Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
thesis_access.pdf (3.47 MB)

Teaching and learning New Zealand's difficult history of colonisation in secondary school contexts

Download (3.47 MB)
Version 2 2023-09-26, 23:59
Version 1 2021-12-08, 22:14
posted on 2023-09-26, 23:59 authored by Michael Harcourt

In recent years, awareness of New Zealand’s history of colonial injustice has grown in national consciousness. This awareness has led to much questioning of history education, particularly New Zealand’s high autonomy curriculum and its capacity to ensure that all young people encounter these ‘difficult’ aspects of the past. Yet little is known about the experiences of secondary school teachers and students during lessons on New Zealand’s history of colonisation. This study aimed to explore how teachers and students engaged with the history of colonisation, including how a sample of effective teachers and their students confronted the challenges and complexities of these pedagogical encounters. The importance of understanding this became even more significant when in 2019, the government surprised many by announcing that New Zealand history will become a compulsory feature of the curriculum at all levels of school from 2022. This thesis contributes to the new challenge of implementing compulsory curriculum content by developing a deeper understanding of the complexities currently experienced by teachers and students during lessons on colonisation.   History education that focuses on historical forms of violence and its representation in curriculum is commonly referred to as the study of ‘difficult history’ (Epstein & Peck, 2018). In New Zealand, the early European colonists acquired land from the Indigenous Māori people resulting in inter-generational forms of suffering, trauma and oppression. In such a ‘settler society’ the history of one’s own nation and its instances of colonial injustice present challenges because the descendants of the early colonists remain, owning the majority of land and controlling to a large extent political systems and institutions, including schools. This thesis extends the research on difficult history by focusing on the challenges of teaching and learning the history of colonisation in New Zealand, particularly as it relates to the power dynamics of a settler society. It plays close attention to the pedagogical complexities of place and emotion and is situated within a broad framework of critical theory which seeks to explicitly acknowledge the significance of Indigenous systems of knowledge.  Using a mixed method approach, this study presents findings drawn from a survey of teachers (n=298) and students (n=1889) and a multiple-site case study using qualitative approaches at four schools. In addition to classrooom based research, the study also investigated students’ experiences during field trips to places of colonial violence. Data gathering methods included interviews, semi-structured focus groups, classroom and field trip observations and a student-led photography task.   Analysis of the data showed that history and social studies teachers overwhelmingly expressed critical views about the nature of colonisation and recognised that, for example, colonisation reverberates in the present and that its consequences were destructive, primarily for Māori. Teachers also comprehensively endorsed inquiry-led and discussion-based pedagogical approaches that were attentive to the conventions of the discipline of history. Some dominant conceptions, however, revealed barriers that prevented teachers’ collective ability to engage more deeply with this history, especially Māori perspectives. Students also expressed critical views about colonisation, but many still understood this process as a discrete ‘event’ found only in the past, reducing their ability to consider the implications of the past for today. Furthermore, while the majority of students were receptive to learning the history of colonisation, a significant proportion were not. The ethnographic component of the study revealed a number of complexities that hindered deeper engagement with the past. This included dealing with discomfort and resistance to histories of colonisation and the challenges teachers faced in forming relationships with iwi and hapū. The ethnographic component also showed that school field trips to sites of colonial violence held potential to operate as place-based ‘counter narratives’ that could transform students’ prior conceptions and deepen their engagement with difficult histories of place.   The study concludes that two key ‘patterns of engagement’ shaped teachers’ and students’ encounters with New Zealand’s history of colonisation. In the first, many teachers struggled to engage pedagogically with Māori perspectives and approaches to the past, which made the curriculum goal of acknowledging and validating Indigenous systems of knowledge less likely. In the second, students’ emotional discomfort functioned as a complex and ever-present dynamic that potentially deepened but at times reduced their engagement with difficult histories of colonisation. Collectively these findings have implications for classroom practice and policy reform that take on a renewed urgency with New Zealand’s move toward compulsory teaching of New Zealand history.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License


Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Education


Sheehan, Mark; Wood, Bronwyn