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Addressing the elephant in the room: Ethics as an organizing concept in history education


Lindsay Gibson

Andrea Milligan

Carla Peck


Ethics is the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ in history education in settler-colonial nations. It is foundational to teaching and learning history and engaging with the ongoing effects of the past in the present. Yet its place in history curricula and teaching continues to be ignored, understated, confused, and challenged. This article illustrates how ethical judgment is central to four commonly identified rationales for teaching history in schools: citizenship education, historical consciousness, historical thinking, and difficult histories. The article urges more explicit attention to ethics as an organizing concept in history education to enable students to appreciate the complex lived realities that constitute history and to explore the diverse perspectives that have contributed to sometimes-difficult decisions. We argue that ethics can humanize history, enrich students’ historical understandings, and offer a usable past. However, given the varied approaches to ethical judgment across the four orientations to teaching history, we stress the need for the mindful deployment of ethical judgment in curriculum design. Using an example from the 2021 draft Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories curriculum, we demonstrate what “ethical judgment” could be called upon to do, and the impoverished approach to history education that would exist without it. 


Ethics; ethical judgment; history education; social studies education; citizenship education; historical thinking; historical consciousness; difficult history

How to Cite:

Gibson, L., Milligan, A., & Peck, C. (2022). Addressing the elephant in the room: Ethics as an organising concept in history education. Historical Encounters, 9(2), 45-63.


  • Published 8 August 2022

  • Double-Blind Peer Reviewed

  • Author Retains Copyright

  • Distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 License

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