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Should Waitangi Day be kept as our national holiday?

Focus key competencies: Relating to others, thinking (critical thinking/values clarification)

Learning area context: Social sciences


This teacher’s year 9 social studies class had been studying a variety of responses to the Treaty of Waitangi. At the end of the unit, the class took part in a series of lessons based around the question “Should Waitangi Day be kept as our national holiday?” The teacher chose this question because it created a link between a current issue of considerable interest and the unit of study. (Whether or not Waitangi Day should be celebrated as our national day had recently been aired in the media, with various comments made by different people.)

Students were given a range of stimulus materials that their teacher had collected from recent newspapers. They were encouraged to use these articles, plus their own laptops, to gather evidence or examples used by people arguing both for and against Waitangi Day as our national day. Using a range of sources gave students the chance to investigate different viewpoints, and to think about the values behind them. At this early stage of the year, they simply created a ‘for and against’ graphic: the teacher planned to build more explicit values clarification activities into the work as the year went on. During the next lesson, students chose one side of the issue to support and were given time to further inquire into the arguments that supported this specific perspective.

After this preparation, the class held a carefully structured discussion of the question: “Should Waitangi Day be kept as our national holiday?”

The teacher based the structure of the discussion on the Philosophical Chairs model. (Philosophical chairs is just one discussion model.) In this model, students with opposing views on the issue sit facing each other across the centre of the room. Students who do not have a position sit in the “neutral zone,” the bottom of the U formation.

The general rules were written on the board:

Table 1: Ground rules for adding to the debate

  • Think before you speak: organise your thoughts!
  • Address the ideas, not the person.
  • Listen when others are speaking – don’t interrupt.
  • Move if your view changes based on the arguments you hear.
  • After you speak, you have to wait until two others on your side have spoken.

As well as these general rules, students were given the points-scoring rubric shown below. The system of scoring highlights the features of both positive and negative contributions to a discussion. The students were aware that the teacher would be using this rubric to make a formative assessment of their contributions.

Table 2: Assessment rubric for philosophical chairs discussion

Positive points Negative points
Relevant comment +1 Not paying attention -1
Ask a question that gets others involved in the discussion +1 Interrupting and stopping others from participating -2
Using evidence to support an argument +1 Lack of or inappropriate evidence when stating a ‘fact’ -2
Making a concession +2 Making a personal attack -4

The discussion started with large numbers supporting the retention of Waitangi Day as our national holiday. Only a couple of students were opposed and about six students positioned themselves in the neutral area. As the discussion progressed interesting comments and questions were made by students in all three areas and some people started physically moving their chairs between the different positions in the discussion. At the start of the activity only five or six students were willing to speak but by the time the bell rang the class wanted to ignore this signal to move on. They wanted the discussion to continue!

Reciprocal relationships between the subject and the key competencies

The social sciences learning area provides rich opportunities for students to explore “how societies work and how people can participate as critical, active, informed and responsible citizens.” This story specifically illustrates “how the ways in which people and communities respond are shaped by different perspectives, values and viewpoints.” (NZC, p. 30). When opportunities to challenge each other’s thinking are carefully scaffolded by the teacher, students gain experience and confidence that could later allow them to participate in respectful discussions of issues in other contexts.

The learning opportunity outlined in this story took place towards the end of a unit based upon the level 5 social sciences achievement objective “Understand how the Treaty of Waitangi is responded to differently by people in different times and places.” Learning to see an issue from other perspectives challenges students to ‘walk in others’ shoes’. In this way, a focus on exploring different perspectives on a social issue provides rich opportunities for students to strengthen the key competency of relating to others. In this story values exploration was an important aspect of strengthening this key competency. By definition, students cannot negotiate and share ideas without in the process participating and contributing.

Reflections on effective pedagogy

The approach in this story helped provide relevance for the students so they could engage with the Treaty of Waitangi in a more meaningful way. (A New Zealand specific question in the International Citizenship and Civics (ICCS) survey asked students if they considered the Treaty of Waitangi to be important to them. The majority did not - see Satherley, 2011.)

This unit of work challenged students to speak about their opinions in front of others. This is particularly difficult for some students, especially those whose opinions may differ from others in the class. It can also be challenging to respectfully hear opinions that differ from your own: this task required students to actively listen and engage with such opinions, and to be open to changing their own point of view.

The media-driven issue of Waitangi Day as the national day connects ‘the Treaty of Waitangi’ as an historical event and legislative framing to a more personal consideration of the Treaty’s impact on our lives and values. Values clarification is challenging because we don’t usually speak of such things: the part values play in shaping our attitudes and actions tends to be ‘hidden’ thinking.

Discussion starters: Debating controversial issues

This story illustrates one way of supporting students to be able to respectfully “walk in others’ shoes” by temporarily setting aside their own beliefs and feelings and considering a controversial question from different perspectives. When and why is this ability an important aspect of competency in relating to others?

How might values clarification help strengthen aspects of critical thinking? Key competencies are defined in NZC as always combining knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values. Should students also learn about the values that underpin less controversial decisions and actions? Why or why not?

Controversy is present in all facets of life and using social issues as a starting point could easily be expanded to include aspects relevant to other learning areas. Think of some examples where the issue chosen might link the social sciences to another learning area such as science, mathematics, or health/PE. (The story Thinking about sustainable food preparation could be a good starting point for this discussion.)


Satherley, P. (2011). What do our Year 9 students think about New Zealand, democracy and freedom? New Zealand results from the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Published on: 15 Apr 2014