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Page 3 – Teaching and learning history

Teaching and learning history

Martyn Davison, Head of History, Pakuranga College.

'What are we trying to achieve as history teachers?'[1] Steve Watters asks this question in his introduction to Mark Sheehan's article on the role of school history. Watters encourages teachers to debate the teaching of history in New Zealand schools. This triggered three questions in my mind:

'It’s boring,' or 'We’ve done it before.' Why do students say this about New Zealand history?

How do we engage student learning of New Zealand history?

What does research tell us about teaching history?

1. 'It’s boring,' or 'We’ve done it before.' Why do students say this about New Zealand history?

Students are less interested in studying New Zealand history than in learning about other parts of the world (Linda Levstik, 2001).[2] The reason why is that they find other parts of the world more important and feel safer about discussing distant rather than local perspectives.

Levstik says this desire to look outward might be based on New Zealand’s remoteness and New Zealanders instinctively wanting to engage with the wider world. In addition, New Zealand’s narrative has few fixed points of reference or reverence. Levstik says it is difficult to ask students to reconsider their perspective of their own local history:

'New Zealand students’ willingness to recognise different perspectives in distant places stands in marked contrast to their discomfort with perspective taking in more local settings. Membership in local communities of identification makes it difficult for these students to take the perspective of local others.'[3]

Students’ knowledge of history is rooted within their own community. They tend to look at history from a social relations point of view so they apply morals to the past. Learners also find it difficult to make sense of the strangeness of the past and that part of New Zealand’s history which is about injustice and inequality.

As a consequence New Zealand history may seem more difficult to teach than other types of history. Teaching New Zealand history can tire you out. Bowling up to a session of Maori and Pakeha race relations feels like climbing a mountain especially on a Friday afternoon. It’s not surprising then that the New Zealand History Teachers’ Association (NZHTA) 2005 survey found that Tudor and Stuart England, Black Civil Rights and Vietnam are all more popular choices than New Zealand History.[4]

2. How do we engage student learning of New Zealand history?

i) This is important because we need students to become comfortable with looking beyond their own perspective of their nation and local community. The good news is that this is already happening in a number of ways.

History teachers have strong communities of practice that enable them to talk to each other and construct knowledge about learning and NZ history. The NZHTA and its local branches offer opportunities where teachers can reflect on their practice. History teacher cluster groups inspire sharing of high quality resources, innovative ideas and are highly collaborative.

Auckland University Team Solutions have made a huge difference to numerous history teachers in Auckland and Northland. John Pipe has been a particularly effective mentor and has guided discussion about how students learn about history. The combination of the NZHTA, local cluster groups and a valued mentor offer great support to effect change in the way we teach.

ii). New Zealand history is well resourced. Check out these websites:


They have high-quality New Zealand history content from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. Making Kiwis greatest hits of 20th century New Zealand history by Graeme Ball and The last and the loveliest by George Bowen[5] are both entertaining and reveal how New Zealand history can be presented in a popular format.

To engage our students with their tangata whenua, you need to do what James Belich says '… get kids to look at the history outside of their window'.[6] For instance, my school’s links with kaumatua Pita Turei enables us to walk up Pigeon Mountain, O Huiarangi, the major pa of the Ngaitai people of Tainui. This is an inspiring way to explore local Maori history just beyond my classroom.

iii) Making New Zealand history a part of the wider Pacific story is an emerging trend. Seasoned history teacher David Arrowsmith[7]has created Pacific modules to 'engage students in authentic comparisons between New Zealand and regional or world contexts.[8] As Arrowsmith says, why not compare the Treaty of Waitangi with Pacific modules to 'engage students in authentic comparisons between … the New Zealand mandate to govern Western Samoa … or the absence of a treaty in Australia … or the treaties of North America'.

The point of this is to locate New Zealand history within a Pacific, Australian and wider context. If we want students to learn comparative history, history teachers need to put their heads together to develop innovative modules that link New Zealand history with the Pacific and wider world.

3. What does research tell us about teaching history?

This is the million-dollar question and deserves its own thesis. The evidence is clear – we should care about how students learn history.

One view is, 'Get the content right, then the students will learn it in some kind of durable manner.' [9] Bill Leadbetter says this is the wrong approach.

Educational psychologist Sam Wineberg goes further. For a hundred years people have panicked about kids not knowing their nation’s history. In 1917, high school students sitting the first large-scale test about American history performed terribly because they didn’t know their stuff.

The results are much the same today. It’s more revealing to find out what students do know about the past than to keep testing what they don’t know. If anything, the research shows there are better questions to ask:

What do students know about the past?

What sources beyond teachers and textbooks contribute to their understanding?

How do they make meaning from complex historical documents?

How do they navigate between images of the past learned in the home and those encountered in school?

How do they situate their own personal histories in the context of national and world history?[10]

These are exceptional questions because they challenge all of us to think beyond our own horizons. So how does Wineberg address the first question?

This is about teachers taking into account what students know and what they think they know. Uncovering prior knowledge and preconceptions is an excellent way to begin to teach students to reconsider their own perceptions of New Zealand history. This needs to be done sensitively. Challenging students with an interpretation of New Zealand history that differs from their own can have a powerful emotional charge. It pits the student’s opinion against a more authoritative opinion, and this creates tension in the classroom.

As Peter Lee says, it can descend into confrontation where the student argues 'history is merely a matter of opinion … where one is as good as another'.[11]

A way to get around this is to introduce a carefully chosen key document on a topic and ask the students to find further documents that either challenge or agree with the key document. This is a good means of promoting an informed discussion about how selection of documents can create different interpretations of history.


So what we are trying to achieve as history teachers? We want to know what our students think about New Zealand history and why they think it. We want them to think outside their own preconceived ideas on New Zealand history. This is a way to avoid them saying 'it’s boring,' or 'We’ve done it before.'

The content of what we teach is important but what’s more important is how our students learn history. A lone history teacher can achieve only so much. A community of history teachers can produce New Zealand history for the classroom that students love to learn.

[2] L.S. Levstik, ‘Crossing the empty spaces: perspective taking in New
Zealand adolescents’ understanding of national history’ in O.L. Davis Jr, E.A. Yeager,
& S.J. Foster (eds), Historical empathy and perspective taking in the social
, Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2001

[3] L.S. Levstik, 2001, op. cit., p. 88

[4] NZHTA survey 2005 available at

[5] Graeme, Ball, Making Kiwis greatest hits of 20th century New Zealand history, New House, Auckland, 2004;  George Bowen, The last and the loveliest, a study of New Zealand identity for NCEA Level 2, Pearson, Auckland, 2004.

[6] A comment made by James Belich at the New Zealand Historical Association Conference Forum Panel, Auckland University, November 2005

[7] D. Arrowsmith,  'Teaching history in our schools', New Zealand Historical Association Conference Forum Panel, Auckland University, November 2005, printed in Auckland History Teachers’ Association Newsletter, Term 1, March 2006

[8] D. Arrowsmith, 2006, op. cit., p. 17

[9] Bill, Leadbetter, 'Telling tales inside school', HTAA Conference, Freemantle, 2006

[10] Sam Wineberg, Historical thinking and other unnatural acts, Temple University Press Philadelphia, 2001

[11] Peter Lee, 'History in an information culture', 1998, available at

PS Much the same debate is going on in Australia. Julie Bishop, the minister for education, has called for the revitalisation of the teaching of Australian history. Three months ago the government invited history teachers to a history summit to discuss just what sort of Australian history should be taught in Australian schools.


How to cite this page

Teaching and learning history, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated