The costs of choice in the New Zealand history curriculum

Rachel Rafferty

History is not just an account of past events, but an interpretation. Which historical events are taught in schools, and how they are presented, communicates an important message to pupils about national identity.

Currently, in New Zealand, these important decisions are left in the hands of individual educators. The 2010 curriculum requires pupils to develop skills of historical enquiry, but does not specify any compulsory topics. The curriculum does nothing to prevent educators ignoring events or perspectives that they do not personally consider important. This means that teachers can be influenced by their own biases when selecting which time periods, and whose perspectives, they share with their pupils.

Despite growing diversity among pupils in New Zealand’s state schools, 74% of primary and secondary teachers are of Anglo-European ancestry. While this does not mean they will all have biases that impact their teaching, research suggests New Zealand’s history teachers often avoid any topic they deem controversial. In fact, there is evidence that a core group of around 20% of history teachers resist engaging with New Zealand’s colonial history, including the New Zealand wars. As a result, many schools continue to teach European history while ignoring key events that have shaped the development of New Zealand society into the present.

These issues are not unique to New Zealand. In Northern Ireland, a flexible curriculum allows teachers to avoid contentious topics, with the result that divisive popular myths go unchallenged. In England, teaching history from an Anglo-centric perspective leaves minority students feeling socially excluded. Meanwhile, concerns have been raised that silencing the history of conflict in Uganda in the school curriculum leaves young people unequipped to respond positively to divisions in their society. These cases suggest that New Zealand should be concerned about the potential social impacts of allowing teachers to avoid contentious topics that are central to the historical experience of minority groups, or that are central to explaining the current nature of New Zealand society.    

The risks of flexible history education

This flexible approach to history education misses an important opportunity to encourage the development of a plural and inclusive national identity in New Zealand. Instead, the current history curriculum could result in a number of social problems in future.

Firstly, pupils who do not have courageous and committed history teachers will be taught little about New Zealand’s past, and this may leave them struggling to understand present-day developments. A curriculum that does not acknowledge past harm-doing is unlikely to encourage pupils to support the erasure of legacies of historical injustice in the present. For example, how can the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process be understood without knowledge of the strategies European settlers used to appropriate land from Māori in the nineteenth century and beyond?

Secondly, the curriculum does nothing to prevent teachers taking a Eurocentric approach to history that excludes minority experiences. It misses an important opportunity to acknowledge the contributions a range of groups have made to this society, often in the face of considerable barriers. Ignoring the past achievements of minority groups could encourage pupils to ignore their present-day contributions as well, and allow harmful stereotypes to go unchallenged. And when minority experiences are taught as separate histories, it implies that Pākehā historical experiences are central to New Zealand’s character while those of Māori and other minorities are a niche interest.

What’s more, the current history curriculum ignores the responsibility of the state-funded education system to ensure every young New Zealander learns about the historical experiences of the diverse groups that make up our society. Instead, it leaves it up to minority groups to educate others they encounter in their daily lives about historical injustices. This experience can lessen their sense of belonging in society, as there is no official recognition that their group’s experiences are an integral part of New Zealand’s story.

Currently, then, there is no policy to ensure every young New Zealander learns about a diverse range of groups with very different historical experiences in this country. Instead, taking a completely flexible approach risks a more polarised society in the future, with citizens holding very different understandings of how inequities in New Zealand society have come about. It also risks minority groups feeling excluded from the national identity, and it does nothing to challenge ignorance among mainstream society of the challenges faced, and contributions made, by minority groups. 

Developing an inclusive history curriculum

Every national history curriculum needs to be oriented towards an overarching goal and should be underpinned by a clear set of beliefs about the purpose of history education. In a diverse society such as New Zealand, which has made public commitments to both biculturalism and multiculturalism, the history curriculum is an opportunity to encourage an inclusive and plural national identity by introducing pupils to the past experiences and past actions of the diverse groups that make up this society. 

The New Zealand history curriculum needs to strike a better balance between structure and flexibility. While individual teachers can do wonderful creative work when given enough flexibility in a curriculum, there are some historical events that are too central to explaining present-day New Zealand to be ignored. The New Zealand Wars are an obvious example. Other important topics could be pre-colonial Māori society, New Zealand’s participation in WWI and WWII, histories of nonviolent resistance in New Zealand, historic experiences of immigrant groups such as Chinese gold miners, or the economic changes of the 1980s.

Rather than allowing teachers to make personal decisions on every aspect of curriculum content, a panel should be established to decide a framework of key historical topics which every young New Zealander should learn about. This panel should be comprised of historians and history educators, and must reflect the diversity of New Zealand society today – in terms of ethnic and cultural identity, gender and more.

This panel could create guidelines around how key historical events should be taught, ensuring the inclusion of diverse perspectives from groups and individuals involved in them. It could also ensure history teachers are trained, resourced and supported to teach history in ways that help pupils to understand how present-day inequalities have evolved over time.

It is important to ensure teachers confront contentious historical topics in the classroom. This supports pupils to develop the skills needed to navigate a diverse society. It helps them to recognise the historic roots of present-day conflicts and present-day inequities. While avoiding difficult topics can leave inequalities unchallenged, engaging with them can break down prejudiced attitudes, and leave pupils more empathetic to the experiences of other social groups.

Teaching an inclusive understanding of the past is an important step towards New Zealand becoming a truly inclusive society.


(Creative commons licence applies to the text only and does not include the feature photo)

Rachel Rafferty
About the author

Rachel Rafferty

Dr Rachel Rafferty is a Lecturer in the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago. She researches the role of narratives in shaping relations between different identity groups. Her past research includes an international study of peace-supporting practices among history educators in post-conflict societies.