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Page 2 – The role of school history

The role of school history

Introduction by Steve Watters

Caught up with the day-to-day realities of teaching, carrying out assessments and attending endless meetings, teachers rarely get the opportunity to think about what it is they are actually teaching. The topics we teach have seemingly become part of who we are; they define us as teachers and people, and, as such, their relevance is something we take as a given. As long as what we teach fits the curriculum and the achievement objectives, or we have the necessary resources available, we see little reason to change. After all, with all of the other pressures, do we really have the time (or the inclination) to learn new topics?

When I began teaching my priority was to master the content as quickly as possible to ensure I had control in the classroom. I had to ensure that my students were confident that I knew my stuff and that they could succeed with the assessment. To a large extent it did not matter what that 'stuff' was so long as I knew it. The longer I taught this material the more it became second nature; I knew the assessment tasks backwards and became an expert. The security and confidence that this gave me as a teacher was not to be underestimated. Over time, however, I had to tell myself that 'this was not about me'.

NCEA and a draft new curriculum have caused many of us to stop and consider the status quo and our areas of expertise. Issues like 'social inquiry' have created immense debate in our community as to our approach, and as the draft of a new curriculum has been put together, questions have been raised as to who our history programmes are for. This is a question posed by long-time history educator Mark Sheehan, and what follows are some of his thoughts on the matter. This article aims to get teachers thinking about what we teach and why, given the range available, we teach certain topics. Who benefits from our programme? This is not another debate of the merits or otherwise of 'Tudor–Stuart versus 19th-century New Zealand'. It considers the very nature of school history programmes and what it is we are trying to achieve. Some might ask, 'Why teach history at all?'

Martyn Davison's (HOD History at Pakuranga College) response to Sheehan's piece asks what it is we are really trying to achieve as history teachers.

This is an opportunity to engage in a debate that cuts to the very heart of what it is we are trying to achieve and why we became history teachers in the first place. What are the key values and ideas that underpin history teaching, in general ?

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

By Mark Sheehan

To know about the past is to know that things have not always been as they are now and by implication need not remain the same in the future. John Tosh, The pursuit of history, Longman, London; New York, 1984

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?

While I imagine most of us would agree our primary responsibility is to our students, with some innovative, enthusiastic and courageous exceptions, in my view there are too many history programmes that appear to be driven by what teachers want to teach, rather than what students need to learn. Furthermore the characteristics of senior school history have served to reinforce existing class divisions over knowledge that is seen as having value and as such have perpetuated the hierarchical nature of a subject that primarily serves the interests of the 'academically able' in elitist and affluent schools.

In my view history in schools is too often a 'lost opportunity' with history teachers delivering programmes that largely ignore the experiences of marginalised peoples and only minimally engaging with New Zealand history. As the 2005 New Zealand History Teachers’ Association (NZHTA) survey demonstrated, social history, women's history and cultural history rarely make an appearance, and the majority of history programmes are centered on a narrow diet of war and politics. Ironically some history teachers do not see this as a problem as long as they maintain student numbers. Supported by a dwindling number of historians who are linked to the syllabus, some history teachers go to extraordinarily creative lengths to justify and deliver programmes of little direct relevance to their student's lives and have deliberately distanced the subject from contemporary social and political concerns.

In part the responsibility for this state of affairs lies with those in the history teaching community who place their personal and professional interests over those of their students (in that history teachers do enjoy some autonomy over topic choice). However, the major problem is that the curriculum, to the detriment of the majority of students, has been designed to link school history with university history.

History teachers and historians share a common view that history is an evidence-based discipline that is a superior field of knowledge to 'non-academic' and vocational subjects. Over the last 50 years history has developed into a relatively high-status subject, strongest in affluent schools, closely linked with prestigious examinations and aimed at academically able students.

The identity of history teachers has been linked closely with this exclusive approach, which has perpetuated social divisions within New Zealand society, in that the subject has primarily served the interests of universities rather than the majority of our students (who will not study the subject at tertiary level). University historians for their part have seen school history as playing little more than an important role in recruiting students into university history courses.

However, history does not belong to history teachers or historians. It lies at the heart of ideas about identity, heritage and memory and tells us something about what it means to be human. Our students have a sense of the past whether they have studied it formally or not. Historical narratives feature in films, novels and heritage sites and while we as history educators may question the reliability of such sources (and lament the artistic license of writers, directors and curators over interpretation) it is these forms of entertainment that largely shape popular perceptions of the past. Therefore, the teaching of historical thinking demands that in our courses we build on (and critically evaluate) such popular narratives, and not to do so is to leave our students in a glossy, ahistorical vacuum where perceptions of the past are in the hands of Mel Gibson and Stephen Spielberg.

New Zealand is unique in that we currently do not explicitly teach history to all students in our schools. Consequently many of our young people have little grasp of key aspects of our past (or history generally). For over 30 years historians, journalists and teachers have noted the lack of New Zealand history being taught and the woeful historical ignorance of young New Zealanders. Ironically students today study less New Zealand history at school than they did in the past. In the 1966 School Certificate history syllabus at least a third of the 18 topics examined each year were New Zealand topics.

Making history a key aspect of the education of all young New Zealanders is a challenge given that senior history competes for a place in the curriculum. The dearth of New Zealand-related content being taught is also influenced by the inflexibility of New Zealand topics that do not allow for useful comparisons with other societies. But omitting a historical perspective, are serious about helping our students make sense of the social world. Taught well, history fosters characteristics that include a toleration of difference, the capacity for critical thought and the ability to see value in reasoned and informed debate. School history also has the potential to provide students with a healthy sense of skepticism towards hierarchy and orthodoxy, which, in my view, is an essential quality in navigating through a complex and multi-layered social world.

The future is where our students will spend the rest of their lives, and while I am not sure what it will look like, I do know that young people will be on a more secure footing if they have a firm grasp of their past. If school history is really for our students, then it is their needs that should be at the centre of designing our history programmes.

Mark Sheehan (18 August 2006)

Mark Sheehan teaches at Victoria University of Wellington College of Education. He taught history in secondary schools until 2003 (Mana College, Wellington Girls' College and Wellington College), has been involved in the history teaching community for almost 20 years (including writing textbooks and sitting on the NZHTA executive) and is currently writing a PhD thesis on the shaping of the current history syllabus.


As at March 2005 at Year 13, 58% of schools taught Tudor–Stuart and 40% taught 19th-century New Zealand (2% both). At Year 12 over 85% of schools taught Vietnam, Russian Revolution and Origins of World War One, and at Year 11 over 90% of schools taught Origins of World War Two, Black Civil Rights and New Zealand's Search For Security (See NZHTA survey February/March 2005, Despite the opportunities to do so, there is very little social history, women's history or history of indigenous peoples taught.

J. Belich, Paradise reforged: a history of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the year 2000, Penguin, Auckland, 2001, p. 544; A. Low-Beer, (1986). 'The eclipse of history in New Zealand schools', New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 21, 2, 1986, pp. 113–22; M. Stenson, 'History in New Zealand Schools', New Zealand Journal of History, 24, 2, 1990, pp. 168–182; 'Teen knowledge of NZ events is history', Sunday Star Times, 10 February 2002

School Certificate History Prescription, New Zealand Education Gazette, 1 May 1965. In the 1960s School Certificate was the major examination sat prior to leaving school.

How to cite this page

'The role of school history', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 27-Jul-2021