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Yesterday and Today

versión On-line ISSN 2309-9003
versión impresa ISSN 2223-0386

Y&T  no.18 Vanderbijlpark dic. 2017


Keynote presentation to: The international Society For History Didactics (ISHD) in conjunction with the South African Society for History teaching (SASHT) 13 -15 September 2017, Vanderbijlpark, South Africa. Teaching 'difficult history' in an era of high curriculum autonomy: a New Zealand case study



Michael Harcourt

Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand




It is a great pleasure to be in South Africa to talk about history education with you here today, especially on the 40th anniversary of Steve Biko's death and at a venue only a few kilometres from Sharpeville. I would especially like to pass on to the conference warm greetings from Graeme Ball, chairperson of the New Zealand History Teachers' Association. If you are interested in collaborating with New Zealand teachers in some kind of digital student exchange then please let me know, I know several that would be willing to discuss this further. Today, though, I'm here to talk to you about New Zealand's quite unusual approach to history curriculum.



Most, if not all nations have aspects of the past that are hard to reconcile with their values today. These uncomfortable, 'difficult' histories tend to focus on violence - on historical instances of suffering and trauma. The ways in which countries deal with the challenge of teaching difficult history varies greatly. Some nations do not teach it at all, others prescribe a single narrative and others open up multiple and competing narratives for investigation. Generally, governments have a hand in the curriculum decision making around what content to include and how to sequence it. In New Zealand, the Ministry of Education has a very hands off approach and allows schools and teachers to determine what history they teach. It it this high curriculum autonomy that I will talk about today. There are three parts to my talk; First, I will describe New Zealand's unusual level of curriculum autonomy in more detail and also how teachers have responded to it with the topics they select. Second, I'll outline some of the opportunities and challenges curriculum autonomy poses to teachers, especially with regard to teaching uncomfortable, difficult history. Finally, I'll conclude with some classroom strategies I have used with students to deal with difficult, sensitive aspects of history. To begin with, though, I will start with a little historical context.



New Zealand and South Africa have a nineteenth century colonial administrator in common. In 1853, the governor of New Zealand, George Grey, left his role for positions in South Africa as the Governor for Cape Colony and High Commissioner for South Africa. Grey left New Zealand having, in the eyes of settlers, successfully responded to two significant Maori military responses to British rule. Nevertheless, Grey strongly believed in the capacity of Maori to assimilate into European civilisation, claiming in 1852 that "both races already form one harmonious community. ..insensibly forming one people". In South Africa he set up schools and hospitals but was thoroughly convinced of European superiority and worked hard to replace African tribal structures and customs with ones he considered more civilised. In South Africa he was also responsible for dealing with the 'cattle killing millenarian movement'.

In 1861 Grey returned to New Zealand where he would launch a massive assault against some major Maori tribes, Maori being the indigenous people of New Zealand. A conflict with some equivalence in South Africa is perhaps the Anglo-Zulu Wars. Since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 between Maori chiefs and the Queen's representatives, European settlers had, at least from a Maori perspective 'poured' into New Zealand. This was, of course, part of a global phenomenon of explosive European expansion referred to as the 'white human flood' by U.K historian Niall Ferguson.

By the end of the 1850s the Maori and settler populations had equalised at about 60,000 and Maori political authority, guaranteed in the Treaty of Waitangi, was being steadily eroded, particularly through land loss. In 1860, war broke out on the west coast of the North Island, beginning 12 years of brutal warfare across the North Island with consequences that endure today.

Arguably the most significant and decisive campaign of the New Zealand Wars was Governor Grey's invasion of the Waikato, a large, extremely fertile area south of New Zealand's largest city, Auckland. In total, more than 12,000 troops were involved, drawn from around the British Empire against a Maori force of about 4000.

Unlike the British Army, Maori forces were part time soldiers who worked in shifts, rotating between the front and their crops. Whereas British supplies for the war effort were ferried down the Great South Road and the Waikato River, Maori relied heavily on the "wheat bowl" of a place called Rangiaowhia, a small village in southern Waikato which supplied Maori fighters with key resources. This area was protected by three primary defensive lines, Meremere, Rangiriri and Pâterangi.

