Discussion of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories: Draft Curriculum

In September 2019, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, made a surprising announcement that New Zealand history would be taught in a compulsory curriculum across all schools. The Ministry of Education had very recently argued against such a move before the Education and Workforce Select Committee, which rejected any move towards prescription. Public pressure had been increasing for some time, initiated by students from Otorohanga College after discovering they had learned nothing about the attack on nearby Rangiaowhia in February 1864.

The Ministry’s reluctance to support a compulsory curriculum did not derive from a belief that children and young people had a perfect understanding of New Zealand’s past. Rather, it stemmed from the fact that providing such a level of prescription ran counter to the existing social sciences curriculum, which gave schools substantial autonomy over what they taught. The decision to proceed with a new curriculum was clearly political. Nonetheless, the Ministry of Education has pushed through with this initiative despite the disruption of the pandemic and its various lockdowns. The draft curriculum was made public on 3 February and will be available for consultation until 31 May.

For some of the background to the Government’s decision see:

  1. Leah Bell, ‘Difficult Histories’, The New Zealand Journal of Public History, 2020
  2. Graeme Ball, ‘The Long History of Learning About Our Own History’, The New Zealand Journal of Public History, 2020.   

The draft curriculum can be downloaded here

While there has been some discussion of the curriculum in more general terms, there has been little public debate over the detail. A panel of historians put together to advise the Ministry by the Royal Society Te Apārangi will shortly be releasing its comments.

The NZHA would like to encourage informed and considered discussion on the draft curriculum – on what it includes and on what it omits, as well as on its general approach to teaching history to children and young people.

Please consider making a contribution to the discussion by emailing it to nzhawebmaster@gmail.com. All contributions will be posted to this webpage following moderation by the NZHA Executive. Please also let us know of other useful pieces already published, so that we can provide links to them.

Links to published pieces:

Comment from Dame Anne Salmond

Comment from Helene Wong – 180 years of Chinese NZ History Appear to Count for Nothing

3 thoughts on “Discussion of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories: Draft Curriculum

  1. Comment from Emeritus Professor Erik Olssen:

    There is much to like – the curriculum has been designed to provide flexibility, especially with regard to local and regional histories; it insists on the importance of mātauranga Māori in design and delivery for the first time; and it provides a broad overall framework.

    I do have some concerns, however, which I believe are widely shared within the profession. There are two that I’ll mention without discussing in detail: (1) the idea that history is designed to train anyone to make ethical judgments is peculiar to the drafting committee – history is about understanding and explaining and relies upon a known methodology (about which there is nothing); (2) the skills required are too generic, especially given that the curriculum is designed for children up to year 10; and, (3), by covering the same topics year after year the curriculum threatens to bore kids silly .

    I have a major concern about the framework. The topics chosen seem somewhat arbitrary and fail to take into account the range and complexity of our history. Indeed the curriculum fails to take into account the range and complexity of our Māori history both pre-European and post-European. Nor does it acknowledge let alone study such important developments as the creation of: – one of the world’s oldest democratic political systems and societies; an economy that has sustained a high standard of living, a healthy population with long life expectancy, and a global innovator in producing food for a global market; etc, etc. Besides which these is no provision for studying the other peoples who have shaped identities here let alone their contribution to a ‘national’ identity.

    Nor can I see how the local and the three key framing devices are to be integrated. I am further concerned about how this curriculum will be resourced given the timeframe for rolling it out, the complexity of its requirements, and the lack of existing resources aimed at years 1 through 10. This is especially so with regard to the lack of resources for teaching local history, where the existing resources are very uneven. Some tribes have written histories, most don’t; some provinces have histories, our most populous, Auckland, doesn’t; and the situation is even worse when one comes to towns, townships, and farming districts.

    Finally – for fear of inducing boredom – I could nowhere find any provision for studying the basic tools of historical inquiry: ascertaining the ‘facts’; determining their reliability and relevance; explaining divergence and difference with regard to the former; and crafting an argument based on the analysis of the evidence.

  2. Comment from Dr Jock Phillips:

    The introduction of a compulsory Aotearoa New Zealand history curriculum is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve New Zealanders’ understanding and love of the past and to create a thriving historical culture. It is therefore crucial that we get it right; and not inspire resentment about the compulsory teaching of history.

    There is much in the proposed curriculum which is praiseworthy. The emphasis on local stories and local resources is excellent. If pupils are to develop a sense of the relevance of history and a love of the subject then it must help inform and enrich the world around them. Visits to local places, stories about people and events which occurred just outside the window, will develop a respect for the importance of history and foster people’s understanding of their immediate environment. More particularly it will encourage a knowledge of the distinctive stories and traditions of local iwi.

