This article by Roger Childs was actually encouraged by the Pou Tiaki editor / national correspondent for Stuff. But then she rejected it saying that the issues Roger raised had already been covered — which was nonsense. So here it is for our discerning readers.

Students should learn about the good and the bad in our history

Most countries make learning about their past compulsory, so there was general approval when the prime minister announced in 2019 that our Year 1 to 10 students would study New Zealand history as a required part of the curriculum from 2022. The challenge for the developers would be in the detail – what would children from ages 5 to 14 actually learn about their country’s story, and what skills and understandings would they develop?

The coverage of our history over 10 years of schooling needs to be comprehensive, accurate and balanced. In looking at our past we New Zealanders have plenty to be proud of, but there have been darker times which students need to know about. 

Learners should study the musket wars as well as participation in United Nations peace-keeping missions; the extermination of the moa as well as establishing national parks; damaging the environment as well as building infrastructure; the Chinese poll tax as well as the Social Security Act; sweated labour as well as equal pay legislation.

Missing the boat

In the draft Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories in the New Zealand Curriculum the developers have missed the boat. They have produced a document that obviously reflects their own thinking about how to interpret our past, but it is generally expressed in language which is too complex and academic. 

The prescription should outline the coverage, skills, understandings and important ideas in terms that children and parents can clearly understand. 

What would students make of the third big idea: The course of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history has been shaped by the exercise and effects of power?  Perhaps a good topic for a PhD thesis, but not for school pupils aged 5 to 15.

Key understandings in the study of history

Fundamental to the effective study of history is being able to answer these questions:

  • What is the difference between fact and opinion?
  • What are the sources of history?
  • Why is evidence so important?
  • History is a search for truth but how do you know what is true?

Students also need to learn that the record of the past can change as new sources and evidence come to light. One of the most delightful history definitions comes from Oxford Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: History shifts as you look at it. It twists and coils into unexpected shapes: suddenly, rapidly, continuously like a snake darting between stones

Another vital understanding learners need to appreciate is that there are different viewpoints about our history. 

For some the New Zealand Wars were about a fight for sovereignty and land; for others they were a series of rebellions against the government. 

Examining some of the more contentious issues in our country’s story could be part of the prescription in Years 9 and 10. For example:

  • Did the chiefs who signed the Tiriti o Waitangi cede sovereignty to the British Crown?
  • To what extent did Christianity change Maori values?
  • Was colonisation destructive or beneficial for Maori?
  • Did the Gallipoli campaign build a sense of New Zealand identity?
  • Should New Zealand have taken part in the Vietnam War?

In the draft, there is an emphasis on the stories that are told about our past. Oral history can accurately reflect the past, but it can be unreliable. Learners need to be taught how to distinguish between the two.

An over-emphasis on things Maori

Much of the Draft for Consultation is heavily weighted towards Maori history, development and language. The three “national contexts” are all expressed in Te Reo with no translation. In the Rohe and local contexts section the first statement asks: What stories do local iwi and hapu tell about their history in this rohe? 

In the identifying and critiquing sources and perspectives section students are required to pay deliberate attention to matauranga, Maori sources and approaches. Then throughout the knowledge sections and questions to guide inquiry, Maori examples predominate.

Obviously the history, legacy and culture of Maori and their Polynesian forbears are very important, but this is just one significant strand in the rich tapestry of our heritage.

Who are the customers?

It is vital that the formulators of the final curriculum remind themselves of who the customers are. They are New Zealand kids with a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Maori students make up approximately 20% of school children with both Maori and non-Maori forebears. The other 80% have origins ranging from Britain, Ireland, Europe, South Africa and the United States to India, China, The Middle East, Samoa and Tonga. 

Fundamentally they are all Kiwi kids who share a love of family, friends, food, enjoyment, the outdoors, sport, national teams, culture, modern technology and entertainment. 

New Zealand’s past is the story of the country they live in, regardless of where they come from.

The history they learn should be a comprehensive study of the nation’s mix of migrations and settlement; interactions and conflicts; triumphs and tragedies; problems and progress; leaders and movements; unity and diversity. They need to learn the full New Zealand story and develop appropriate history skills along the way.