History in Schools – an opportunity and challenge

By Rowan Light February 09, 2021

In the lead up to Waitangi, the Prime Minister announced new guidelines for teaching New Zealand history in all schools and kura – to be compulsory by 2022.

The broad topics that have been proposed, such as Pacific migration and the New Zealand Wars, were largely canvassed in 2019 – so there’s little surprise there. Instead, the significance of the announcement lay in the broader conceptual frameworks of the new history curriculum and the move to the next phase in the process: public consultation.

Centre specific stories of local places to which we belong, while providing shared contexts of the past for all New Zealanders

The curriculum is essentially trying to do two things: centre specific stories of local places to which we belong, while providing shared contexts of the past for all New Zealanders. Students in Year 3, for example, might learn about their local landscape and street names, but also come to some understanding that these were part of a bigger story of migration and colonisation.

Keeping “shared but specific” in the same frame is fraught business, hence why the draft proposal is not a ministerial decree but open to wider input. This is a chance for communities to comment on the proposed changes and contribute to the equally important process of developing new resources suited to local schools and kura.

The timing with February 6th is obviously freighted with symbolism. A backdrop of public conversations around Māori Wards in local councils, racism in talk-back radio, and the 175th anniversary of the battle of Ruapekapeka all point to deep currents of change. Like any change, it can appear strange and unsettling.

Curriculum is a form of cultural negotiation and one we should be engaged in as citizens and members of whānau and communities. Curriculum is about what we choose to prioritise in our children’s’ learning – and what we choose not to. It’s good and natural that curriculum is re-examined and, if necessary, revised. It’s an appropriate medium for measuring and reflecting on social change.

Like any change, it can appear strange and unsettling.

All of us have an opportunity to engage robustly with the curriculum conversation. The flexibility and local-focus of the broader New Zealand curriculum means communities have the opportunity to work with schools to shape the stories and places our rangatahi and children engage with. Teachers, who are already busy people, will need support.

The broad framework of the proposed history curriculum speaks to this process: E anga whakamua ai – Me titoro whakamuri, connect to the past, prepare for the future. The three “learning areas” identified—understand, know, do—are a great motto for our public life. Listen with charity and good faith to other’s perspectives, think about one’s own position, then engage in the public consultation.

All of this means grappling with new and different interpretations of the past than those we might be familiar with. A single national curriculum that entertains plural perspectives is a paradox. But paradoxes can be a source of richness and strength, rather than anxiety and crisis. If we refuse cheap understanding and embrace a greater appreciation of the world in all its profound and disturbing complexity, then history can furnish us with a resilience as we meet future change and crisis in our society and motu.

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