An historian involved in shaping the draft history curriculum for schools explains it is not just what is being taught but how students will learn to judge the narratives of history that they encounter

People are drawn to history for a range of reasons. An inherent curiosity about family origins, a desire to understand national commemorations – or simply a wish to fact-check the people, events and times portrayed in TV shows and movies like The Crown and Dunkirk

An interest in the past can be affirming on a range of levels and connect us with something bigger than ourselves. It can provide us with a perspective on our current preoccupations as well as be confronting on both personal and community levels. 

The opportunity to make these sorts of connections with the past are embedded in the draft Aotearoa New Zealand histories curriculum. However, the history young people learn in school is aligned with broader societal priorities such as questions to do with diversity and social cohesion.

The draft broadly aims for all our young people to learn the histories “too important to be left to chance” so they can participate as historically informed, critical citizens in a diverse, bi-cultural democracy. This comprehensive goal complicates the process of developing a history curriculum, because although there is widespread approval for young people to learn more about our history, finding a consensus over what they should learn is more elusive. In the international arena, the ‘history wars’ in school history have been acrimonious, contested and polarised.

The draft Aotearoa New Zealand histories curriculum aims to address the lack of explicit New Zealand history in the curriculum and to address concerns raised by young people themselves that they have not been taught about their own histories.

Although there have been positive responses to the curriculum, critiques have centred primarily on what is and is not in it.

For example, significant groups (such as the Chinese community) are not visible enough, there is too much of a focus on identity (and not enough on economic development) and developments in New Zealand are not placed into an international context. The pedagogical implications of the curriculum have also been viewed through the lens of what is to be taught. And the recent Royal Society Te Apārangi expert report has noted New Zealand history could upset some children and lead to difficult classroom discussions. Critiques that have credence will be considered carefully by reviewers, but the focus on what young people learn overlooks how they learn and thus fails to capture both the intent of the curriculum and how it will be taught. 

History is about the ability to interpret the past rather than passively accept a dominant narrative/story. As part of a broader goal in the social sciences of equipping students with the knowledge, skills and dispositions to participate in a diverse, bicultural democracy, young people will be developing the ability to think critically about the past.   

In appraising how well the draft curriculum equips our young people to have balanced historical understandings, it is useful to see the draft as a combination of big conceptual ideas, specific knowledge and the critical interrogation skills of history. It is through these three strands of historical thinking that young people learn to place historical events into context, analyse a range of evidence from the past and make sense of historical perspectives. For example, they will learn that stories about the past may provide only a partial explanation of particular historical events and that important evidence – for example, from mātauranga Māori sources – has sometimes been ignored.

Developing critical thinking skills will be a gradual process closely aligned with the historical stories young people learn between Years 1 and 10. It will build in depth and complexity as they progress through their schooling, with an explicit emphasis on source analysis, perspectives and critical inquiry.  

The content outlined in the draft history curriculum, with the big ideas, provides a framework for the knowledge that is “too important to be left to chance”. As I have explained, this knowledge has been a focus of concerns.

However, young people will also be learning to think critically about these histories, and they will be developing the historical thinking skills to do so. Rather than a passive acceptance of particular stories and narratives, the curriculum model outlined encourages an interactive approach to learning history that aims to support young people in thinking independently about the past and making sense of their place in the world. 

Dr Mark Sheehan has been a history educator and researcher for more than 40 years and is involved in developing the Aotearoa New Zealand histories curriculum.

Dr Mark Sheehan is an adjunct research fellow at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington' Te Whānau O Ako Pai — Wellington Faculty of Education.

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