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Roger Childs

Submission on New Zealand History in the New Zealand Curriculum

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By Roger Childs

As probably the key element in the He Puapua strategy designed to achieve joint Maori-Crown sovereignty by 2040, the proposed curriculum is hugely important. I would urge readers, if they haven’t already, to make a submission. Feel free to use anything from my effort, if it helps. You have until May 31.

The curriculum statement can be found on file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/CO2716_MOE_Aotearoa_NZ_Histories_A3_FINAL-020%20(21).pdf

The font is small so I decided to get it enlarged on A3.


  • When it was first announced that New Zealand History would become compulsory for Year 1-10 students, respected historian Paul Moon remarked that a “warts and all” approach was essential. Moon observed: Of course, there are risks that if done poorly, compulsory history in our schools could veer in to the realm of indoctrination. Unfortunately the developers have fallen into that trap.
  • The draft document reads more like a syllabus statement for Maori Studies than a blueprint for our youngsters studying the history of their country. Of course the coverage of Maori history is important, but should not dominate. About 80% of the students who will be learning New Zealand History in schools from 2022 on, are non-Maori and the rest all have some non-Maori forebears.
  • The language of the document is loaded with too many unsubstantiated opinions and value judgements eg Colonisation began as part of a world-wide imperial project. The Greeks, Romans, Incas, Chinese, Mongols, Persians and other peoples were all imperialists a thousand and more years ago, long before modern European powers built empires.
  • Many statements come across as emphatic truths, but are in fact debatable opinions. For example big idea number one: Maori history is the foundational and continuous history of Aotearoa New Zealand.  (See more below.)
  • The draft is also very complex, contorted and wordy, and students would struggle to understand the language in many sections, especially the “progress outcomes” – I know …, I  have …, I can …
  • There seems to be a fixation with sets of three – ideas, national contexts, rohe and local contexts, inquiry practices, key understandings – which makes for a straightjacket, especially when there are more elements which should be included. (See the next section.)
  • Take the three big ideas which I will analyze in more detail later. There are a large number of key ideas in our history eg we are a nation of immigrants and different groups have contributed elements of their traditions and beliefs to the rich tapestry which makes up New Zealand culture today.
  • Aotearoa is not the Maori word for New Zealand, Nu Tirani is. Aotearoa was never used by Maori before the 20th century and does not feature in Te Rangi Hiroa’s or James Cowan’s books. It was probably invented by a British settler. And as you are well aware, New Zealand was never a united Polynesian nation despite what the He Tohu exhibition at the National Library says.
  • In breaking down the learning into Understand / Know / Do you neglect the vital elements of skills and fundamental historical understandings. Some skills get a mention in the “Do” segment such as interpretation, but many are absent eg comprehension, perception, analysis, synthesis.


The Three Big Ideas

These are loaded with reference to Maori – a word not used until the 1840s – their experiences and how they were adversely affected by colonization and the exercise of power.

 The process of colonisation in fact brought many benefits for Maori – ending slavery, cannibalism, killing prisoners, female infanticide and abducting women. Not to mention a major increase in life expectancy, improvements in standards of living and a broadening of  lifestyle experiences.

Some specific thoughts on the “big ideas”.

Maori history is the foundational and continuous history of Aotearoa New Zealand

I beg to differ. There were other people living here when Polynesians arrived in the 13th century. The evidence ranges from the comments made by chiefs to Europeans in the 19th century and iwi oral history to landmarks in the environment and archaeological findings, notably in the Poukawa Valley and Waipoua Forest.

Maori today are New Zealanders and in the past were never a united people, but a group of scattered tribes which were often at war with one another. One element of the history of the last 200 years is the interactions between Maori and colonists and their descendants, however this agency and its impact differed from place to place and from iwi to iwi.

The process of colonisation, followed by the development of a New Zealand nation by the late 19th century and beyond, involved many different groups – Maori, Europeans, Irish, Chinese, Samoans, Tongans, Indians, Japanese, Koreans and other ethnicities.

Colonisation and its consequences have been central to our history for the past 200 years and continue to influence all aspects of New Zealand society.

This is true for much of the 19th century, but not beyond. Colonisation has become a dirty word in the early 21st century and seems to get blamed for any problems faced by Maori. As mentioned above, the process of colonisation has generally been positive for Maori and other ethnicities.