These are names that do not resonate in popular New Zealand collective memory in the same way that distant conflicts, such as the Battle of Little Big Horn or Waterloo do in other countries. In fact, it may be that Sharpeville and Soweto are more familiar names to the average person on the street.

Maori strategically abandoned the first line of defence and at the second Maori forces were defeated with many prisoners taken. The final line ofdefence against the wheat bowl of Rangiaowhia, was, according to historians "the largest chain of fortifications ever built by Maori" and presented significant problems for British Army (Belich, 1986).

Instead of launching a full frontal offensive, British troops silently crept around it under the cover of darkness and attacked the undefended village of Rangiaowhia where women, children and elderly were sheltering. According to official figures, 12 Maori were killed, some burnt alive in a thatched hut. The same number were wounded and over 30 people, mostly women and children were taken prisoner and the real number of casualties may be higher. It is impossible to convey in this presentation the depth of feeling associated with these events for some Mâori today, and also those at another battle site a month later where other atrocities occurred. Although Governor Grey's invasion met with much more resistance than was expected, ultimately, for Maori, the conflict resulted in confiscated land, famine, economic destruction and the arrival of armed military settlers.

So that's where I'll end the history lesson and fast forward 150 years. In 2014 students from a rural high school in the Waikato visited Rangiaowhia, Ōrākau and other local places relevant to the British Army's invasion. Taken to these sites by Maori with family memories and oral histories of the events, the experience of hearing about the atrocities moved students deeply. Shocked that the history of the invasion was not taught more widely, several of the students decided to launch a petition that called for:

Compulsory teaching of the New Zealand Land Wars in the school curriculum.

An official, national day of commemoration.

While they were unsuccessful at making the teaching of these events compulsory, they did contribute to the political climate supportive of a national day of remembrance, the first of which takes place next month in late October.

It may surprise people to know that the New Zealand history curriculum does not prescribe any historical content. In most countries, I imagine that an event like the New Zealand Wars and the invasion of the Waikato would, on a curriculum document somewhere, be required teaching. I'm fairly certain that the Anglo-Zulu wars are a compulsory part of the South African history curriculum. Instead, New Zealand teachers are entrusted with high levels of curriculum autonomy. History departments design programmes of learning that respond to the needs of their students and community. Topics do, however, need to be "of significance to New Zealanders" which means:

a past event occurring within New Zealand (e.g. the New Zealand Wars).

an international event involving New Zealanders (e.g., New Zealand's involvement on the Western Front).

an international event influencing New Zealanders (e.g., the impact of 9/11 of


Furthermore, history is not a compulsory subject. It becomes an elective option in the final three years of school and approximately 30% of students opt to take this subject. All students are required to take social studies up until year 10, when they are about 13-14 years old. Social studies is an integrated subject that explores contemporary, contested social issues, and, where appropriate, supports students to plan, carry out and reflect on a social action (Harcourt, Milligan, Wood, 2016). The majority of students encounter aspects of the past in their social studies classrooms, especially key turning points such as the Treaty of Waitangi, which brought New Zealand into the British Empire in 1840. But social studies teachers are not necessarily disciplinary experts in history, and studies in New Zealand have shown that when a topic might be controversial, it tends to be avoided (Simon, 1992, Keown, 1998, Harrison, 1998, Kunowski, 2005).

It is perhaps worth emphasising these two points again because overseas visitors to New Zealand sometimes have trouble getting their head around it. In New Zealand:

History is an optional subject, for most students only available in the final three years of school

The state does not prescribe any historical content in the school history curriculum

I know of no other country in the world that takes a similar approach to history education. So how do we do it? Instead of prescribing content, the New Zealand history curriculum assesses students' ability to think like an historian, or as it is often referred to, historical thinking. Students are assessed on their ability to describe, explain and evaluate the historical thinking ideas of historical causation, perspectives, evidence and significance. These concepts help to make up the intellectual structure of the discipline of history, as practised by historians in the university. They are referred to, by educationalists, as you no doubt know, second-order or procedural concepts in contrast to first-order, substantive concepts such as revolution, feudalism, colonisation etc. History educator Mark Sheehan puts it succinctly when he argues that without "systematic instruction in the methodologies and vocabulary of the discipline" history education quickly becomes "a sentimental affair where the past is to be admired or scorned (rather than analysed)". Teaching students how to use first and second order historical concepts offers a powerful antidote to what Peter Seixas (2000) calls a "best story" approach to history teaching, or the delivery of simplified, often sanitised, nationalist, grand narratives that students are asked to uncritically accept. Clearly there is much in favour of New Zealand's heavy emphasis on historical thinking.

