The New Zealand Curriculum – don’t mention the war?

There was a robust conversation on twitter last night about the place of the Land Wars within the New Zealand curriculum in response to this article – Ministry of Education refuses to include New Zealand Land Wars in the New Zealand curriculum.

First, let’s clear a few things up.

Most adult New Zealanders’ recollection of New Zealand history at school is learning the key dates and people involved in the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi sometime around Year 4 – probably through doing a project, worksheet or reading an article in the school journal.  Things have moved on since then in education – the curriculum that has moved from content-driven curriculum to a concept-based curriculum.

What does that mean in practice?

Think back to learning to drive. First, you had to learn the road code in order to pass your learners. That’s basically the system you were educated under – memorise enough facts to get you through your exams. What ‘facts’ you had to memorise was decided by the central Ministry of Education – individual schools and teachers were there to disseminate this knowledge. There was little diversity within schools and one way of doing things.

However, there were some problems with that model – not least it was a way for the state to effectively erase events in our own nation’s past from the classroom for generations. One version of history was the correct one which you needed to be to regurgitate for the exams.  On a broader level, cramming facts into your head to pass exams and quickly forgetting them is not an education.

Think back to the road code.

Knowing the rules about left-hand turn rule and hazard signs will enable you to pass your learners exam but chances are, you’ve forgotten a significant part of the actual road code over the years. In its place, you know how to exercise judgement  and more importantly, how to respond to unexpected events based on past experience. Similarly, history is more than just memorising key facts, people, and dates, it’s about understanding how events in the past shape our society today.

Significant events are used as a way to help us make sense of what is happening in the world today.  When we talk of Bastion Point we aren’t just talking about a protest – it is also used as a touchstone for police brutality, injustice, land alienation, and sustainability. Our ethnically diverse classrooms could develop a

Which is why the  New Zealand Social Studies curriculum doesn’t prescribe the study of particular historical events for students to study in a particular year but instead focuses on ‘big ideas’ that unfurl with a child’s intellectual development.

In Year 1 and 2  the kids are learning how cultures are expressed in daily lives  and the special place that Māori have in New Zealand society. As the children get older, they explore how events in the past have effects today and how systems of government affect people’s lives.

This enables schools flexibility to perhaps develop teaching units in response to current events, or perhaps a school-wide theme or an issue of importance to their local community.

It is no accident that this debate is being led by students from Otorohanga College . This is the history of the area and also a stellar example of the New Zealand curriculum in action.  The students are clearly engaged in learning that is deeply personal and important to them. This inspires students to influence others in this case through a petition and presenting in parliament.  A critical component of the New Zealand curriculum are  the’soft skills.’ The curriculum wants our students to go beyond memorising facts and take action based on what they have learned. The Ministry of Education is correct that we need to keep that flexibility for schools. However given the history of teaching New Zealand  history, I can understand why people would be quite rightly alarmed that our Social Studies curriculum makes no mention of the New Zealand land wars.

It is important that individual teachers and schools develop contexts that enable students to understand how the past influences New Zealand society. They should know their kids and community best. Skilled teachers are able to help children make connections between events – both now and in the past as well as in the fictional world and children’s own experience – to those big ideas in our curriculum. This is where powerful learning occurs. Students are not learning about history – but to think and act as historians in their daily lives. This can not be done by mandating the teaching of content.

However given our history, could this mean that individual boards of trustees and teachers can side-step important perspectives of the past based on their own prejudices?


Part of ERO’s job is to examine a school’s curriculum to ensure firstly that it has been developed in consultation with its community (including the Māori community) and that there is adequate coverage given to New Zealand history. However, parents in some communities may need ongoing conversations about the importance of learning this history.  As @geomouldey noted on twitter, the Achievement Objective for Level 5 (Year 9/10) would be impossible to teach effectively without examining the New Zealand wars:

Understand how the Treaty of Waitangi is responded to differently by people in different times and places.

But there are also plenty of ‘Big Ideas’ in the curriculum that lend themselves to younger children could be studying the New Zealand wars at a slightly junior level.  I agree with the students that the level of resources given to develop students knowledge about the New Zealand wars is not commensurate to events like the World War 1 century or even the Rugby World Cup.

This is a travesty.

I would love to see resources in the form of books, art, movies, documentaries for younger children. These could be developed by older students as part of their learning and put up online for us to share. Imagine the rich learning that could occur as children in local schools are developing resources based on the experiences of their local area.

Perhaps a better question isn’t what history we are teaching but how are teaching it?

One thought on “The New Zealand Curriculum – don’t mention the war?

Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on A Blog By Deanna and commented:
    As a History and Social Sciences teacher, I sometimes feel we don’t focus enough on New Zealand. It depends on the school and the school’s courses, obviously, for what gets covered. We used to have a dedicated Treaty unit, which looked at first contact, the Treaty, the NZ Wars, and a current issue. Now, we look at the Treaty of Waitangi in the context of Human Rights, and I feel like maybe the rest of the history of NZ gets lost in trying to situate NZ in a global context. Even in Level Three History, with the opening of the NCEA to contexts, NZ History is not a requirement outside of the internal assessments.

    I am glad these students found something to be passionate about, and to fight for. I imagine they are also doing a Senior Social Studies assessment around social action.

    Liked by 1 person

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