Fears new history syllabus could create hostility in schools

A Wellington social studies teacher who allegedly asked students whether land should be returned to Māori has left one mother reeling.

Children in classroom - stock image.

Resolution talks with the school, who Hine Funaki (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whātua, Ngāi Tahu) did not want to name, are ongoing.

But the situation adds to growing concerns the new history curriculum could create hostile learning environments if it isn't delivered safely.

"My son came home one day after school and told me that in his social studies class the teacher had posed a question on an online Kahoot Quiz, whether land should be returned to Māori," she said.

"It was a yes or no question, a very closed question, without any kind of context to it... My son did feel really unsettled, he felt isolated in the class and he felt that he had to speak up for everybody, for Māori, and take on that burden by himself."

She was pleased the school had been willing to meet and discuss her concerns, and agree to re-assess the unit standard after the school holidays, but disappointed the incident occurred.

"When you fail to acknowledge bias and privilege in a loaded question, as such, without offering any contextual understanding, it creates a completely unsafe environment for the few Māori, my son included, in that class," she said.

"I just got a lot of excuses and the same phrase 'we're all on this journey'...or 'this New Zealand history curriculum is all new to us'. But it's just not enough, you have treaty obligations."

READ MORE: Ardern 'moved' as she launches revamped Aotearoa history curriculum

There's growing concern situations like these, that leave students feeling vulnerable and culturally unsafe, could become a lot more common when the new history curriculum is rolled out next year, particularly for Māori.

"Their ancestors were evicted, essentially, from their lands, which was taken from them, that would be one example where it could be quite distressing," said NZ History Teachers' Association, Graeme Ball.

"I think it could be anything that might be quite triggering for some students, and possibly for some teachers as well. Clearly there's issues around settler ideologies I suppose, in 19th century, and the belief that New Zealand was to be a better Britain, essentially a white New Zealand, with Māori finding a place somewhere in it, but not as an equal partner."

Kārena Ngata, a member of the Subject Expert Group History, the team who are helping write the refreshed NCEA History Curriculum, said uncomfortable feelings arising in the classroom were inevitable.

"The potential is there for some of the difficult histories to land with students in a way that generates feelings of guilt, shame, blame, anger, normal responses, I think, to acquiring knowledge about aspects of our nation's past," she said.

She said the Ministry of Education had a responsibility to support teachers to undertake a reflective learning journey themselves.

"Without undertaking a critical learning journey themselves, kaiako of the Aotearoa New Zealand histories curriculum, and those for that matter delivering on the broader kaupapa of mana orite, mo te mātauranga Māori, they run the risk of being complicit in yet another form of cultural appropriation.

"It would not be tika to cherry pick all of the beautiful concepts and values of te ao Māori, and sort of skirt around or censor or just miss mana whenua narratives because they're confronting or uncomfortable."

The NZ History Teachers Association is putting together an expert advisory panel to help teachers deliver the curriculum safely.

If our teachers don't have the opportunity to safely engage with our history, with our local history, then it creates hostile environments for our tamariki.

—  Justice Hetaraka, HĀ

It's work the Whangarei-based organisation HĀ has been front-footing, educating Northland teachers about local histories through art.

"For me, a culturally safe learning environment looks like a place that honours emotion, and allows learners to transform that into change, and to feel empowered that they can create the reality in our future," said co-founder Justice Hetaraka.

She is worried some teachers could weaponize the content if they haven't had time to grapple with it themselves, and she's urging the Ministry of Education to prioritise support for teachers to deal with this.

"If our teachers don't have the opportunity to safely engage with our history, with our local history, then it creates hostile environments for our tamariki," she said.

"For teachers who have unfortunately been influenced by a certain history that's been taught in the past, they're not gonna want to engage with our local knowledge holders, or won't know how to.

In a statement, the Ministry of Education said it was currently developing resources to support wellbeing while studying the new curriculum, which will be ready by term three.