In New Zealand, each of these historical thinking concepts is assessed either as an in-class assignment, or in a traditional exam format. One of the most common history assessments sat by many thousands of 15 years olds asks students to describe the causes and consequences of an event. I'll use this exam to briefly illustrate the nature of assessment in a history curriculum with no prescribed content.

For the students sitting this exam in 2016, their script opened with the instructions: "Write an essay on ONE historical event that you have studied this year, using the essay question below". Asked to focus their essay on a specific historical event in time or an historical development or movement, students are told to write paragraphs with supporting evidence.

The level of curriculum autonomy enjoyed by teachers in New Zealand is a relatively recent phenomenon, but we have always had some freedom to select content. For example, prior to 2009, there was one primary topic for history students in their final year of school. Teachers could deliver a course on nineteenth century New Zealand or the Tudors and Stuarts of England. According to a survey carried out by the New Zealand History Teachers' Association in 2005, 58% of teachers taught the Tudors and Stuarts topic. At other year levels there were a range of topics teachers could choose from to prepare their students. According to one New Zealand educationalist the same 2005 survey revealed that "Despite the opportunities to do so, there is very little social history, women's history or history of indigenous peoples taught" (Brainfood, n/d). Other educationalists have accused teachers of 'avoiding' or 'sidestepping' Maori history. One historian even claimed that the country was giving itself a "cultural lobotomy" through the lack of attention to its own history.


Teachers' response to the autonomous history curriculum

How have teachers responded to the flexibility offered by New Zealand's highly autonomous history curriculum? To answer this I draw on another survey carried out in 2015 also by the New Zealand History Teachers Association. One consequence of our autonomous curriculum is that it is very difficult to know what history is taught across different schools. The Ministry of Education does not keep a record and teachers are agile in the way they change their programmes in response to world issues. Instead, we rely on voluntary surveys of teachers. The last survey, distributed in 2015 was completed by just over 100 teachers. Remembering that New Zealand's population is 4.5 million (about the population of Johannesburg) and there are a total of 370 secondary schools, this sample is big enough to start to recognise some broad patterns.


Image 1


This first graph shows the top eight most popular topics taught in year 11, the first year history becomes a stand-alone subject with national examinations and when students are about 15 years old. The questionnaire did not differentiate between topics or themes and it asked teachers to choose major and minor topics they taught from a pre-given list; either ones that were favoured before the 2007 curriculum change, were well supported with text books or ones that anecdotally were known to be popular. Teachers who taught topics outside the list in this survey ticked "other". This group probably includes the teachers that allow students to choose some of the topics they study, which has become common practice.

As you can see, Black Civil Rights in the USA is very popular, with many teachers indicating that this topic formed a part of their year 11 curriculum. Students in year 11 are also highly likely to come across some New Zealand history and one or both of the World Wars.


Image 2


In year 12, war is a dominant theme and topics that focus purely on New Zealand history are less popular. I should add, this doesn't mean that teachers are not making links between these topics and New Zealand because, if you remember, all topics should connect to New Zealand in some way, either by taking place in New Zealand involving or influencing New Zealanders. Like in year 11, most topics are from the 20th century.


Image 3


By year 13, the graph looks quite different. The old prescribed topics of nineteenth century New Zealand and the Tudors and Stuarts remain popular, though 19th century New Zealand history has overtaken the English history topic from previous years.

While not perfect data, some things stand out immediately from these graphs: i) the focus on the history of conflict in the 20th century, especially in the first two years of the history curriculum ii) New Zealand topics are less prominent than you might expect or find in other countries' history curricula. And iii) there is very little that can be readily identifiable as Maori history, pre or post European contact. All three of these trends have been examined and critiqued by educationalists. They remain persistent patterns that are impervious to significant curriculum changes, such as the 2007 curriculum with its focus on historical thinking and lack of topic prescription. Before I explore in more depth some of the challenges associated with New Zealand's high autonomy history curriculum, I'd like to highlight some of the generous opportunities it allows teachers, opportunities that I and many if not most of my teaching colleagues would be reluctant to give up.



