Teaching New Zealand history timely

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Getty Images
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Getty Images
The announcement that New Zealand history will be taught in all schools and kura by 2022 will be seen by many as long overdue.

For decades, New Zealand pupils have learned more about events that shaped other countries than what happened here.

It was not edifying to hear former prime minister John Key, in 2014, tell a radio audience New Zealand was one of very few countries in the world settled peacefully. Mr Key is the baby-boomer son of immigrants and it is unlikely the New Zealand Wars were covered comprehensively during his Christchurch schooling.

This year, current PM Jacinda Ardern, from the next generation, struggled to give much detail when asked about the articles of the Treaty of Waitangi. She would not be alone.

The New Zealand History Teachers Association, when it petitioned the Government earlier this year, pointed out we lag behind most other countries because we do not, ''in any coherent fashion'', teach our own past to our children.

As the association says, there are plenty of warnings from overseas of how ignorance of the past allows space for those who wish to create, exploit and exacerbate divisions in society. Such behaviour is not unknown here.

Revealing the move to make New Zealand histories (note the plural) a compulsory part of the local curriculum, the PM and Education Minister said experiences expected to be covered would include the arrival of Maori, their first encounters and early colonial history, the Treaty of Waitangi, colonisation and immigration including the New Zealand Wars, the evolving national identity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries then in the late 20th century, and our role in the Pacific.

Many will be watching closely as work continues on this. The Government says it is too early to say what will be taught at each level of the curriculum.

The Ministry of Education will work collaboratively on this with historical and curriculum experts, iwi and mana whenua, Pacific communities, the sector, pupils, parents and whanau and other groups with a strong interest in shaping the way the histories are taught.

The national curriculum will then be updated. Once this is done, the support needed will be decided and an implementation package developed to enable all schools and kura to include the new content, working in partnership with their local communities and mana whenua.

The ministry told Parliament's Education and Workforce Committee a quarter of teachers reported they were not confident teaching New Zealand history, especially local Maori history. This will need to be properly addressed well before 2022.

Those viewing teaching New Zealand history with alarm because it might be one-sided or push a certain point of view could reflect on the current controversy over the commemoration of Captain James Cook's arrival. How well-rounded was the message about Cook in teaching over decades? Was his impact on Maori even touched on?

Uneasiness over the plan may also illustrate lack of understanding about how history is taught today.

The NZHTA says it and historians would view any mandated ''national story'' with horror, opting instead for presenting multiple views, along with teaching the skills of how to analyse and evaluate them. Blame in the present for past events is also not seen as productive by the association, something it says would be an unhistorical and unproductive approach.

Teaching young people to consider events from a variety of standpoints then critically evaluate them should be welcomed in a world where critical thinking is increasingly necessary to make sense of an often confusing and overwhelming array of information and disinformation. If doing this with our own history has the spin-off of helping us understand each other better, that cannot be a bad thing.

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