Teaching an authentic view of our past from within the framework of the discipline of history

In this video Gregor Fountain discusses the complexities of teaching history that is local, from within a traditional history framework. Gregor talks about how important the stories of Māori history are to our understanding of the past. He describes how difficult it can be framing assessment topics around stories that fall outside the official version of history, and how crossing into another cultural space can be challenging. Gregor acknowledges that designing new programmes that include less formal, local resources can be complex and challenging, but is a critical part of the study of our history in New Zealand.

Key Ideas

Professional learning conversations

  1. Gregor discusses the importance of a place-based approach to the teaching of local history. How would this work in your context? What are the challenges you might face setting up a place-based programme?

  2. How would your school develop a programme that you could refer to as Māori history?

  3. How can you establish systems and initiatives in your school that support place-based programmes?

At the heart of history is an idea of contest, an idea of perspectives and I guess for those of us that operate from a background on history, – from a discipline of history, we acknowledge that there are different perspectives on events and there are different stories and the real thing that it immediately, when you talk about Māori history, as someone from a history background and as someone who's been a history teacher for 20 years, my sort of first thought is, how do we deal with this stuff when we are within our frame of the discipline of history?

Because history is about evidence, and it's about perspective, and it’s not about that whole challenge of understanding where to fit that in, is like a massive issue for teaching. We have a history in New Zealand in our curriculum of there being options of little stories of Māori history largely framed not by Māori, or if they were, with our highly autonomous schooling system allowing teachers to take bits and shape it how they wanted to shape it.

I guess what I'm interested in is that tension, between how we teach an authentic view of our past, how we deal with Māori history, and some of the assumptions that sit with it. And I'm not sure I know all the answers to that.

There's a real strong, this existed in other histories as well, but there’s this strong sense of continuity that exists in Māori history. There's a story of connection between the past and the present, and that exists in all our history and that's the reason we study history and the reason is to inform the present. But it seems to me in Māori history there is a story of connection to place and a story of connection of people to place.

I remember Joe Williams talking at one of our History Teachers’ Conference about some of that first early work that he did as a lawyer in the tribunal. And he talked about, I think it was in the Muriwhenua case or something in the far, far North, and they were talking about the treaty and the treaty claim. And Joe talked about what it was like being a lawyer when a kaumātua was telling the history of that, and he says it took all day, and then it took the next day into it. And finally they got up to the period of 1840 and Joe was saying, what is going on here? Why are we going on, and on, and on like this, and when are we finally going to get to the point. And the guy said, “That's why in 1840 my people didn't give up the ownership of their land.” Those stories of whakapapa, those stories of connection, those stories of land and what happened to that land, is a long story of connection and I think Māori history underlines those sorts of things.

So I did a lot of work when I was teaching history with kids, particularly in that Waikato area. So we would take kids up from Wellington in the end, when I was teaching there, and we'd take them up to the Waikato, and all the way to Pukekohe, and we would tell the story with them of the Waikato war, or the invasion of the Waikato. Then we would go to these sites where these things had taken place and we’d tell these stories. I don’t think I really thought about it at the time but now I do. We weren’t doing Māori history. It wasn’t Māori history, that was a story of New Zealand history. In fact if you think about what we did, we followed the invasion line. So really the fact that we build up a story starting in Pukekohe and then travelling south, that was the line of the British invasion of the Waikato.

So we stood where Kīngitanga and their supporters stood, on some of these places. But I’m not sure we genuinely could say that we captured Māori perspectives or that that was Māori history. In fact I think that what we were really telling the story of, was the expansion of the British Empire and how those tactics of, you know, it was a story of how those tactics evolved and the way in which those things did. So those were awesome stories to tell and I never forget the first time we took those Wellington College boys all the way up to the Waikato for this trip, and it’s a big undertaking. We’d have to leave on a Sunday, go to Matamata, and then we’d go north the next morning and then start at Pukekohe.

That sense of what a million acres of confiscated land look like. The Wellington kids were amazed at how rich and fertile the Waikato farmland was, and it had taken us all day to come down from the first redoubt down to the second, which marked the confiscation line and the territory. And that kid had got a sense of, Pākehā kid, had got a sense of the extent of confiscation. But on that trip, on the second day, picked up the Te Kooti story, and from there went down to Te Kuiti, and we stayed in, I think it's called (Te Tokanganui-a-noho) marae in Ngāti Maniapoto territory. A beautiful house, where Te Kooti had been harboured when he was on the run, and we went to that house and that night we heard Māori history. We had kaumātua coming and speaking to our kids and to us about their stories of the past.

Well we heard stories about, that I hadn’t read, about disease and blankets that had been given that were diseased, that had been interpreted as being part of that, the view of this kaumātua was that this was part of the war, those sorts of stories. That was hearing Māori history in a Māori place and that was the sort of history that I think gave kids a different perspective. But then I guess that one of the really interesting challenges we've got is, can you challenge Māori history? That is a key question,isn’t it? I went to – I remember having a group of kids at Te Papa. And there was a guy that was working in the education team there that was from Whanganui, and he sat down my year 13 history kids and he said to them, “You know in Whanganui we actually don't believe that we're migrant people, that we came here, that we've always been here.” And none of my kids sort of challenged that, and these were articulate kids with masses of cultural capital in the Pākehā world, who I think in their heads must have been going, well, where is the archaeological evidence for this? Where does this ethnographics stuff fit within the wider story of this? And when we went back to class I said, that was a story that you, sort of, let sit there and I can't remember what the rest of the conversation was with that class but it's an interesting point, isn’t it? I think a sense of cultural safety and not wanting to cross into other cultural space.

