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A matter of choice: Controversial histories, citizenship, and the challenge of a high-autonomy curriculum

Mark Sheehan

Learning about controversial historical issues is an essential feature of citizenship education in democratic societies, but in New Zealand, the high-autonomy national curriculum leaves it up to teachers to choose whether they engage their students with difficult questions about the past. This can place teachers in an awkward position. They do not operate as autonomous entities when it comes to making curriculum decisions. Schools are largely self-managing and each school has responsibility for curriculum delivery in their learning community. The process of colonisation is arguably the most controversial feature of New Zealand’s past, and teachers are likely to avoid including such difficult questions in their programmes unless they are supported by parents, colleagues, and school managers to do so. This article examines the implications of a high-autonomy curriculum for young people in New Zealand participating constructively as citizens in a society that is working towards reconciling the relationship between Māori and non-indigenous New Zealanders. It draws on public submissions to the 2015 petition that called for the wars between Māori and the Crown in the 19th century to be included in the school curriculum. The majority of these submissions vehemently opposed the initiative and an examination of these reflect unsympathetic views of the colonisation process that are seldom voiced in official channels but may well be common in classroom settings and in school communities. It provides an insight into the challenges that teachers face as curriculum makers in a high-autonomy curriculum environment if they are to engage their students with controversial issues about New Zealand’s past.

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