Learning about Parliament

Issue: Volume 93, Number 4

Posted: 10 March 2014
Reference #: 1H9ctg

The Parliamentary Service has created a new suite of resources that will help teachers engage authentically with our most central public institution.

General elections are just around the corner, and plenty of teachers throughout the country will want to capture students’ natural curiosity about an institution that they may not think affects them directly. A new set of free resources now available will help to dispel that myth, says Education Coordinator, Parliamentary Service, Miranda Thomson.

“Students probably have the perception that Parliament is all about adults, and they sometimes don’t understand that they’re citizens of New Zealand as well.”

The new resource package, Explore Parliament, has been designed to facilitate the use of Parliament and parliamentary process as a context for inquiry and comes with plenty of support material for teachers.

The package includes 10 topic cards and a teacher’s guide for Years 5–8 and an additional 10 topic cards for Years 9 and 10. There’s also a resource to guide teachers in how to run their own classroom debate role-play.

Teachers from bilingual schools will also find that their needs are catered to, with the To Tatou Whare – He Aratohu ma nga Kaiako range of bilingual resources. These include 6 topic cards and a teacher’s guide.

The resources are the culmination of a Parliamentary Service initiative to improve the ability of students to engage in one of our most critical institutions and support typically time-poor teachers to open young peoples’ eyes to the fact that they are contributing members of New Zealand society, with the right (and responsibility) to participate in our nation’s governance.

Information about the structure, function, and relevance of Parliament is presented in a clear and accessible format. Teacher’s guides have plenty of direct correlation with The New Zealand Curriculum, helping educators to achieve real outcomes. There is a focus on relating Parliament and its operations to the everyday lives of young people. The bilingual resources work in concert with Te Marautanga o Aotearoa and highlight the achievements and participation of Māori in the work of Parliament.

Unpacking a complex topic

One of the goals during the development of the resources was to provide material for those classes that cannot easily visit Parliament, says Miranda, and to that end, all of the resources can work either as stand-alone inquiry aids or can complement an actual visit. There is also now a virtual tour of Parliament online (see ‘Links’ below) and an interactive timeline detailing 100 important events in the history of New Zealand’s Parliament.

Feedback gathered from teachers in 2010 was the impetus for the development of the new resources, with many saying that they didn’t have time to delve into a topic as potentially complex as the governance of a nation, to the point that they felt comfortable teaching it. The other challenge was how to make the processes of Parliament engaging to students, who might consider the theme a bit boring, says Miranda.

“The main thing is tuning into students’ interests and needs. With the groups that visit, we have changed the way we present information to make it more engaging. We now try to present things as questions, so that we end up challenging pre-conceptions. We are very conscious of the need for inquiry learning and best practice teaching.”

The idea behind these focus questions is that, rather than providing explicit ‘by the numbers’ lesson plans, the topic cards can be flexibly used to create inquiries that can last several weeks. The first card in one of the series asks the question ‘What is Parliament?’. There is another that deals with the links between central and local government; and the series finishes by coming back to the lives of students, asking the question ‘where do I fit in?’

Relating Parliament to the lives of students is paramount, says Miranda. Helping young people to realise that Parliament affects all of our lives and is not just an impenetrable and mysterious organisation that they don’t need to think about until they are adults is one of the keys to the resource package.

“For example, one of the things we might explain to students is tax. I ask them ‘do you pay tax?’, and they generally say no. So we investigate with the question ‘what is tax?’, which leads them to an understanding that tax pays for the things that we all use, like roads and hospitals, and is collected on behalf of everybody. Parliament makes decisions and approves how the money is spent, but the money is for the benefit of all New Zealanders. We also help them to understand that every time they buy something, they are in fact paying tax, and helping to pay for the running of the country, and for Parliament itself.”

Managing heated debates

When asked what it is that students find most surprising about the workings of Parliament, Miranda points to a certain amount of surprise when they see, via video or in the flesh, debating in the House degenerate into heated exchanges. Students, she says, are generally expecting a certain level of decorum from the nation’s leaders, so it’s surprising to them when they realise that these famous faces are human, and occasionally prone to bouts of behaviour they might be more used to seeing on the school playground. It’s all part of the learning experience, says Miranda.

“They often comment on the House behaviour – politicians jeering each other, for example. I try to put them in the same position, by saying ‘If I was to put you in a situation where I said, ok, if your name begins with the letter F, you can leave school early. How do you feel about that?’ Of course, everyone whose name doesn’t begin with F is outraged! And they’ll say ‘it’s not fair’, and the next thing you know, they’re arguing.

“It’s about getting across the idea that some arguing and debate is actually talking an issue through, thrashing it out, and this is how decisions are made. Not everybody has the same opinion. Sometimes debate can get quite heated. But out of that can come results, and decisions can be worked out that take into account many viewpoints. I think that’s really valuable for students to understand, that Parliament is a place for debate, and everybody doesn’t agree.”

Virtual party dynamics

One of the features of the new resource package is the role play guidance material. Miranda and her team were conscious of the fact that previously, a class had to physically visit Parliament to get involved with this authentic learning opportunity.

The role play is run exactly as Parliament would go about introducing a new Bill. Three mock bills have been devised, with the intention of getting students to think about situations that closely mirror real life. One concerns a bill aimed at outlawing dangerous breeds of dog; another asks students to think about the possibility of forcing schools to teach water safety to a particular level.

One of the learning outcomes for students that teachers may not foresee, says Miranda, is that young people find that they are learning about faction dynamics, and the need to attract support for a proposal. In other words, the role play mirrors exactly the machinations that create law in this country.

“If it’s a ‘government’ bill, it will always be put forward by a ‘minister’. The main party in government will be voting for the bill with the other parties in government generally supporting it. Opposition parties have the choice to support the bill or not, which is exactly what happens in real life.

“We divide students into fruit parties (Banana Party, Strawberry Party etc.) as we’re not allowed to use the names of real parties. This means they experience the party dynamic, the need to convince people that you’re right and that they should support or not support your bill. I’ve seen some really interesting debates result. It’s such a great way to get students to really gain an understanding of the processes that govern our country.”


Teachers can order the new suite of resources by emailing: Education.Services@parliament.govt.nz

Find out more about touring Parliament.(external link)

Other Parliament and elections related links that may be of interest:
New Zealand Parliament(external link)

Elections(external link)
Archives New Zealand(external link)
The Governor General(external link)
Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand(external link)

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 9:41 am, 10 March 2014

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