    The emphasis on Māori and iwi history is also to be applauded. All New Zealanders need to have a sense of the long history of Māori settlement in New Zealand and the extraordinary stories of their migration and settlement in this land. Using place names to anchor these stories to the immediate landscape is also welcome.

    There are also very worrying aspects. These are:

    1. The curriculum is based, not on areas of study, but on three big ideas, three conclusions that all pupils must draw. This is the very antithesis of what good history should be, which is debate, discussion of different points of view, and encouraging pupils to come to their own conclusions through the examination of historical evidence. A dogmatic imposition of state-sponsored conclusions will simply encourage resentment. Pupils must be given the resources and taught the skills to find out about the past for themselves. That way their conclusions will last a lifetime.

    2. The curriculum is very repetitive, and there is no quicker way to turn off pupils than endless regurgitation of the same subject. Novelty, freshness, the discovery of stories about the past which encourage the reflection, “I did not know that before” are what is needed, not endless revisiting of the same old subjects.

    3. The curriculum does not seem to engage with the range of backgrounds that New Zealand schools now include with a very heavy emphasis upon the experience of Māori. I think it important that all New Zealanders know something about the impact of the coming of the British Empire had on Māori society. But I believe the best way to encourage this is to get students to explore real issues that are relevant to their background and community and then extend this to the experience of Māori in this country. So if, for example, you live in Southland where the population is heavily dominated by people of Scots heritage, then pupils there might learn about the Highland clearances that sent so many people overseas. They would learn about the importance of land and the pain when people lost their land. From this it is a short distance to understanding the pain of the confiscation of land from Māori. Similarly if you live in south Auckland from a Pacific Island background then studying the impact of the coming of Christianity to the Pacific communities will offer a good route into understanding the impact of Christianity on Māori society. Teaching must make the story meaningful to the diverse peoples of New Zealand, and this curriculum does not seem to do that.

    4. There are hugely significant gaps with respect to topics that all New Zealanders should be aware of. These include:

    Economy: There is nothing in the curriculum about how New Zealanders have earned a living. Nothing about Māori trading networks, about the early exploitative industries like mining and whaling, the development of pastoral farming and the way this locked New Zealand into a dependency on the mother country, the emergence of a diverse economy over the past half century.

    Gender and family: All New Zealanders should know the history of the subordinate position of women in New Zealand, the oppression suffered by gay people, and the attempts to correct these injustices historically.

    Class: Just as traditional Māori society had strong traditions of leadership by rangatira, so most of the cultures that settled New Zealand subsequently brought their own traditions of social hierarchy. Much of the history of New Zealand in the past centuries has involved a contest between different social classes. The movements of working people and the great confrontations of 1890, 1913, 1951 should be known by all New Zealanders.

    Culture: The creative culture of all New Zealanders, tangata whenua and tangata tiriti, should be explored. This has been both an outlet of personal identity and also an important expression of group and national identity. New Zealanders should know about Apirana Ngata’s Nga Moteatea but also the music of Split Enz or the art work of Colin McCahon.

    International contexts: We need to draw on the history of the rest of the world to understand for example, the dispossession of land in other societies or the experience of world wars. If it is important that New Zealanders know about Rangiaowhia and Ōrakau, it is also important they remember Passchendaele.

    It would be a tragedy if the planned curriculum simply evoked hostility and racist resentment because non-Māori New Zealanders found no place for their own traditions and experience. We must all know something about the impact of colonialism on Māori but we should even more learn to love the multi-faceted history of this country and want to keep discovering it for ourselves.

  3. I have spoken to a number of primary school teachers for their comments and the most helpful was a teacher from Green Bay Primary.

    She said that the new generation of teachers trained under the ‘national standards’ format introduced by the National government a decade or so ago was the main barrier to teaching history in schools.

    At Green Bay Primary an older generation of teachers still teach the full range of subjects they had been trained in and New Zealand history including Tiriti o Waitangi has always been a part of their curriculum. They teach using:

    Tamsin Hanley’s, ‘A critical guide to teaching Maori and Pakeha histories of Aotearoa’

    The website is:


    The Green Bay Primary teachers find it a useful and easy guide.

    Her comments were extremely helpful as they were simple, and instead of focussing on the multiple difficulties of attempting to work with ‘national standards’ which most of the other teachers focussed on, most asking the question, ‘Where would history fit into the national standards’?, apparently the Green Bay teachers have always taught history and segway-ed it into the reading, writing, design, enquiry etc aspects of teaching that are required.

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