Brain food

Page 1 – Introduction

This section of the Teachers Toolbox is primarily concerned with material that is interesting rather than material that is necessarily relevant to a particular topic or assessment standard.

One of the difficult things to find time for in teaching is time itself – time to find and read material that makes you stop and think about things in general. We have tried here to help you with the search and hope that in some small way it frees up some time for you to be able to read. Some of this material comes from New Zealand and there are also a number of articles from Australia. Topics explored range from what we teach and why to the reliability of the web as a resource. There are a number of links to material that, I believe, will stimulate thought and debate, and there is the opportunity for you to contribute to this brain food.


  1. The role of school history in a meaningful education
  2. Teaching and learning history
  3. Teaching Emotive and Controversial History
  4. Massey @ Massey
  5. Where history isn't bunk
  6. Is Cinderella history? Early years education and learning about the past
  7. What is historiography – and why is it important?
  8. Geography and history: working together
  9. The 7 wonders of Web – credibility: assessing the reliability of websites
  10. The great history debate

'It ain't necessarily so' (Porgy and Bess) – the role of school history in a meaningful education

Who are our history programmes for – for our students? for us as teachers? Or do they serve as a recruiting ground for university history courses? Is history at school an academic subject that prepares a minority of students for university or an essential ingredient of a meaningful education that helps all young people make sense of the complex social world of which they will be a part? Mark Sheehan has set out to explore these questions, and we invite teachers to consider their implications and participate in a discussion on some of the issues raised.

Teaching and learning history

Martyn Davison is HOD History at Pakuranga College in Auckland. He responds to Mark Sheehan's piece on the role of school history in a meaningful education and poses a few questions of his own. Martyn asks what it is we are trying to achieve as history teachers. 'We want them to think outside their own preconceived ideas on NZ 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 NZ history for the classroom that students love to learn.'

Teaching Emotive and Controversial History

A recent report from the Historical Association in the UK on the challenges and opportunities for teaching emotive and controversial history in secondary schools has some interesting parallels for teaching history in New Zealand.

The working definition that guided the production of this report is:

The study of history can be emotive and controversial where there is actual or perceived unfairness to people by another individual or group in the past. This may also be the case where there are disparities between what is being taught in school history, family / community history and other histories. Such issues and disparities create a strong resonance with students in particular educational settings.

In addressing emotive and controversial topics in history the following comments posted on a history blog from George Mason University make for compelling reading. A colleague sent me a link to this blog in which educational reform in the US state of Florida was discussed. As many of you are aware ’s Governor is Jeb Bush, brother of President George W. Bush. Jeb Bush has approved a law barring revisionist history in Florida public schools. ‘The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth,’ declares Florida's Education Omnibus Bill. ‘American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed.’ Zimmerman quotes from the new law that ‘American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed.’

As we reflect on the new history achievement objectives that are being developed for the new curriculum here this post highlighted some very real dangers to avoid. Read on

Where history isn't bunk

Following on from discussions about why we teach history in schools and how do we teach controversial topics, Tom Norcliffe from the Christchurch Regional Office of Archives New Zealand sent me a link to an article from The Economist, (15 March 2007), entitled Where history isn’t bunk. The article maintains that ‘a history curriculum is often a telling sign of how a nation and its elites see themselves: as victims of colonialism or practitioners (either repentant or defiant) of imperial power’. The connection between the role of the curriculum and the political agenda is discussed with a conclusion that ‘whatever educators and politicians might want, there is a limit to how far history lessons can diverge in their tone from society as a whole’.

How we teach children about their nation's past is a hotly contested issue worldwide. It is complicated by the wider debate on national identity. As we approach the introduction of a new social sciences curriculum where identity plays a significant part, I thought there was some food for thought in this piece for teachers and students of New Zealand history. What are your thoughts?

Massey @ Massey

In December 2006 David Green from the History Group here at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage attended a conference on William Ferguson Massey, New Zealand's second-longest serving PM (1912–25) at Massey University (where else) in Palmerston North.

David felt that this conference showed that Massey, the 'erstwhile scourge of the workers, has not merely been rehabilitated but is headed for the Kiwi pantheon'. Though promised that 'all shades of opinion would be canvassed', not one speaker hewed to the traditional leftist view of ‘Farmer Bill’, as a 'south Auckland cockie whose repressive strings were pulled by shadowy capitalists and bigots'. David left Palmerston North uneasy at the amount of whitewash that had been applied to his hitherto florid image over the course of the conference.

Is Cinderella history? Early years education and learning about the past

Tony Taylor, Associate Professor from Monash University and Director of the National Centre for History Education, considers the work of Hilary Cooper, one of the United Kingdom's best-known history educators who specialises in primary education. This is a summary of Hilary Cooper's approach to bringing history into the curriculum in the early years from 'History at three. Over my dead body', Primary History, Spring 2004, pp. 6–8.

What is historiography – and why is it important?

Tony Taylor, associate professor at Monash University and director of the National Centre for History Education, responds to a question posed at a professional development meeting by a teacher of history who asked, with some bemusement, 'What is historiography?'

Given the importance of historiography to NCEA Level 3, many teachers in New Zealand have probably asked this question.

Geography and history: working together (pdf)

In view of the highly successful SocCon Conference in Wellington (September 2005), this timely piece looks at how geography and history can be combined to deepen our knowledge and understanding. According to, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is an approach to data production in geography that uses computer technology to manipulate, analyse and present information about space and place.

Often in history classes, people and events are given precedence over space and place, which can also be highly significant factors in determining the course of historical events. Malcolm McInerney's article helps redress that imbalance by providing an introduction to basic GIS techniques in history classes.

The 7 wonders of Web credibility: assessing the reliability of websites

How do we know when we are using a site that has credibility and relevance? In a Stanford University study 46.1% of users judge a website by how the design looks while a little over 14% judged it on the accuracy of the information.

The great history debate

In the Melbourne Age, 9 February 2004, Anna Clark wrote 'For a subject so often dismissed as too boring, Australian history generates passionate argument.'

References to Australia could have easily been replaced with New Zealand. One sign that history is regarded as an important part of public debate is constant and recurring conflict in the media over past events. The 2005 general election in New Zealand highlighted this with regards to the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in contemporary New Zealand society and, most importantly, in our schools. On an almost weekly basis, there is some historically based discussion that dominates the letters pages in newspapers.

At a time of broad public interest in our history, exemplified by the success of television series such as Frontier of dreams and references to history as 'the new black', why do we hear complaints that New Zealand history in schools is too boring? Read about the Australian experience, and see what comparisons you can make with New Zealand.

How to cite this page

'Brain food', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 23-Jun-2020