Effective Holocaust education


Evidence shows just how difficult it is to teach the Holocaust effectively. Paul Salmons and Stuart Foster explain why a research-informed approach will help students to tackle the profound questions that this traumatic subject raises.

New research from UCL’s Institute of Education (IoE) Centre for Holocaust Education indicates that much of what is “known” about the Holocaust is actually myth, distortion and oversimplification.

For example, significant findings are now emerging from our extensive survey of 11 to 18-year-olds and our group interviews in schools across England (the world’s largest study of young people’s thinking about the Holocaust, involving some 9,500 secondary school students).

Combined with our earlier (2009) national study into teachers’ thinking and practice, it is clear that students and teachers alike consider the study of the Holocaust to be a vital part of the school curriculum. 

However, what has also emerged is how difficult it can be to study the Holocaust effectively: teachers are under enormous pressure with limited curriculum time, most have not studied the Holocaust in depth, and many identify a personal need for high-quality CPD in teaching this complex and emotive subject.

Consequently, teachers’ and students’ knowledge tends to come far more from popular rather than academic sources and so reflect the common myths, misconceptions and distortions prevalent in our society’s “collective memory” of the Holocaust.

Rather than exposing and correcting these misunderstandings, in many cases stereotypes and myths can be unwittingly reinforced in the classroom and through widespread commemorative activities.

Indeed, it may be argued that as we approach the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on Tuesday (January 27), now more than ever we need to move away from simplistic retellings of the Holocaust as moral fable, which often acts as an easy substitute for rigorous in-depth study.

Instead, we need a research-informed approach to teaching and learning in schools: one that focuses on why and how societies descend into mass violence; that addresses the real classroom challenges which teachers face; that helps young people to explore the profound questions they raise as they encounter this traumatic past.

For several years now the IoE has been developing such a programme, undertaking not only large national research studies into teachers’ approaches to Holocaust education and young people’s thinking about this complex subject, but also responding to these classroom needs.

We have developed a pathway of professional development for teachers at all stages of their careers who wish to strengthen their teaching about the Holocaust and to deepen students’ knowledge and understanding.

This free national programme includes opportunities for trainees on initial teacher education courses across the country, full-day and twilight CPD for in-service teachers, a taught Master’s module, leadership development on a year-long Beacon Schools programme, and the possibility of studying at doctoral level.

These programmes are supported by free teaching and learning materials (available on our website). These have been shown to have an impact not only on young people’s knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust, but also on their motivation to learn, even among hard-to-reach students.

This is because the lesson activities do not aim simply at moral instruction, but rather seek to respond to the questions students have about this complex past: how was it possible, not long ago and not far from where we live, that people across Europe participated in the killing of their neighbours? Why were Jews particularly targeted? Why didn’t more Jews fight back? What did people know about what was happening and why didn’t they do more to prevent it?

The issues raised have profound implications for religious education, for citizenship, and for the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of our students. Outstanding spiritual, moral, social and cultural education comes from young people wrestling with the difficult questions that emerge from a more complex understanding of the Holocaust.

At the heart of our educational approach is a pedagogy that has implications far beyond learning about the Holocaust, developing independent learners and critical thinkers. 

Enhanced critical-thinking, more user-directed learning, and better academic performance are frequently cited as benefits of an approach that actively engages students in thinking through the profound issues raised by the Holocaust. 

Refusing to provide simple “lessons from history”, we encourage students to explore the complexity of the past and construct meaning for themselves. 

This is a deep learning process, as it challenges stereotypes, myths and misconceptions, enables students to ask their own questions and follow their own lines of enquiry, and develops a critical mind-set that, we hope, fosters a more humane, open and intelligent way of interpreting the world. 

  • Paul Salmons and Stuart Foster are from the Centre for Holocaust Education at the UCL Institute of Education.

Further information

Photo: iStock


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