopoto, it can be observed that the intelligence of the mind and the wisdom of the heart are combined. A clever person with little experience who embarks on a project and makes mistakes along the way is referred to as ko e potopoto-‘a-niu-mui (clever but inexperienced person). When analyzed in greater details, fakapotopoto has four major dimensions: taki fakapotopoto (strategic or wise and prudent leadership), pule fakapotopoto (effective/wise and prudent management), ngāue fakapotopoto (right/wise and prudent application of knowledge, skills, and experience), and anga fakapotopoto (wise application of ethical or spiritual principles).

As one of many applications in the Tongan knowledge system of tala-e-fonua (wisdom and knowledge of the land or indigenous knowledge system), the fakapotopoto leadership model is not only valuable for understanding the past but, more importantly, can be useful in navigating the present and future (Durie 2004; Tu’itahi 2009). A brief examination of fonua can provide more understanding of poto and its many meanings and uses such as matapoto, lotopoto, and fakapotopoto.

Simply put, fonua means people and the land. More deeply, it is a socio-ecological philosophy that espouses and reflects the natural reality of humanity being one and in unity with the rest of the ecology. This interconnected and interdependent relationship is evident in the material and spiritual dimensions of Tongan life. For instance, in the human life cycle, four significant abodes of the human being are all referred to as fonua. The baby is nurtured in the fonua/womb of the mother. Meanwhile, the mother is nourished by the physical fonua/environment. Similarly, the baby is embraced and sustained by the physical fonua once it is born into it. The ceremony of burying the umbilical cord of the baby into the land symbolically, physically, and spiritually ties the human being with the fonua. When a human being passes on from this natural fonua, her physical remains are returned to her fonualoto/land within the land, or grave, while her laumālie/spirit continues its journey to the fonua ta’engata/eternal fonua or life hereafter (Māhina 1992; Tu’itahi 2009).

In essence, Tongans, other Pacific peoples, and other indigenous peoples for that matter have evolved their history of existence and their knowledge systems largely from the symbiotic relationship with Mother Nature (Māhina 1992; Tu’itahi 2009). Further, they have evolved a value system that underpins their harmonious and sustainable relationship with the ecology and with each other as fellow human beings. Through stories, song and dance, and other such cultural activities, Tongans preserve their history which is woven with the ecology. Exploring fonua/whenua from a health perspective, Durie (2004) notes this symbiotic relationship. He writes:

All indigenous peoples have a tradition of unity with the environment and the tradition is reflected in song, custom, subsistence, approaches to healing, birthing, and the rituals associated with death. The relationship between people and the environment therefore forms an important foundation for the organisation of indigenous knowledge, the categorisation of life experiences, and the shaping of attitudes and patterns of thinking. Because human identity is regarded as an extension of the environment, there is an element of inseparability between people and the natural world. The individual is a part of all creation and the idea that the world or creation exists for the purpose of human domination and exploitation is absent from indigenous world-views. (Durie 2004, p. 4)

As Durie observes above, much of indigenous knowledge is derived from the relationship of indigenous peoples and their environment. The concepts of poto, matapoto, lotopoto, fakapotopoto, and Tongan ako/education and learning, as briefly discussed in this entry, are examples of that process. Māhina (1992) points out that tala-e-fonua/oral history, once regarded as mere prehistorical myths and legends, is, in fact, history. But because it is coded in Tongan cultural devices such as heliaki/symbolism, understanding tala-e-fonua can be challenging. Tu’itahi (2009) maintains that in addition to being Tongan history, tala-e-fonua is also the Tongan knowledge system. Tala-e-fonua refers not only to the distinct but related domains of knowledge in the system, but it also refers to the methodological frameworks and processes through which Tongans over the ages have employed to search and try to understand their natural and social realities.

While there is no scope in this entry to explore them thoroughly, it should be noted that there are at least two other Tongan terms that are related to loto in terms of describing the faculties and functions of the heart and the behavior of a person. These two terms are ongo/emotion, intuition, and feelings and anga/behavior, character, attitude, and attributes. Ongo ki he loto is an expression used to describe how one feels something deeply in one’s heart. Ongo tonu means that a person’s intuition is correct or right.

Language is a human invention, a social construct that is influenced and shaped by the capacity of the human spirit, mind, and body, as well as the social and natural environment. In light of this perspective, it is insightful and instructive to explore the phonemic and morphemic characteristics of these three terms – poto, loto, and ongo.

Firstly, they are of similar phonetical sound, especially the “o” sound. This suggests that the “o” sound in Tongan phonetics is often used to form words and meanings that describe the inner realities – physical and metaphysical – of the human being. It can be added that the same linguistic process/practice appears to be applied in other areas of Tongan milieu, such as the terms toto, blood; loloto or deep; moto, the inner essence of a flower that manifests in a bud that is ready to bloom; and longo and longonoa which mean silence, implying that the physical, mental, and spiritual faculty of the human being is looking inward rather than outward. Other set of examples of how the “o” sound is instrumental for forming words that depict the mental, spiritual, and emotional state are nonga/peaceful state of being, noa/state of tranquility, fakanonoa/state of inner solitude and sojourn, and faka’o’onoa/state of solitary meditative reflection as in the case of an accomplished punake/composer-choreographer-musician seeking inspiration. In all these terms, it can be observed that the phonemic and morphemic elements of the “o” sound and letter are present.

Similarly, the words for the mind and other such mental faculties are constructed phonetically and morphemically with the “a” vowel and sound, as seen in the following words: tau ata/dawn, ‘ata/reflection, ‘atamai/mind, mata/face, and anga/behavior.

In attempting to describe poto, this entry explored and established that poto is a central concept in Tongan educational philosophy, drawing the conclusion that poto refers to a well-trained ‘atamai/mind with practical skills and a wise, educated loto/heart. Poto is not only about knowing and doing with the mind and body, but is also about discerning with the heart the right thing to do and do it the right way for the right reasons, such as utilizing knowledge for the common good. Poto is about practical knowledge and ethical application of knowledge with wisdom. Poto is not only cognitive intelligence, but, more importantly, emotional and spiritual intelligence. Additionally, this entry suggests that translating poto into action for the betterment of society is of greater significance than being knowledgeable without practical application.

Putting into the broader perspective, poto as a Tongan educational construct was derived from and will continue to develop within the context of tala-e-fonua, the Indigenous Tongan knowledge system, that is based on the symbiotic and dynamic relationship between human beings and their environment. Tala-e-fonua is underpinned by the principle that humanity and its environment are one and inseparable. In other words, humanity is part of the whole ecology as illustrated by the meaning of the Tongan socio-ecological concept: fonua/land and people are one.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Health Promotion Forum of New ZealandAucklandNew Zealand

Section editors and affiliations

  • Linita Manu'atu
    • 1
  1. 1.Operational Manager/Consultant in EducationLoto'Ofa WhatuManawa Educational ServicesAucklandNew Zealand