In 2015 the New Zealand Ministry of Education funded the "Maori History Project", an initiative that helped to build working relationships between teachers and local Maori tribal groupings. The purpose of this was to develop history curriculum that better reflected Maori historical perspectives, did not limit history to the arrival of European explorers or settlers and connected students to land-based approaches to teaching history that did not remain stuck in the classroom. It was developed out of concern that Maori history was not being included in social sciences curriculum.

This project included groups of teachers from around New Zealand, though the overall involvement of teachers relative to the size of the teaching profession was very small. While not funded for long enough to result in any real shifts in topic selection or approaches to teaching history on a wider scale, it did have a positive and enduring impact for many of the teachers who participated. In Wellington, where I teach, a small group of teachers in the central city designed an 8-10 week unit that was responsive to the stories of colonisation associated with the land immediately outside the doors of several large high schools. Designed and resourced in collaboration with local Maori experts, students compared the impact of colonisation on a Maori community with a settler family, were taken around key sites by descendants of Maori formerly in occupation of the areas now under the city, paddled in waka (or traditional canoes) around parts of Wellington Harbour's and engaged in a range of other locally produced activities and historical content developed by teachers working with Maori.

The high autonomy entrusted to teachers involved in the Maori history project gave us considerable flexibility to design locally relevant history curriculum. Teachers were able to work with Maori to choose how students would be assessed and with what historical context. From the Ministry of Education's perspective, this is the intention behind New Zealand's flexible curriculum. Schools are self-governing entities with boards of trustees appointed by and from the local community. Although teaching staff' are funded centrally by the government, the curriculum of each school is meant to reflect local community needs.

This is just one example of the enormous opportunities that our history curriculum makes not only possible, but actively encourages. Many other New Zealand History teachers have presented other examples of their creative and critically-minded teaching at conferences, in books, journals and on online forums. However, we need to acknowledge that despite these opportunities, no curriculum model is neutral and that there are some significant challenges to be overcome especially when it comes to the teaching of difficult histories.


Challenges to be overcome

For me, one important goal of the New Zealand history curriculum is to develop disciplinary understanding of the contested aspects of New Zealand's colonial past and its contemporary legacies. This requires teachers who have deep disciplinary knowledge of New Zealand's colonial history and the cultural abilities to work with their local Maori communities to incorporate authentic Maori perspectives. It also requires a pedagogy in which teachers are confident at engaging with and responding to controversy in their classrooms.

Unfortunately learning about the complexities of New Zealand's colonial past is extremely difficult when history is optional. One solution is for central government to do what other nations do and prescribe topics at a junior level when all students learn social studies. The petition to Parliament illustrated in the first video clip has in fact resulted in frequent calls for compulsory teaching of the New Zealand Wars, calls which the Ministry of Education has dismissed. Among the social sciences community in New Zealand the question of mandating certain topics is deeply controversial. For example, former history teacher and now educator Mark Sheehan (2017) argues that:

... the high-autonomy model mitigates against young people developing an understanding of the traumatic experiences of colonisation. In many schools, teachers are not sufficiently confident in their knowledge of controversial features of the colonial past and/or not well supported by their school community to address such questions.

In response to Sheehan, one experienced classroom teacher, Paul Enright, doubts that teachers do not engage with New Zealand's colonial past. Rejecting any form of mandatory topics, Enright argued that teachers "need to be persuaded and empowered, not by direction, but by opportunity to discover, discuss and explore colonial and postcolonial contexts (within and beyond New Zealand)."

Personally I do not have anything intrinsically against some level of content prescription, but mandating certain topics is an inadequate measure on its own for dealing with the complex problems associated with teaching controversial history in New Zealand. If, for example, the New Zealand Wars are made compulsory in the history curriculum, most students would still not encounter them because history is an elective subject. If the New Zealand Wars were made compulsory in social studies, a subject all students do take, their teachers may well not be trained in the disciplinary practices of historical thinking, and whose version of the New Zealand Wars will be taught? And what about other important topics? Or other aspects of colonisation? The risk of mandating topics is that teachers be left in the cold to deal with the pedagogical challenges of teaching contested, difficult histories when issues of identity and emotion become of critical importance.

