Students face emotional challenge confronting NZ history, study warns

The compulsory study of Aotearoa New Zealand history is set to generate strong emotions for some students, a new study warns.

Taita College head of social sciences Dr Michael Harcourt asked 1889 students at 20 high schools around the country for their main feeling after reading a passage about the effects of the land wars on Waikato Māori.

The largest number (39 per cent) chose sadness, followed by anger (11 per cent), frustration (10 per cent), shame (6 per cent), grief, resentment and guilt.

Harcourt said teachers, who will be required to teach NZ history from 2022, should be alert to those emotions and actually draw them out.

“Maybe even doing a survey of their students and sharing the results with their students, and making those emotional responses an object of inquiry,” he suggested.

“I think teachers need to really plan with a strong inquiry-based or question-based approach, so when things do get controversial they can anchor it by saying we are trying to find an answer to this question, what does the evidence tell us?”

This week’s post-election briefings to incoming ministers show that Education Minister Chris Hipkins is being asked to agree on a draft Aotearoa NZ Histories Curriculum this month, with a Cabinet paper due next month.

Ministry of Education deputy secretary Ellen MacGregor-Reid said a timeline for public engagement would be published in February and the new curriculum will become compulsory in all schools from the start of 2022.

Harcourt surveyed history and social studies teachers at all NZ secondary schools with more than 250 students, as well as his sample of students, for his doctorate awarded by Victoria University on December 10.

He found that 82 per cent of the 298 teachers who responded had taught about colonisation in NZ in the past year – a sign that NZ history is becoming more popular even before it becomes compulsory.

For comparison, an NZ History Teachers Association survey of just over 100 teachers in 2015 found that by far the most popular Year 11 history topic was black civil rights in the US (taught by 71 teachers), followed by World War II (58), NZ topics (41) and World War I (28).

An overwhelming 98 per cent of the teachers in Harcourt’s survey agreed that it was important to teach NZ students about colonisation.

But they said their biggest challenge – rated somewhat or highly significant by half the teachers – was that “students do not find the topic interesting”.

Harcourt also asked the students themselves to choose which word best described their feelings about learning about NZ colonisation. Most Māori students (54 per cent), but only 44 per cent of non-Māori, chose “interesting”, “important” or “meaningful”.

More than a quarter of non-Māori (27 per cent), and 18 per cent of Māori, chose “boring”, “meaningless” or “frustrating”.

“It has been beaten to death throughout schooling,” one student said.

A teacher said: “There are students that loathe the Treaty of Waitangi just simply because the teachers say this is something I have to teach.”

Harcourt said the seven topics proposed for what is being called “Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories” should help to widen what students learn.

“We have got to start teaching more than just what happened in 1840,” he said.

He also did an in-depth study of four schools and found that the students who had been bored were turned around by field trips to local sites which tied history into the students’ own lives, with guides from local iwi or museum staff.

Most of the students in his broader survey (71 per cent) agreed, although 29 per cent disagreed, that “past conflict and violence between Māori and non-Māori still has an effect on life in NZ today”.

Harcourt said teachers should explore the ongoing effects of colonisation and ask students to find out about their own ancestors’ involvement, even if it was overseas.

“I had a student from India saying colonisation has nothing to do with me,” he said.

“But not only was India colonised, but a lot of the actors who were active in NZ came directly from India.

“When you start to explore family histories and everyone’s experience of colonisation, you start to see that NZ is connected in all sorts of ways with the global experience of colonisation.”

The Ministry of Education has told Auckland writer Anthony Keesing, in response to an Official Information Act request, that the English-language Aotearoa NZ’s Histories curriculum is being written by an eight-person team led by Auckland University Emeritus Professor Graeme Aitken.

A separate curriculum for Māori-language schools is being written by Auckland University’s Māori-immersion teacher training co-director Hēmi Dale and Core Education’s Kaihautū Māori (leader) Anahera MacGregor.

Six consultative groups have been set up, including a Royal Society expert panel led by Victoria University Professor Charlotte Macdonald and Massey University Professor Michael Belgrave.

The new curriculum

Seven topics have been signalled:

• The arrival and settlement of Māori, including Pacific navigation, iwi traditions, traditional culture and Māori history.

• First encounters and early colonial history, including Captain Cook’s initial encounters and Māori history after European contact.

• Te Tiriti o Waitangi, including its later legal and political influence.

• Colonisation of, and immigration to, Aotearoa, including the New Zealand Wars.

• Evolving national identity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including symbolic changes such as the national anthem and banknotes, women’s suffrage, Māori religious and political movements and NZ’s role in world wars.

• Aotearoa NZ in the late 20th century and evolution of national identity with cultural plurality, including demographic changes, debates about biculturalism and multiculturalism, the 1975 Māori land march, the 1981 Springbok tour and the nuclear-free policy.

• Aotearoa NZ’s role in the Pacific, including colonising Sāmoa, opposing French nuclear tests, and Pacific immigration to NZ.

Source: Ministry of Education, Social Sciences Online.

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