Colonisation was not designed to …assimilate Maori through dislocation from their lands and replacement of their institutions, economy and tikanga with European equivalents. There was a desire, supported by many chiefs, especially in Northland, to end the worst element of tikanga at the time – inter-tribal wars, killing prisoners, cannibalism, abducting women, slavery, trading in smoked heads and female infanticide.

Then after the Treaty of Waitangi, Governors Grey and Gore Browne offered Maori chiefs wide powers of local government – runanga – under the umbrella of colonial government and British law. Many Maori chiefs were keen to have British rule and to work with the colonial government. A significant number of Maori took advantage of the economic opportunities colonisation offered such as owning ships, building flax mills, domesticating animals, and growing and selling introduced fruits, vegetables and cereals.

The 1860 Kohimarama Conference – one of the biggest gatherings of Maori leaders ever – overwhelmingly endorsed the sovereignty of the Crown and the rule of law.

Overall colonisation has been hugely beneficial for all New Zealanders – increasing life expectancy and raising living standards; providing education, health and transport services; and introducing modern technology.

It no longer influences life in New Zealand except in the minds of a minority.

The course of Aotearoa New Zealand history has been shaped by the exercise and effects of power

The draft curriculum statement attached to this “big idea” includes reference to ways that have led to damage, injustice and conflicts. Is the implication here that the actions of governments and colonial troops adversely affected Maori? Does it also relate to the Musket Wars and the appalling treatment of native women in pre -Treaty New Zealand? Why not specifically mention the later poll tax on Chinese?

At least there is reference to ways this process has improved the lives of people and communities. However, there needs to be reference to Maori leadership and the efforts of great iwi leaders such as Tamati Waka Nene, Eruera Patuone, Te Whero Whero, Tamihana Te Rauparaha, Apirana Ngata, Te Rangi Hiroa, Te Puea, Maui Pomare and Wiremu Ratana, who ultimately worked with colonial authorities and subsequent governments.

Will 5, 6, 7 year old and older learners understand the proposed three big ideas? They would challenge the intelligence of university students.

Some further thoughts on “big ideas”

The big ideas should provide for a comprehensive, accurate and balanced coverage of our nation’s story. As mentioned earlier, many historians and teachers have emphasized the need for a “warts and all” approach in the curriculum. 

Looking at the big ideas and knowledge contexts in the draft, there appears to be a “cherry picking” approach which highlights the positive elements of Maori history and the negative effects of colonisation and western development.

What about warts like

  • the extermination of the Moa, Haast’s Eagle and other bird species
  • the burning of huge areas of South Island forest by Polynesian settlers and their descendants
  • the devastating inter-tribal wars
  • cannibalism and slavery
  • the genocide in the Chatham Islands (touched on, but not spelled out.)
  • the scores of breaches of the Treaty by Maori such as Te Kooti’s massacres at Matawhero and Mohaka
  • the destruction of major sections of the natural environment by European settlers to create farms, infrastructure and towns
  • the Long Depression
  • the Gallipoli disaster.

In looking at our past we New Zealanders have plenty to be proud of, but there have been darker times in our history which students need to know about. It is unthinkable that Irish children would not be taught about Cromwell’s campaigns, the Irish Famine, the Easter Rebellion and the Irish Civil War.

Important ideas and structure

Students like to know what they are going to study. As a history teacher, I always gave learners a copy of the prescription, because in those days there was a clear outline given of the content, important objectives, skills and key terms.  

If “big ideas” are to be seen as a basis for the new curriculum, here are some suggestions which also include aspects of content coverage. This is not a comprehensive list.