New Zealand needs a history curriculum that gives teachers autonomy to design curriculum that suits the communities of individual schools. At the same time, we need to better acknowledge the power dynamics inherent within any society that make uncomfortable, difficult history (usually the history of the marginalized), less likely to be engaged with. This is no easy task. Mandating topics is one response. I have heard others suggest quotas, where a certain percentage of a history course has to be New Zealand history. More formally listing a set of aims for history curriculum, such as students having the opportunity to engage with aspects of New Zealand's colonial past, might be something to consider. Teachers would retain the autonomy to select how they go about meeting that aim. And of course, much greater support from the Ministry of Education for initiatives such as the Mâori History project would make a difference.

In the meantime, New Zealand's high curriculum autonomy in the social sciences remains and will likely do so for some time yet. So where does that leave history teachers? If students do not elect history in their senior years, history departments shrink and the jobs of teachers are potentially on the line. New Zealand History teachers operate in a marketplace environment. One approach might be to make history as fun as possible, teaching the safe topics that they know the majority of students will enjoy. This to me is an abdication of our responsibility as teachers. We need to open the eyes of all students to New Zealand's troubled past. New Zealand teachers have the challenge of finding creative ways to engage students with New Zealand's history, especially the topics that are controversial such as colonisation and its legacies. So I would now like to offer three strategies that I think can help teachers in New Zealand, and possibly South Africa, to manage the pedagogical challenges of teaching difficult histories.


Strategies for teaching difficult histories in New Zealand

Develop powerful historical inquiry questions

Teachers in New Zealand dealing with the complexities of European colonisation could use historical inquiry questions as a key tool to design sequences of lessons. Historical inquiry questions are common practice in the United Kingdom. U.K history educator Michael Riley says that a good inquiry question comprises a sequence of 2-8 lessons. Led by the teacher, the question should i) foregrounds an historical concept, ii) be challenging and interesting for students to explore and iii) result in an outcome or performance opportunity of some sort.

UK authors Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn's book Doing Justice to History (2016) is an interesting example of an approach to difficult histories that use historical inquiry questions. They developed an inquiry in South Africa that asks students to consider resistance to Apartheid and to challenge simplistic narratives that focussed entirely on Nelson Mandela. Their inquiry question: "Why did Beyers Naude break rank with his church in 1963?" held together a sequence of six lessons that explored the historical perspective of this interesting white pastor who slowly realised the oppressive nature of Apartheid and spoke out against it. A well designed inquiry question gives a sequence of lessons a sense of urgency and demands that students engage with the past, its traces and interpretations carefully and critically. Mohamud and Whitburn's inquiry showed how this was done in a way that was attentive to the interplay of students' historical understanding, moral values and multiple social identities.

Their chapter demonstrated how historical inquiry questions can enable a deep engagement with a difficult aspect of South Africa's past. If anyone has read this book and especially this chapter I'd love to know what you thought of it.

Acknowledge and respond to students' emotional reactions to difficult history

Irish educator Alan McCully and U.S educator Keith Barton (2007) suggest this strategy for teachers when dealing with controversial issues. They argue that a totally rational approach that responds to controversy through greater attention to the conventions of historical thinking is unlikely to work in topics that involve students' cultural identities. They write that ignoring or not acknowledging students' emotional responses to certain topics may put up barriers to careful, evidenced-based deliberation or mean that history simply ceases to have any relevance to them. Their specific recommendations are that teachers

Hold their nerve when students respond emotionally

Provide a chance to wind down at the end of class

Allow extreme positions to be voiced

Do not hide their own views

Admit their uncertainties.

