• Lucy Francks

What is the Future of Our Past?

Modern Treaty of Waitangi protests

On the 3rd of February 2021, the Ministry of Education released a first draft of their compulsory New Zealand history curriculum for public feedback. Designed in partnership with a range of experts and stakeholders, this new curriculum, implemented between Years 1 to 10, intends to facilitate the coherent teaching of New Zealand history within our schools.

This follows a perceived insufficiency in both the quality and quantity of its teaching at both primary and secondary level. In the past, academics and educators have blamed our current high-autonomy curriculum as a primary reason for New Zealand history’s infrequent teaching.

By prescribing no essential content knowledge for history, schools are given a choice over what subjects they want to teach. As New Zealand history is contested and can be uncomfortable to learn about, several teachers and schools have been able to opt out of teaching it altogether.

This new curriculum acts as a turning point for the configuration of New Zealand’s national curriculum, as it provides guidelines on what topics and historical skills students need to understand so they can contribute to New Zealand’s knowledge society. The Ministry has made clear that New Zealand history is an essential part of students’ schooling that will greatly benefit our rangatahi (young people) and contribute to the reconciliation of our nation’s past.

A prominent issue within New Zealand history education is a lack of emphasis on Māori history. In the past, historians and history educators have risked ‘whitewashing’ New Zealand history by focusing on dominant colonial narratives and historical sources. This means that Māori history has been commonly taught only in conjunction with colonial history, which can reduce Māori narratives and experiences down to a footnote within a larger imperial story.

An example of this can be seen in the prevalence of a ‘race relations’ framework within modern history education, where students are asked to discuss the role of Māori in relation to colonial history. The Ministry has addressed this issue by stating that all students will develop an understanding that Māori history is the “foundational and continuous history of Aotearoa New Zealand”.[1]

A watercolor painting by Tupaia of himself and Joseph Banks in 1769

In this section, the Ministry also recognises that Māori history itself is diverse and should be representative of the perspectives and experiences of different iwi (tribes) and hapu (sub-tribes) throughout time. The Ministry states that the teaching of Māori history will be facilitated through student engagement with Māori sources and customary frameworks such as mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge). By placing Māori history at the forefront of the new curriculum, the Ministry has made a step towards the teaching of diverse and inclusive New Zealand history that fully represents the experiences of tangata whenua (people of the land).

This recentering of Māori history will have been shaped by select groups the Ministry is closely working with, a key one being He Whakaruruhau, comprised of individuals with specialist knowledge and experience in Māori history, and contemporary understanding of Te Tiriti’s post settlement era. Alongside this group, the Ministry has stated that they have also worked alongside a diverse group of history and curricula experts and representatives of key government agencies.[2]

The Ministry has also taken measures to ensure students learn about their local history. The ‘know’ section of the proposed curriculum works to place New Zealand history in context for students and personalise history content within schools, to help identify and strengthen students’ own relationships with their past and the heritage around them.

This localisation of history could have been sparked by a petition by students of Ōtorohanga College in 2015, who felt that teaching of the New Zealand Wars should be compulsory, as they found that they had little knowledge of events that happened on their school’s doorstep. The Ministry states that this learning will be defined by the stories and experiences of local iwi. Localised learning will allow students to engage with tangible forms of history, such as the whenua (land) and community around them. This learning should occur in conjunction with knowledge of wider concepts and trends within history, so students can generate a well-rounded understanding.

It is also in this section where the Treaty of Waitangi is integrated as a compulsory part of the curriculum. As the foundational document of New Zealand, effective teaching of Te Tiriti is essential within our classrooms. Although the New Zealand Curriculum (2007) states that students should recognise both Māori and Pakeha as full and equal Treaty partners, the curriculum has never formalised its teaching. The issue of ‘Treaty fatigue’ is also prevalent in the classroom, as students feel as though they repeatedly learn the same content on the Treaty every year. To remedy this, the proposed curriculum works to specify what content students should be learning about the Treaty from Years 1 to 10 in a way that develops and deepens their understanding.

The topics covered in lessons teaching the Treaty will also expand, from learning about its nature to the development of pan-tribal movements like Kīngitanga and the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal. To prevent the teaching of a ‘sanitised’ version of the Treaty that relies on dominant colonial narratives, students as early as Year 4 will learn why the Treaty is contested. Through this knowledge, students will then be able to explore ownership issues with land and other resources that have sparked conflict throughout time. This compulsory teaching of the Treaty will be essential for students’ understanding of how colonisation has influenced New Zealand society, one of the primary ideas within the new curriculum. As the heart of New Zealand history, it is momentous that the Ministry is finally monitoring how students learn about Te Tiriti.

This curriculum shows the beginnings of an attempt by the Ministry of Education to engage students with an inclusive and decolonised version of New Zealand history. Although it sets strong guidelines for schools, it needs to be taught effectively within the classroom in order to make a difference.

Because this curriculum occurs at all levels of schooling, the Ministry of Education should take measures to ensure that primary, intermediate and secondary teachers can confidently teach this history content. Some form of teaching upskilling will be required so all teachers feel equipped and qualified to teach extensive amounts of New Zealand history.

It will also be interesting to see how this curriculum affects what history topics students learn in senior levels. After learning New Zealand history from Years 1 to 10, will teachers opt to teach more global topics for NCEA - the height of students’ engagement with history? These issues will hopefully be addressed as the curriculum moves forward and enters its trial period in schools in 2021.


Lucy Francks has a Bachelor of Arts with Honours from the University of Auckland in History. Her Honours dissertation is titled ‘Auckland History Teachers’ Association and New Zealand History, 1997-2019’. She is currently completing her Graduate Diploma of Secondary Teaching at the University of Auckland.

[1] Ministry of Education, ‘Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories in the New Zealand Curriculum’, 2021, p. 2, https://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/content/download/169209/1249015/file/CO2716_MOE_Aotearoa_NZ_Histories_A3_FINAL-020.pdf [2] Ministry of Education, ‘More Information About Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories’, 2021, https://www.education.govt.nz/our-work/changes-in-education/aotearoa-new-zealand-histories-in-our-national-curriculum/more-information-about-the-aotearoa-new-zealand-histories/#who

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