A hub for learning history where it happened

Issue: Volume 102, Number 11

Posted: 24 August 2023
Reference #: 1HAbbq

A new education hub on the Tohu Whenua website makes it easier for teachers to find experiences at places that tell our nation’s defining stories.

Curriculum-linked information about places recognised as Tohu Whenua is organised into appropriate year groups, ensuring it is targeted at the right level for learners. The layout follows the ‘Understand, Know, Do’ framework, aligning it with the Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories curriculum.

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Ākonga explore the Kawarau Suspension Bridge. Photo: Clare Toia-Bailey.

“This is a great starting point when unit planning using the Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories curriculum or when connecting content to place,” says Hannah Scott, social sciences teacher at Wellington East Girls’ College.

She’s looking at the new education hub on the website of Tohu Whenua, a government initiative aimed at connecting New Zealanders with our nation’s unique heritage places.

Caroline Toplis is pleased with the feedback. As Tohu Whenua programme manager, she and her team have worked hard to make it as easy as possible for teachers to find the places that tell Aotearoa New Zealand’s defining stories.

“We offer a one-stop hub for teachers looking for experiences at significant historical and cultural places that connect to the curriculum.

“All Tohu Whenua places tell defining stories of our regions and our country; they are places where ākonga can learn about and experience history where it happened. If teachers are looking for places that bring to life themes in the curriculum, often in their own backyard, Tohu Whenua is a good place to start.”

Variety of storytelling

Tohu Whenua places have been selected in part for their high quality, on-site storytelling of nationally significant events and themes. Between them there is great variety. Examples include landscape-based stories important to mana whenua; places where there was conflict over abuses of Te Tiriti o Waitangi; the site of our deadliest mining disaster and the birth of unionism; the development of technologies that made us world leaders in farming – and so much more.

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Left and middle: Learning is brought to life at Hayes Engineering Works and Homestead in Otago. Photo: Clare Toia-Bailey.

“To make it as easy as possible, we provide downloadable documents that connect year-level-appropriate themes in the curriculum with Tohu Whenua places,” says Caroline.

Kate Coughlan, Year 3 teacher at Te Kura o Papakōwhai Papakōwhai School in Porirua is impressed by the material provided, saying “it makes teaching about historical sites easy” particularly because it is organised by year group and follows the framework of the curriculum.

“I cannot wait to use these resources [to create lesson plans for] my classroom.”

On-site experiences

The Tohu Whenua website then goes a step further.

As Caroline explains, “Almost all Tohu Whenua provide unique opportunities to do a class visit, so we’ve provided links for teachers to get in touch with experienced educators and tour guides who can bring the stories of these places to life for their ākonga, through interactive, hands-on learning at place and sometimes even virtually.”

Opportunities include Enriching Local Curriculum educators who provide support before, during and after a site experience; tours provided by local guides that can be shaped to suit the needs of a class; up-to-date resources, and accommodation opportunities for camps.

Tohu Whenua currently recognises 26 important heritage places in Te Tai Tokerau Northland, Te Tai Poutini West Coast, and Otago – with the aim to expand into other regions.

As Hannah points out, “I think [the Tohu Whenua website] can be really useful even if these sites are not in your area and you can’t travel to them.

“Often when teaching a class you will have students who have ties to places not in your area, and making connections to places all over the motu can be really meaningful for those students.”

Supported by local history experts

Ākonga are much more engaged when taken out of their classroom environment, says Hannah.

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Ākonga at Denniston Mine. Photo: Jason Blair.

“It’s very hands-on, they can physically see and touch things, and get a real sense of it. It inspires them and opens their eyes to what is out there.”

Amanda Viana can’t help getting excited about place-based heritage learning.

She leads a Ministry of Education-funded Enriching Local Curriculum programme in historic Arrowtown, which is recognised as one of 11 Tohu Whenua landmarks in Otago, focusing on Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the stories and histories of settlers.

Last year Amanda and her team taught over 4,100 students from about 115 different schools from preschool level to Year 13; she has seen first-hand how ākonga thrive when learning about heritage at place.

“It’s good for teachers because they can just turn up,” says Amanda.

“We provide pre- and post-visit resources, and qualified educators who facilitate the activities and learning.

“We’re based at the Lakes District Museum which is located in the historic BNZ building, and everything is within walking distance – the old gaol, Chinese settlement, churches, cemetery, even the river where we can pan for gold.”

Amanda says they are in a perfect location to support teachers with many different themes.

“For example, the restored Chinese gold miners’ settlement tells the stories of immigration, discrimination, racism and how that led to Chinese having to pay poll tax. But Arrowtown also tells the stories of perseverance, hardships and sacrifices – from multiple perspectives.

“Here we can have conversations about New Zealand-wide issues and show how the gold rush in Arrowtown helped build the economy of Dunedin and New Zealand as a whole.”