  • New Zealand is a nation of immigrants who have arrived at different times.
  • The early Pacific Island immigrants were mainly hunters and gatherers, but also gardeners, who lived as scattered tribes across the country. Their survival in a cooler climate was a successful example of human adaptation.
  • As the population increased and resources became scarcer the tribes were often at war with one another and practiced cannibalism and slavery.
  • James Cook and other European explorers made the existence and resources of New Zealand known to the world.
  • The 1800 – 1840 Musket Wars with more than 600 battles between the native tribes were disastrous and dramatically reduced their population.
  • There was no united New Zealand nation before 1840.
  • The British reluctantly took on New Zealand as a colony and made a treaty with the native peoples and settlers which was as far-sighted as any in human history.
  • There was some conflict between the government and a minority of northern and central North Island Maori tribes in the 1840s and 1860s.
  • More Maori supported the government in these campaigns than opposed them.
  • Over 100 Maori leaders endorsed the sovereignty of the Crown and the rule of law at the Kohimarama Conference in 1860.
  • British and other settlers transformed the landscape and economy to develop farms, industries, infrastructure, towns and cities.
  • Gold rushes and immigration schemes dramatically increased the country’s population in the second half of the 19th century.   
  • The Liberal government from 1891 passed a range of laws making New Zealand a fairer society.
  • A welfare state was started by the Liberals, expanded by the Labour government from 1935 on and added to by governments after World War Two. All ethnicities benefitted.
  • Two Depressions and World Wars adversely affected many New Zealanders and their communities.
  • Maori New Zealanders generally benefited greatly from colonization and the subsequent western development, but there have been some social problems and economic disparities along the way.
  • All ethnic groups have provided inspirational leaders who have contributed to the development of national identity and the reputation of the country.
  • Rural – urban drift after World War Two saw thousands of Maori move to the cities.
  • Pacific Island and Asian peoples immigrated in large numbers from the 1960s on, enriching New Zealand’s culture and making a significant contribution to the economy.
  • New Zealand has had an on-going close relationship with Pacific countries and the wider world involving diplomacy, alliances, military action, trade, sporting and cultural activities, foreign aid and the resettling of refugees.

The contexts

Unfortunately by emphatically stating that just three big ideas – Maori history is fundamental / colonization has dominated the last 200 years / power has shaped the course of our history – underpin our country’s story, the Know and Do sections are skewed towards Maori culture and experience.

This is underlined by stating the three national contexts in Te Reo with no English translations. What percentage of teachers will understand, let alone children?

The paragraphs under each context are more about sociology and Maori culture than history. Then in the local contexts the first statement relates to Maori stories. In the following elaboration on pages 4, 5 and 6 the majority of sections emphasize Maori experience and tikanga.

There are many doubtful claims and loaded statements.

  • Has NZ identity been purposefully constructed… to define who is included and who is excluded? (p4) I don’t know who has been excluded apart from the Chinese in earlier times. As leaders from Hobson to Ardern have stressed “we are one people”.
  • Why should the government negotiate with Maori over immigration policy? All ethnic groups in the country are equal. (p4)
  • shifted the balance of power from Maori to settlers. (p4) This implies that in the 19th century the Maori were a united people. The Musket Wars shows that they were unquestionably not. Students need to learn that many Maori welcomed Christianity and western development, and benefitted as a consequence. They also need to know that most Maori wanted to work with the government and the settlers, and that in the New Zealand Wars more Maori fought with colonial forces than against them.
  • How was mana expressed in the responses of Moriori to challenges from other iwi … (p5). Why not state the truth – most were slaughtered by Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga
  • In relation to the New Zealand Wars ….How did they lead to iwi and hapu being alienated from their land? Land was only confiscated in Taranaki, Waikato, Tauranga and Bay of Plenty, and most was later returned or bought legally. Some historians see the wars as being rebellions against the legal government.
  • The attack on Rangiaowhia (p5) If this reference is designed to propagate the appalling myths about atrocities, it is doing the students a disservice. The lies were concocted because Kingite warriors were furious that General Cameron bypassed the strongly fortified Paterangi Pa to avoid heavy casualties on both sides. There is no evidence of the claimed atrocities – houses and a church burnt down and the killing of elderly, women and children. Both Maori and non-Maori sources support this conclusion including an eye-witness accounts eg from a Maori lad who was present. Wiremu Tamihana said “There was only one house burnt; that was the house where the Maoris died.  I went there and saw it.” Wiremu Kingi said something similar and mentioned that there were only a handful of casualties in and near that house where Maori had resisted with firearms.
  • The draft mentions two treaties (p6) – the developers know there was only one valid treaty – Te Tiriti o Waitangi signed on February 6 1840 and subsequently around the country. This was translated into the Nga Puhi dialect from an English draft – referred to today as the Littlewood Treaty. Freeman’s Treaty was unauthorised and a fake, and only signed by a small number of Maori at Port Waikato and Manukau Heads. The Kawharu treaty is not valid.
  • In the 1840 Te Tiriti there was no mention of partnership and principles, or Fisheries and Forests, and toanga meant “property”. Furthermore the second Article was directed to the Chiefs and Tribes and all the people of New Zealand.
  • There are plenty of references in the curriculum draft to breaches of Te Tiriti by the Crown, and the work of the Waitangi Tribunal, but no mention is made of the many breaches by Maori eg the looting and burning of over 160 Taranaki farms 1860-61; the Te Kooti massacres at Matawhero and Mohaka, the murder of missionaries Whiteley and Volkner, the killing of settlers in many areas of the North Island.
  • Women and wahine Maori … Better to have just women. There is no reference to women of other ethnicities.

