Alive and Well:
Elementary Social Studies in New Zealand

Cameron White

What can we learn about social studies from a nation the size of Colorado? What insight can be gleaned from a country that has a population less than that of the city of Houston, Texas? What stands out when we compare the teaching of social studies in New Zealand and in the United States? Why bother investigating what is happening in a nation that few Americans know much about? Read on and find out. You might be surprised.

New Zealand is a country with approximately 3.5 million people who reside on two major islands of 103,760 square miles total, which is roughly equal in size to Colorado. The location of New Zealand in the South Pacific, its small population and small geographic size, its ties to the United Kingdom and Australia, its bi-culturalism (English and native Maori), and its agricultural-based economy are distinguishing features of the country. And New Zealand has a plan for the teaching of social studies that educators all over the world are curious about.


A New Educational Focus

The Ministry of Education is the central body that decides educational policy for this nation with a unicameral, parliamentary government. New Zealand has recently established an exciting direction for social studies education. After a history of social education modeled after the British and Australian systems, which focused on traditional methods of teaching and learning, New Zealand social studies education was transformed by careful consideration of goals and objectives. The result was the publication of Social Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum in 1997.1 The book, published by the Ministry of Education, provides guidelines which state that social studies should

1. ensure that a few topics were covered in depth,

2. express learning objectives as conceptual understandings,

3. promote learning activities to help students achieve these objectives,

4. use assessment adequately to evaluate objectives, and

5. integrate social studies processes into the curriculum.2

These principles were used to ensure a balanced approach in education: student-centered and holistic teaching would be balanced by a structured curriculum with clear goals. The New Zealand Curriculum (for short) provides a general framework to assist with teaching and planning. It moves the discipline away from traditional approaches. It comprises five social studies strands, three social studies processes, and five perspectives, settings in New Zealand and beyond, essential content about New Zealand society, essential skills, and achievement objectives for all levels of schooling. The curriculum document outlines and describes each category by providing a rationale, connections, and examples.


Five Strands

The five social studies strands in the New Zealand Curriculum include Social Organization; Culture and Heritage; Place and Environment; Time, Continuity, and Change; and Resources and Economic Activities. These are similar to the strands suggested by National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) in the United States, but are synthesized into five strands, rather than stated as a set of ten.3 There are two general aims tied to each strand with two additional achievement objectives for each level of schooling. For example, the aims for the social organization strand are that students will understand why people organize into groups and will discuss the rights, roles, and responsibilities of people as they interact in groups. Achievement objectives are provided for each grade level in order to meet these general aims.


Three Processes

The three social studies processes in the New Zealand Curriculum include inquiry, values exploration, and social decision making. The general aim for all processes states that students will develop skills as they use the social studies processes to learn about society and to enable them to participate responsibly in society. These processes are integral to the document because in social studies they are generally taught as add-on activities and offered as generic lists, often having little connection to actual teaching and learning.4 The processes also possess specific achievement objectives for all grades. The New Zealand Social Studies Association has chosen to place social studies processes in a prominent role, whereas NCSS subsumes the skills and processes under discussions of “powerfu#148; social studies within chapters describing the ten strands.



Achievement objectives are included in the New Zealand Curriculum as benchmarks for assessment. The goal of the achievement objectives is to move beyond essentialist perspectives, to focus on objectives that allowed students to construct ideas or understandings beyond the memorization of facts. The achievement objectives are offered as indicators and are not intended to be mandatory or prescriptive.5 The suggestions focus on application of understandings to new situations. As students engage in inquiry, values exploration, and social decision making through the five suggested social studies strands, they are asked to use questioning, make generalizations, communicate findings, reflect on and evaluate steps, compare and contrast positions and ideas, develop tentative solutions, make choices, and act on those choices. Project-based activities and portfolios are the dominant mode of assessment; formal grades are not given until middle school.


Five Perspectives, Five Settings

The five perspectives, integral to a balanced social studies program, include bicultural perspectives, multicultural perspectives, gender perspectives, perspectives on current issues, and perspectives on the future. The five settings include an understanding of New Zealand, its role in the Pacific, and its relation to Europe, Asia, and the rest of the world. The emphasis in New Zealand Curriculum on both the five perspectives and settings in New Zealand and beyond is an attempt at providing meaningful connections for social studies education. Other essential content focuses on issues such as gender, bi- and multiculturalism, and New Zealand as it fits into the greater regional and global picture. These components are rather controversial, but suggest the need for social studies education to address such issues.


