History can hurt

In interviews with practitioners Ako asks how kaiako can prepare for difficult conversations in the classroom that might arise when teaching Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories.

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For too long, students in Aotearoa have learned little about the history of their country. Learning the whole uncomfortable truth often comes much later.

The Aotearoa New Zealand histories curriculum (ANZHC) is the government’s solution to this, with the Ministry of Education deeming the content “too important to leave to chance”.

The changes follow petitions from kaiako requesting our history be made compulsory content. Despite a clear appetite for the move, the Royal Society Te Aparangi responded to the draft curriculum by highlighting that teachers and parents have expressed concern about creating pain and conflict when delivering this content.

In conversations with practitioners and experts in the field, we’ve asked how kaiako can prepare.

Teina Moetara (Ngāpuhi, Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga ā Māhaki, Ngai Tāmanuhiri, Ngati Kōnohi, Ngati Oneone) is Acting General Manager of Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust and a trained primary school teacher. He previously taught at Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School. In his role as cultural lead for Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust he directed “All Roads Lead to Ngātapa” and “Tūranga: the Land of Milk and Honey”, productions telling Rongowhakaata history.

Why is it so important for us to learn about the history of Aotearoa?

When I was teaching at the Drama School, I saw that the strongest performers were those who were most connected to their identity – even if their history had pain or grief in it. When you have a better relationship to your history it becomes a rudder that guides you. This goes for all of us, including ākonga. Being connected to your history means you’re more informed when you step outside the whare and into the world as a citizen.

History is only useful if it helps give those of us in the present direction for how we go forward. It has to include everyone. The content may not represent every person in a classroom, but the learning of history should help everyone and shape us into who we are and our direction going forward.

 “When you have a better relationship to your history it becomes a rudder that guides you … you’re more informed when you step outside the whare and into the world as a citizen.”  

How do I address my blind spots when teaching this content?

It’s important to consider diverse perspectives to learn more about our blind spots. The more diverse the room is, the more wisdom you’re able to draw on.

A teacher should facilitate learning, not take a position on history. They need an engagement framework where different perspectives can come into the room and hear each other. Then collectively and collaboratively, you use those perspectives to make something new moving forward.

We tell our stories as a provocation for more questions and more conversations. There are many versions of history. For example, the story as told by Rongowhakaata is not the absolute truth, it’s our version of the truth. By acknowledging this we are encouraging diverse conversations around singular events, not a singular retelling of a story.  

Jen Margaret is a Pākehā Te Tiriti educator. Through Groundwork: Facilitating Change, she and her colleagues work with thousands of adults each year, building understanding of Te Tiriti and what it means and requires of us today.

What should teachers be aware of when looking for resources?

We need to be aware of the many Eurocentric accounts of history that ignore the Māori world prior to the arrival of Europeans. While this absence may be obvious, what is more subtle and extremely common is language that describes colonisation as though the Crown is neutral, the language of “Māori loss of land, language and culture” (rather than Crown/ Pākehā taking and alienation of land, and active suppression of language and culture). Some of these patterns of describing colonisation as a past rather than an ongoing process and a process without actors (and beneficiaries), are deeply embedded.

We need to be attentive to our own language and vigilant about sources that silence and undermine Māori agency. As kaiako we need to apply a critical analysis to the resources we draw on before we utilise them. We must recognise too that the many currently accessible resources are created and controlled by the Crown – which as yet has not accepted the Waitangi Tribunal’s 2014 finding that in signing Te Tiriti, Ngā Puhi rangatira affirmed (rather than ceded) their sovereignty.

Why is engaging with complexity an important skill to teach ākonga?

For Pākehā adults, when confronted with the violence of colonisation and the realisation that it is an on-going process, there is an understandable tendency to want to distance ourselves and to seek out the good Pākehā ancestors. The ability to recognise and reckon with complexity is a critical skill for ākonga.

We support ākonga to recognise that “good” people can be complicit in and beneficiaries of systems that harm. Exploring local and family stories which reflect both good interpersonal relationships between Māori and Pākehā and the privilege Pākehā gain through colonisation is one way to do this.

We recognise too the complexity that for some ākonga the roles of colonised and coloniser are literally within one whānau. Weaving back and forth between stories at the whānau level and the rohe or national level is one way to engage with this complexity.

How do you prepare ākonga for content that might be emotionally difficult?

Our workshops always begin with karakia, mihimihi and whakawhanaungatanga, which provide protection, guidance and connection.

Before introducing substantive content, we share a discussion tool called The Wave, which conveys two key ideas: everyone has knowledge and people have different kinds of knowledge from different viewpoints, and individuals and groups have different realities. Using metaphors as an ongoing reference point is helpful in conversations where people are impacted differently by the content and where there may be tension and disagreement.

“Before we talk about the specifics of colonisation, we acknowledge that what we will be talking about is painful.

Before we talk about the specifics of colonisation, we acknowledge that what we will be talking about is painful. We acknowledge it is painful particularly for Māori and is painful in different ways for those who have experienced colonisation in the countries their families have come from, and for those who it has been intended to benefit who may not be aware of the extent of the harm.

We explicitly ask people to be mindful of the different ways they and their fellow ākonga may respond. We are also careful about how we conclude sessions, with karakia and acknowledgement of this ways this learning might impact ākonga.

