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Image: Tina Tiller
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OPINIONSocietyMay 6, 2024

Teachers don’t want the new histories curriculum to be ‘rebalanced’

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The new Aotearoa histories curriculum is rich with potential. There’s still work to be done, but the education minister’s criticisms about ‘balance’ miss the mark, argues primary school teacher Jessie Moss.

In 2015, Ōtorohanga College students presented to parliament a petition signed by more than 10,000 people calling for a national day recognising the New Zealand Wars. This triggered a national conversation on teaching histories in schools and resulted in two new histories curriculum documents, for English- and Māori-medium settings.

Collectively known as “Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories”, they are rich with endless potential to grow honest and accurate understandings of our collective histories and build stronger inclusive communities.

Enthusiasm to teach the curriculum in English-medium schooling is clear from school leaders, teachers and school communities in ERO’s latest report, which evaluates the first nine months of rollout of the curriculum last year. 

The report found that after just two and a half terms of the curriculum being mandatory, 75% of teachers were confident in their understanding of it. Nine out of 10 were enjoying it, noting “teachers can make the learning more meaningful and relevant to their students”. 

At the same time, an internal NZEI Te Riu Roa membership survey found that 80% of educators did not want the curriculum “rebalanced”, whatever the Luxon government means by this. And they wanted the obligation to honour and give effect to Te Tiriti to remain in the Education Act.

Tamariki are enjoying the new curriculum too. The report showed they were twice as likely to enjoy learning when it was connected to them, their whānau and community, and “when they are learning about people similar to them”. They were also twice as likely to enjoy histories when learning about Aotearoa New Zealand’s place in the world. Students from all backgrounds reported that learning histories helped them connect to “being a New Zealander”.

The ERO report had some failings, however. It took a snapshot very early in the curriculum’s implementation and looked only at implementation of the English-medium curriculum document. We did not hear from kaiako in Māori settings because ERO chose not to include their experiences in the data collection, leading to a skewed and incomplete analysis. The curriculum may be new in form and mandate, but for Māori, teaching histories is not.

Education minister Erica Stanford and prime minister Christopher Luxon (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The ERO report was also seized on by education minister Erica Stanford as evidence of the need to “rebalance” the histories curriculum, and more broadly, to produce a more detailed national curriculum that tells teachers what students should be learning each year at school.

The report tells us many things, but it does not give the minister of education the evidence she claims to narrow the curriculum or remove the critical element of understanding our own local histories. 

The report found teachers began the rollout of the new curriculum by focusing on local histories ahead of national and global ones. In an interview with Radio New Zealand, Stanford said there was little balance between highly localised history and linking that to national and global events, citing the suffragette movement as an example. But the minister’s framing goes against what good pedagogy says about how children learn and what teachers know about the time it takes to embed a new curriculum area.

Tamariki are necessarily self-centred. Their understanding of the world and their connections to it grows as they do. Tamariki who know themselves and their communities are best placed to be connected and contributing global citizens. What has been missing in schools is all tamariki knowing the specific histories of where they live and learn and what that means for their communities today. 

So, it makes sense that after just two or so terms of teaching histories, many schools are focused on local histories and Māori histories in particular. This is where human history in Aotearoa begins and where the curriculum starts. 

Image: Tina Tiller

Stanford said in that same RNZ interview that until this curriculum “we haven’t been teaching history at all”. Whether through arrogance or ignorance, it is alarming that she dismisses the fact Māori educators have always taught histories. Not only their own, but Pākehā and colonial histories too.

Pākehā have a culture of unremembering our colonial history – we live in what historian Rachel Buchanan has called the “dementia wing” of our own past. We rely on Māori to hold and share Aotearoa New Zealand’s collective history. This curriculum is a step towards rebalancing that load. 

No one is saying that learning more about our own histories is easy. The report found some teachers are finding teaching the new curriculum challenging. As the majority of us did not learn these histories ourselves, there is still work to be done. 

One of the benefits of mandating histories was to ensure ongoing resourcing and professional development for teachers. Teachers reported to ERO that in-person support from the Ministry of Education was extremely useful to supporting them with the curriculum, but unfortunately as of last month (April) there is no longer funding for histories professional development. Proposed further cuts to experts on the curriculum within the Ministry of Education will only make this worse. 

The ERO report, though, shows that teachers and school communities have already made a strong investment in the teaching and learning of Aotearoa histories. This is learning that cannot be undone, whatever the dictates of government in Wellington. 

With time, the expertise of our teaching profession and the generosity and knowledge of iwi and hapū, we are confident that generations of tamariki will grow up knowing themselves, and the land they live on more deeply. That is the balancing work being done. 

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