Thinking critically about the past and interpreting stories about it

  • There are many references to … giving deliberate attention to matauranga Maori. Why? This obviously relates to Maori knowledge known to elders and tohunga, and passed down. Does it include knowledge related to utu, slavery and cannibalism?  As you know, tohunga were suppressed early in the 20th century on the insistence of Maori MPs who knew that their advice on medical matters and how they treated sick people and pregnant women had led to many deaths. Matauranga has little relevance for New Zealand children, 80%+ of whom are non-Maori.
  • There is reference to …the benefits of hindsight …. As you know there are major disadvantages of hindsight such as making judgements on past history based on our 21st century values and opinions.
  • … reflecting on our own values we can make ethical judgements concerning right and wrong. No we can’t. People’s values and what they understood at particular times in the past, are vital in making judgements.

Key understandings in the study of history

Fundamental to the effective study of history is being able to answer these questions:

  • What is the difference between fact and opinion?
  • What are the sources of history?
  • Why is evidence so important?
  • History is a search for truth but how do we know what is true?

Students also need to learn that the record of the past can change as new sources and evidence come to light. One of the best history definitions comes from Oxford Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: History shifts as you look at it. It twists and coils into unexpected shapes: suddenly, rapidly, continuously like a snake darting between stones.

Another vital understanding learners need to appreciate is that there are different viewpoints about our history.

For some the New Zealand Wars were about a fight for sovereignty and land; for others they were a series of rebellions against the government.

Examining some of the more contentious issues in our country’s story could be part of the prescription in Years 9 and 10. For example:

  • Did the chiefs who signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi cede sovereignty to the British Crown?
  • To what extent did Christianity change Maori values?
  • Was colonisation destructive or beneficial for Maori?
  • Why was the “King Movement” only supported by a minority of iwi?
  • Did the Gallipoli campaign build a sense of New Zealand identity?
  • Should New Zealand have taken part in the Vietnam War?

In the draft, there is an emphasis on the stories that are told about our past. Oral history can accurately reflect the past, but it can be unreliable. It is probably highly accurate in suggesting that there were people here before the first Polynesians arrived, but egregiously wrong in claiming that atrocities were committed at Rangiaowhia.

Learners must be taught how to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and the importance of backing up conclusions and judgements with evidence.


The need to have balance and reflect equality

Much of the Draft for Consultation is heavily weighted towards Maori history, development and language. This has been touched on earlier.

Obviously the history, legacy and culture of Maori and their Polynesian ancestors are important, but this is just one significant strand in the rich fabric of our heritage.

No ethnicity in New Zealand is more important than the others – we are all equally special as New Zealanders. People who have arrived in recent times and become citizens are just as important as people who have a whakapapa stretching back centuries. 

New Zealand is a signatory of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 1 states: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. 

Who are the customers and what should they learn?

It is vital that the formulators of the final curriculum remind themselves of who the learners are. They are New Zealand kids with a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Maori students make up approximately 20% of school children and have both Maori and non-Maori forebears. The other 80% have origins ranging from Britain, Ireland, Europe, South Africa and the United States to India, China, Korea, The Middle East, Samoa and Tonga.

Fundamentally they are all Kiwi kids who share a love of family, friends, food, enjoyment, the outdoors, sport, national teams, culture, modern technology and entertainment. In other words they like similar things.

New Zealand’s past is the story of the country they live in, regardless of where they come from. Pride in one’s culture of origin – beliefs, customs, traditions, cuisine, clothing, history, meeting places – is laudable, but ultimately it is subsumed into Kiwi culture because New Zealand is the homeland.

The history our five to fifteen year olds learn, should be a comprehensive study of the nation’s mix of migrations and settlement; interactions and conflicts; triumphs and tragedies; problems and progress; leaders and movements; unity and diversity.

Over 10 years our students need to learn the full New Zealand story, understand what history is and develop appropriate subject skills along the way.

PLEASE NOTE: A further submission on the draft curriculum by Professor Martin Devlin can be viewed HERE.