Broadened awareness

Although Lakes District Museum does its own promotion, Amanda sees the benefits of being a part of the Tohu Whenua education hub.

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The Otago Central Rail Trail. Photo: James Jubb.

“We’re very happy that Tohu Whenua helps us increase our awareness of historic Arrowtown being a very special place – and highlights opportunities such as ours in other parts of the country.”

Two other Enriching Local Curriculum programmes provide learning opportunities at Tohu Whenua, including at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where students are encouraged to engage first-hand with the history of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The other is the Marsden Valley Education Centre, which provides learning opportunities at several Tohu Whenua heritage places on Te Tai Poutini West Coast, including Reefton, Waiuta, Brunner Mine and Denniston Mine.

Guided tours tailored to the needs of ākonga can also be provided at several other Tohu Whenua landmarks, including those owned and operated by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

Examples include Pompallier Mission and Printery in Kororāreka Russell (our only surviving pioneer printery and tannery) and Totara Estate near Ōamaru (the birthplace of our billion-dollar meat export industry).

To see what programmes or opportunities are offered, teachers can simply click on the ‘School visits’ section of the Tohu Whenua webpage that relates to the specific site they are interested in.


Lisa Foggin, a SENCo and specialist teacher at Alexandra Primary School, sums up the benefits of learning local history where it happened.

“It’s great for ākonga to have a connection to their turangawaewae, strengthen their sense of connection to place and each other.”

What is Enriching Local Curriculum?

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Pompallier Mission and Printery in the Bay of Islands. Photo: Mark Russell.

Enriching Local Curriculum (ELC) – formerly known as Learning Experiences Outside the Classroom (LEOTC) – supports community organisations to draw on localresources and expertise, to provide our tamariki with authentic, hands-on/minds-on learning experiences that complements curriculum.

Providers work in partnership to run educational programmes for ākonga in early learning services (0-6 years of age), state and integrated schools and kura, and registered private schools in Years 1–13. ELC programmes are not divided into subject areas. Rather, they are experiences that support broad curriculum outcomes.

ELC programmes have meaningful bicultural partnerships with key mana whenua knowledge holders, to improve educational outcomes.

EOTC website(external link)

Rail Tales

Rail Tales is a great example of an interactive resource all about a special Tohu Whenua.

Recognised by Tohu Whenua as one of our nation’s most treasured heritage places, the Otago Central Rail Trail deserves a special mention.

That’s because of the highly interactive Rail Tales website and lesson plans developed by technology education specialist Anthony Breese of Museograph – specifically as a teaching resource from primary through to NCEA Level 3.

Principals and teachers rate the resource as excellent.

“There’s a lot in it,” says David Grant, principal of Big Rock Primary School in Dunedin, who found the Rail Tales website through Tohu Whenua.

“You could use it without going on the trail itself.” But he is quick to add, “we do cycle a part of the Otago Central Rail Trail each year. A big theme has been resilience, now we have this resource to link in history as well.”

David is particularly excited about finding his ākonga learning about “super modern technology imported from around the world going into really remote places – materials to build the railway and the towns it serviced”.

He also points out the link to the Dunedin Railway Station (also recognised as a Tohu Whenua).

“A spectacular building which had an incredible amount of resources put into it considering that Dunedin only had a population of 50,000 at the time.”

Lexie Hay from Alexandra Primary School, who tested a prototype of the resource, agrees.

She says, “All the information that was scattered across various websites is now located in one place. My kids love following along the trail and clicking on the yellow icons.”

Last year, Lexie’s Year 6 class focused on the history on the Otago Central Rail Trail, in particular the early days of Hyde and the Hyde Railway crash, “which is New Zealand’s second worst rail disaster.”

She and her class cycled parts of the Rail Trail, visiting old railway stations, a turntable and museum. Her kāhui ako then created 3D models of the Otago Central Rail Trail – their maths focus was on the coordinates, and they created QR codes which linked to a speech competition where the children reported something special about each location.

Teachers and kaiako interested in the history of Otago can also use resources from Tūhura Otago Museum(external link). The Museum’s Education Team presents a wide range of hands-on ELC education programmes.

Tohu Whenua at a glance

  • Landmarks recognised as Tohu Whenua tell our nation’s defining stories.
  • There are currently 26 Tohu Whenua in three regions – Te Tai Tokerau Northland, Te Tai Poutini West Coast and Otago.
  • Tohu Whenua places provide opportunities for students to learn about history where it happened.
  • The education hub contains downloadable documents linking Tohu Whenua with year-level-appropriate themes in the Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories curriculum.
  • The ‘school visits’ section on each place-specific webpage provides links to local educators or guides who can facilitate class visits.
  • Tohu Whenua is a partnership between Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga and Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai.

Visit Tohu Whenua website(external link) to start making history come alive for ākonga.

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

Posted: 11:30 am, 24 August 2023

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