Elementary Classrooms and Social Studies

The very nature of New Zealand classroom and school structure facilitates social studies knowledge, skills, and values exploration. Upon first inspection of elementary and primary schools and classrooms in New Zealand, one immediately finds a very kid-friendly atmosphere. There are no security guards or barred entrances. Most schools are all designed in an open manner with courtyards, large classrooms, and common areas. Schools open early and close late. Parents take children to their classrooms and are encouraged to stay and interact until time for school to begin. The same goes for after-school pick-ups. Children are able to engage in a variety of activities before and after school. They can play on the play ground, draw, read, work on projects or play at centers.

The classrooms I visited were bright and lively places with artwork, music instruments, and at least two computers. Kids have “tea time” in the morning for about twenty minutes, during which they eat a snack, play inside, or play outside. The same goes for lunch, which lasts for about an hour. There is no lunchroom so depending on the weather, kids picnic and play or eat in their classrooms. There is also physical education, art, and music each day.

The national curriculum mandates the integration of social studies, science, technology, art, music, and physical education into elementary teaching and learning. Units of study are often integrated around a social studies or science theme. Standardized testing exists in New Zealand elementary and primary schools, but it does not drive the curriculum. High scores school wide in competition with other schools is not the ultimate goal. There seems to be a conscious effort to ensure that high stakes testing not become the norm. The U.S. trend toward lots of standardized tests is seen as an example not to be followed.

Kids are encouraged to be comfortable while learning. Most classrooms have couches, bean bag chairs, rugs and carpeted areas, and even throw pillows for the kids. Social processes including problem solving, decision-making, values exploration, and inquiry are central to the curriculum. Children seem genuinely excited to go to school in New Zealand. Elementary and primary classrooms are inviting places where kids are allowed to be kids. They are encouraged to play, create, and experiment in their social and intellectual development. While the great majority of New Zealanders are from European ancestry, there is much “natura#148; integration in the schools between Maori, European and newer immigrant groups. The neighborhood school model is still prevalent in New Zealand, however; and there is a relatively large private school establishment (almost exclusively at the middle and high school levels).




Elementary social studies education in New Zealand is notable in its emphasis on social studies perspectives, settings, and processes. There is a concerted effort to integrate social studies into the teaching and learning on a daily basis. These enable New Zealand to counter traditional hidden curriculum, status quo and hegemony issues within social studies education.6

There is a desperate need to transform social studies education so that the goal is to encourage respect for different perspectives, to acknowledge uncertainty, and to practice making provisional decisions as preparation for living in a increasingly pluralistic, fragmented, and rapidly changing world. Powerful approaches including meaningful, integrative, value-based, challenging, and active teaching and learning are needed to transform social studies.7 If the goal of social studies is to really promote efficacy as citizens of the world and any particular society, then New Zealand social studies offers a good model. We would do well to learn a few lessons from them.



1. Social Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington, NZ: Ministry of Education. (1997).

2. H. Barr, P. Hunter, and P. Keown, “The Common Good in New Zealand: Social Studies Curriculum.” Paper presented at the National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. (1999).

3. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994).

4. H. Barr, “From the Editor,” New Zealand Journal of Social Studies 7, no. 2 (1998);

5. R. Case and I. Wright, “Taking Seriously the Teaching of Critical Thinking,” Canadian Social Studies 32, no. 1 (1997).

6. P. Hunter, “The Social Studies Perspectives: Challenging Teaching and Learning,” The New Zealand Journal of Social Studies 8, no. 2 (1999).

7. W. Hope, “It’s Time to Transform Social Studies Teaching,” The Social Studies 87, no. 4 (1996).



Prasad, R. “The National Context for Social Studies Teaching.” The New Zealand Journal of Social Studies 7, no. 1 (1998).

Skelton, A. “Studying Hidden Curricula: Developing a Perspective in the Light of Postmodern Insights.” Curriculum Studies 5 no. 2 (1997).


Cameron White is an associate professor in Social Education at the University of Houston in Houston, Texas.