Dr Maria Perreau is a former secondary school teacher and the current National Facilitator for the Aotearoa Social Studies Educators’ Network (ASSEN). In this role, Maria supports and develops best practice resourcing and teaching of social studies around the country, across primary, intermediate, and secondary levels.

Is it appropriate to bring my own history and ancestral background into my lessons?

Ākonga know that kaiako have experiences and histories that shape the person that they are, just as they have their own experiences that shape who they are. Acknowledging your own history is part of establishing whakawhanaungatanga and building relationships with ākonga and their whānau.

How do we avoid students taking sides on the events of the past, without them losing their identities?

Framing the learning and exploration of histories as a way of learning and practicing empathy is really helpful. Avoid asking ākonga to take binary positions on events. Ensure that you are presenting events in a way that acknowledges that there are multiple perspectives and that those perspectives will be shaped by many factors. Seek to build understanding of the historical context of events. Take into account the social, political, economic, cultural, environmental factors at play at the time in that place.

“We can identify with people in the past and their values and still disagree with the actions they took.”

Ākonga will develop nuanced understandings of events and make judgements about the actions of past peoples. However, the judgements do not need to be seen as “taking sides”. It is more helpful for kaiako to get ākonga thinking about the values that sit behind the reasons for attitudes and actions of people in the past without having to defend them, adopt them or endorse them in the context of 21st century Aotearoa. We can identify with people in the past and their values and still disagree with the actions they took. This is where careful planning and writing effective critical historical inquiry questions comes in, right from the beginning.

Barry McLernon (Te Atiawa Nui Tonu) is a support staff member at Hāwera High School – Endeavour Disability Centre. He is a recipient of the 2022 NZEI support staff scholarship and his successful proposal was titled, “Becoming a History Teacher with an Indigenising/De-colonisation Focus”. He has a passion for Indigenous and environmental rights.

What difficult conversations or questions might you expect to arise on this topic?

As a settler colonial country that has yet to fully honour its obligations of the Treaty it signed with Māori, Aotearoa is still coming to terms with its history of colonisation and the injustices that arose through warfare, confiscation, legislation and assimilation that resulted and continues in many forms to this day.

We will inevitably have to have many difficult conversations including our country, the process, impacts and consequences of colonisation and also how social and political power dynamics have played out and continue to have an effect in our society. This may give rise to questions on the differing public perspectives on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, figuring out what it means to have power in our society and the responsibilities this entails and what indigenising for Māori and decolonisation for non-Māori looks like in Aotearoa.

These questions are opportunities for building student identity and exploring strongly held views, recognising where our views originate from, what ideas and narratives they uphold and the impacts they have on others.

I am worried about my own unconscious bias and how I will project this onto my students. How can I overcome this?

I think this is a key aspect of this mahi. If we can do some personal work around recognising our inherited and often unconsciously taught bias, and be honest about our bias with the class if this is appropriate, it can be very effective in demonstrating that we are all impacted by ideas and beliefs that we just take for granted and believe to be true but may be only part of the story and may also be having a detrimental influence on others close to us.

Having an awareness of our own family origins beyond being citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand not only helps model to students that our history as a people is bigger than the story of colonisation, but also that our identities and indeed our position of power in Aotearoa is in part determined by the process of colonisation.

What do you hope will be achieved from these difficult conversations?

Much of our instinct is to move on from the awkward, irritating, stomach turning, sweaty-palm-inducing type of conversations, but being able to lean into the discussions that often stop because they are deemed too hard, is I think where real growth of understanding can develop and we can begin to truly get some progress around appreciating our history and how it affects us all to this day.

“The ANZHC has the potential to develop a positive Pākehā identity that is unique to other European settlers in settler colonial countries.”

Of course respect and awareness is required when teaching about the tūpuna (ancestors) of tauira (students). However, I believe the ANZHC presents an exciting prospect for healing our histories that allows a lot more richness and nuance than where it sits currently. It helps to orient Pākehā identity towards Māori identity, and vice versa, as neither would exist without the other. It also has the potential to develop a positive Pākehā identity that is unique to other European settlers in settler colonial countries.

This future prospect relies on reconciling our nation’s colonial past by sitting in the uncomfortableness of injustices committed against tangata whenua, and working through guilt and defensiveness while moving towards informed responsibility and action to disrupt negative myths, honour Te Tiriti, make social change and heal relationships.

In order to “do justice” to the teaching of Aotearoa histories and to support tamariki to engage with it in a meaningful way it is essential that we first ensure our kaiako are well prepared and supported.

This is going to take both learning and development in content knowledge as well as in pedagogy.

If we don’t plan, resource and implement an effective change management process to support kaiako to introduce this new curriculum area, we risk placing a further burden on kaiako.  

ILLUSTRATOR Kimi Moana Whiting (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui)


Unteach Racism contains a range of resources developed by the Teaching Council to help identify and confront racism.

The Wave is a tool to facilitate learning when either the characteristics of learners or the subject matter may generate resistance.

An excellent collection of resources from ActionStation’s Tauiwi Tautoko programme is available here.

The National Library’s He Toho exhibition YouTube page has a wide range of short videos including some excellent geographic visualisations of arrivals to Aotearoa and treaty settlements.

Ministry of Education information on Professional Learning and Development including news, finding a facilitator and applying for funding.

Find out about Networks of Expertise and other professional development opportunities at Teacher Development Aotearoa.

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