These suggestions were developed from research carried out in Northern Ireland and the authors are careful not to claim they apply everywhere. However, I see them as useful ideas to be experimented with in other countries to engage students with sensitive, controversial history. One topic that in my previous school would often elicit resistance from white students was the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 between many Maori chiefs and the British Crown. Asking students to write down the nature of their emotional response to this topic, putting all of their responses on the board and analysing themes helped me to overcome some (though not all) of students' emotional resistance to this topic. It put the emotions on a piece of paper symbolically distanced from individual students which helped to create a space for good discussion about a contested issue and why it was that some students held particular beliefs. We also tracked, over time, the history of dominant reactions to the Treaty of Waitangi demonstrating that the views of people in the class had a history themselves and could be identified with certain historical trends. In short, I used to turn students' emotional response to a topic into a topic of inquiry, drawing on many of Barton and McCully's specific suggestions

Explore local history by getting outside of school

Young New Zealanders often prefer to learn about distant places far from New Zealand than the history of their own country (Levstik, 2001; Harcourt, 2016). I recently taught several classes that held this belief, which was amplified when I told them we would be learning about the history of people and places right outside the school gate. Over a period of three years I ran an assessment that asked students to investigate the historical significance of local events or places through the medium of an historical soundwalk. I define a soundwalk as an evidence-based tour around a particular location that actively uses combinations of the physical surroundings, pre-existent historical interpretations, contemporary ambient sounds and thoughts from people living, working or passing through a particular location. These features, in tight combination with sources, are used to construct a judgment of historical significance that actively draws the listener in to experiencing a place in new ways. A sound walk is recorded in MP3 format and uploaded to a public website. A true sound walk has to be recorded at the site and can only be fully experienced if listened to at the intended location. My students started the project by arguing that New Zealand history was not important and that "nothing happened in Wellington anyway" and finished with a much greater appreciation of some of Wellington's hidden histories of violence, racism, sexism and other forms of oppression (Harcourt, 2016).

A group of public historians in Columbia, Missouri in the United States asked the evocative question "Is It Possible That Remembering Local History Can Heal Old Wounds?" (AASLH, 2015). The historians involved the community in creating public awareness of a painful past where a vibrant African American business district was shut down for so-called "public renewal". Reflecting on my sound walks project, it should have been guided more deeply by their kind of question: "is it possible that remembering local Maori history through sound walks can heal old wounds?" I was successful in changing many of my students' views on the significance of New Zealand history. But giving students choice over which "hidden history" they would focus on for their sound walk meant no one engaged with Wellington's Maori history. The sound walks project was a start in the right direction. Asking students to consider the way that the past has been remembered, forgotten, and silenced through direct engagement with the material landscape resulted in a deeper appreciation of the importance of learning New Zealand's difficult histories in ways that I haven't achieved with more traditional classroom practices.

Thee common theme to all three strategies mentioned here is an appreciation of the affective components of history education. In my view, teachers need to take up the pedagogical challenges of engaging with students' emotions, identities and values as well as attending to rational, evidence-based historical thinking.



I would like to conclude today's talk with a story from a completely different country. I have been fortunate through my life to spend considerable time in Germany, which began in 1998 when I was an exchange student in Leipzig, in the former East. On a trip to Germany in the early 2000s I visited some friends in Nuremberg. It was a novelty to have a young New Zealander with some German speaking ability in town, and we talked about the fact that in World War Two my grandfather was captured in North Africa and held as a prisoner of war in Germany not far from Nuremberg. My friends were determined to take me to the Nuremberg rallying grounds. This group of 6-7 young Germans took me around this historical site, contextualised its history and with a mixture of seriousness and humour talked about this aspect of Germany's past. The Germans have a wonderful word to describe this, Vergangenheitsbewältigung which means:

Dealing with, or coping with the past or

The struggle to overcome the negatives aspects of the past.

I don't know how representative my friends' willingness to talk about the Nazi era is of young Germans, either back then in the early 2000s or today. But I think their ability to do so is related to German society's willingness to confront its difficult past of genocide and the Nazi terror, both in the school curriculum and in society more broadly.

It is my hope that German exchange students in New Zealand might also be taken by their Kiwi friends to some of the places I have mentioned today, or any of the numerous sites around my country associated with the uncomfortable histories of colonisation and European contact. These hypothetical German exchange students could have my country's difficult histories' acknowledged, explained and discussed by their New Zealand friends. At the moment such a situation is unlikely and it highlights a major challenge for New Zealanders.

This leaves one final question: so what? Why do the people in this room need to know about how we do things in New Zealand? Perhaps it comes back to one important goal of education: creating non-violent spaces for critical dialogue where differences can be discussed and negotiated openly. Maybe understanding the opportunities and challenges to come from different forms of history curriculum can help us, as educators and teachers, to better realise that goal. Thank you!



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