When I did some research about the year 12 history, in the period of sixth form certificate and into NCEA, there was a topic that was in that old prescription called Māori leadership in the 19th century. This topic was devised and conceived in an amazing hui on a marae in Gisborne and there were key people there. Api Mahuika, other key Māori historians, and what they said to the people in the Department of Education that were trying to get this curriculum written, what they said is, “We don't want a story of Te Kooti, and we don't want people to just teach a story of Te Kooti – that's the Pākehā way of looking at history. Why don't we have a topic where people can go to their local iwi, they can talk about the stories that are local to them and allow maybe, these Māori historians and leaders to even be part of the teaching in the assessment of this. And this was within the framework of sixth form certificate.

Then I looked at what teachers did with that, those topics, and the vast majority avoided them. There were a huge range of choices and they preferred to stick with – you know – they preferred to stick with the ones that fitted more comfortably with their world view of history. When this topic, including myself, when we picked up this topic, we just did revert back to the Te Kooti story in my case, or the stories of Māori leadership that we knew, that sat more comfortably within our disciplinary framework, where we could use written sources.

Teachers said to me, it didn't feel like history, to be surrendering that and handing that over to some other people who work from a different framework. So I think that that is at the heart of our issues as teachers wanting to embrace and teach Māori histories. There is a sense of our own sense of our own disciplinary framework, which is largely based on written sources, on written evidence. We tend to steer away from archaeology, anthropology and ethnography and from indigenous approaches to history. So because we have masses of autonomy in our curriculum, more than ever now, it's easy for us to avoid these stories and it feels like a big risk to go into some of those areas and I think that's one of the issues we've got to grapple with.

So why did teachers in massive numbers pick up Vietnam as a topic and why did the topics around Samoan history, the one that had a focus on a Māori leadership in the 19th century, the topic on womens’ history, why did those topics have the smallest number of schools doing them and Vietnam shot up to be in the top two or three most popular topics?

Well, I think first of all the Vietnam war topic resonated for the generation of teachers who had been through that period of their own lives. Many of them, themselves were protesters at the Vietnam war. It also was a sexy topic for kids. The kids thought about Vietnam war. They thought about those movies, and there are all these film studies and things that came out of those topics, and kids love Vietnam. But I also think that the Vietnam war topic also fitted really comfortably with teachers views about what history was. It was a story of imperialism, it was a military topic, it was a story of imperialism. It was a story that actually wasn't that different from the Unification of Italy, or Weimar Germany. It was a story which, when you look at the texts that were used and maybe still are used for teaching the Vietnam topic, they very much followed a sequential, imperialist sort of narrative.

So I don't think it was a massive shift for teachers to move from one of those topics into that, even though it felt modern and safe, sorry, modern and exciting. But to go to a different type of history, history that explored feminist perspectives, or history that explored indigenous perspectives, was a massive shift for teachers. That they within the various forms that they had, they weren’t courageous enough to go there, and this is 30 years ago. And I think we've come a long way in terms of the way that we think about history now. We don't think of history now as being about the origins of the first world war, or being about the Vietnam war. We think about history now being about – being about perspectives. We think about history being about evidence and how you marshal evidence and how you see things. It’s about inquiry. And so the context and the way that we do the context, has become an avenue more explicitly for those skills. But those disciplinary aspects of history in themselves, I think can become a barrier for teachers thinking about their local stories and these stories of indigenous history.

So obviously stories like, stories of colonisation, understanding things like the treaty are really, really important as part of our nation. But maybe we need to get away from a national sort of one-size-fits-all narrative about this stuff, and connecting with iwi history to tell those local stories around – around that same stuff, would give kids a different sense and more of a, less of a national narrative, and more of a local narrative. We celebrate Waitangi Day on February 6th but what day did the people from this area sign the treaty? What was the date that they signed it? What was the context for their signing of it? How could we get some of those local narratives to be part of this?

When they built the – when the Westpac trust stadium was built, what was the arrangement that was – what were some of those conversations that were had with Te Āti Awa in Wellington. One of them was, we’re going to have Mt Taranaki on the side of our stadium. It always amazes me when Taranaki come down to play Wellington in the NPC that on the side part of the stadium is Mt Taranaki and the feathers, which represent Te Āti Awa. So those stories got captured and put in this place.

So what are the other stories that exist, that plug into those national stories of national narratives and that's something that engaging with Māori history and the history of place, could really do. They could enhance those national stories. So wouldn't it be great if kids just didn’t see the Treaty of Waitangi as Governor Hobson arriving, all that story redrafting, doing all that sort of stuff like this grand nationalist event of New Zealand nationhood. But if it was a story of your local story and the impact of those things in New Zealand history? It might give it a resonance for kids and you might get less pushback on that because it's about real people and people that you know and the place and the place that you are, so there must be some opportunities there.

When we think about historical thinking, we think about thinking historically, we think about evidence, the uses of the evidence. We think about historical perspective, the importance of different perspectives on history, about history being a contest of ideas.
We think about history being hands-on, using evidence, extracting information from it, understanding bias and points of view. But maybe it’s the empathy part of historical thinking that gives us an avenue to explore this.

You know that idea of being in someone else's shoes, that idea of trying to understand someone’s perspective from the time. You know, in our assessment-dominated world, that often can be reduced to like a role-play, or three diary entries of someone. But it's so much more than that and if we could perhaps hearing these, some of these local Māori stories, those histories from Māori as an amazing way of developing that empathy and that historical empathy, that understanding of what it was like to be at a certain place at a certain time. To walk the land and to hear those stories might be a way of developing that empathy side of history, which has for a long time been a key component of the New Zealand curriculum and for even longer has its origin in the United Kingdom curriculum which has had a strong emphasis on historical empathy and that's actually what history is.

History is about understanding the past and about putting some structure on it, based on evidence. And in that sense engaging with Māori history has very strong alignment with what we're trying to do in terms of developing historical thinking for kids.