The draft histories curriculum

This is an edited and abridged version of my submission on the draft Aotearoa New Zealand histories curriculum.

I welcome the inclusion of Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories in the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa. My comments focus on the draft New Zealand Curriculum content, but I have also reviewed the draft content for Te Marautanga o Aotearoa and looked at related material (particularly the local curriculum guide for Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories). In addition, I have read the report of the Royal Society’s Expert Advisory Panel on the draft curriculum.

A key challenge for any national history curriculum is striking the right balance between prescription and flexibility, and between national and local contexts. The introduction of a national histories curriculum represents an overdue recognition that local histories need to be placed in a larger context. In addition, while students should be encouraged to explore and interpret histories for themselves, they will struggle to do so if the curriculum does not provide them with some basic intellectual and factual contexts within which to understand these histories. I therefore support the overall approach of the curriculum, in seeking both to equip students with the skills of historical inquiry and to ensure that they understand some key concepts and contexts.

The structure of the draft New Zealand Curriculum content is based on an ‘Understand, Know, Do’ model.

Understand: big ideas

I agree with the Expert Advisory Panel that an additional ‘big idea’ should be included in the curriculum to recognise that Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories are connected with histories beyond these islands. It is impossible to understand events in Aotearoa New Zealand without understanding how people, ideas and technologies have moved between Aotearoa and the wider world. Adding this idea to the curriculum also helps to address concerns that focusing attention on Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories could be parochial and nationalistic.

I am unconvinced by the big idea ‘The course of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history has been shaped by the exercise and effects of power’. As currently described, this idea is so generic as to be almost meaningless, and would be true of any society. I suggest that it be either deleted and replaced by the new idea about New Zealand and the world, or given greater focus and more specific reference to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Know: topics and themes

The draft curriculum content is meant to provide an overarching structure and can never cover all historical topics. There is also a limit to how much can realistically be covered when history is just one part of a much bigger curriculum. However, I agree with the Expert Advisory Panel that many key aspects of Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories are largely missing due to the compression of the histories curriculum into a short and high-level document.

While historians and others would no doubt argue about the seven topics included in the Cabinet paper and announcement of the national histories curriculum in 2019, these provided a good starting point for discussion. They have been widely picked up in the media, because they are easy to understand and cover a range of issues within Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories. However, these topics are only partially apparent in the draft curriculum.

Instead, the draft curriculum has eight themes that appear under the three national contexts in ‘Know’. Most of these themes are useful for understanding New Zealand history. However, I am concerned that the ‘international conflicts’ theme gives undue attention to New Zealand’s participation in overseas wars. I would prefer to see this topic treated as one small part of a focus on New Zealand’s relationships with the wider world. The last two themes (the state and the people, and the state and the Pacific) also give too much attention to the state, at the expense of relationships within communities and between people(s).

I endorse the comments of the Expert Advisory Panel about major topics that are missing or lightly covered in the draft curriculum. As the Panel’s report notes, the inclusion of these topics ‘has the potential to create a more lively curriculum for many students and young people’. I am particularly concerned about the limited coverage of gender, class, and the diversity of New Zealand’s communities.

I am also disappointed that the draft curriculum almost completely ignores the history of those things that bring meaning and pleasure to people’s lives, including the arts, sport, popular culture, religion, food, clothes, and social beliefs and practices. Topics such as these could be a great way of catching the attention and interest of students, while still illustrating bigger themes: for example, the history of sport can reveal much about gender, class, racism, national identity and international relations.

Do: inquiry practices

Learning how to investigate and think critically about the past is fundamental to understanding history. I am pleased that students will be expected to develop skills of critical inquiry as part of the history curriculum.

The first of the three inquiry practices in the draft curriculum is identifying and using sequence. They will also learn that stories can be told in different ways, ‘depending on the frame of reference used in sequencing’. I worry that the emphasis on ‘frames of reference’ could lead to an approach which sees all interpretations of history as being equally valid, regardless of the evidence. Historical narratives and interpretations should always be grounded in evidence, and the evidence will be stronger for some views than for others.

The third inquiry practice is interpreting past decisions and actions. This involves taking account of the attitudes and values of the time, and the situations in which people found themselves, when students are interpreting the past. Students in later years are also expected to ‘make ethical judgements concerning right and wrong’ about people’s actions in the past.

Understanding people’s actions and motivations in the past on their own terms is an essential part of historical inquiry and explanation. Making moral judgements about the past, by contrast, is not a necessary part of history. I do not agree with those who maintain that historians should take no view on whether past actions were right or wrong. However, when historians express an opinion about the morality of people’s behaviour in the past, it is because historians are human beings grappling with the complexity and challenge of being human, not because moral judgements are central to an understanding of history.

I suggest that the inquiry practices also need to provide students with an understanding of how we can know about the past, and how what we know changes over time. Students should learn about the many types of evidence that help us to understand what happened in the past, including:

  • people’s oral or written recollections of events that they experienced
  • stories passed down orally from previous generations
  • documents written at around the time of the events being investigated
  • visual evidence, such as paintings, whakairo or photographs
  • waiata and songs
  • places, structures, objects and other material remains from the past.

In addition, students should be introduced to reasons why our understanding of the past changes over time. These reasons include new evidence being discovered, new methods and types of evidence being used, and new questions being asked about the past.

Finding inspiration and excitement in our histories

My biggest worry about the new histories curriculum is that students will find history dull and dispiriting, while my greatest hope is that they will be inspired and excited to learn more about the past, and will carry this excitement through into their adult lives. A lot will depend on how the curriculum is taught and how it is made relevant at the local level by bringing in rohe and local contexts. But the national curriculum itself has a role to play. As historian Charlotte Macdonald puts it, the curriculum can ‘open the door to the excitement, wonder and discovery in the study of history for school pupils.’

At present, the draft content for the New Zealand Curriculum feels somewhat dour and depressing. By contrast, the draft content for Te Marautanga o Aotearoa includes more to inspire and excite ākonga. I am a strong believer in facing up to the confronting and uncomfortable parts of our past, including histories of dispossession, discrimination and marginalisation experienced by Māori and by other groups within Aotearoa New Zealand. However, if students do not find history interesting, providing information about past injustices and struggles will fail to motivate students to address the legacies of injustice today. I am not arguing for a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of difficult histories go down more easily. Rather, I want to see a curriculum that will engage students’ imaginations with the drama and the dreams, the strangeness and the familiarity, the triumph and the tragedy of Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories in all their diversity.

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