Many people argue that it is crucially important for young people to learn about the Holocaust to prevent racism and prejudice in the present day. But in a focus group interview exploring secondary school students’ attitudes to the Holocaust, Ella, a year 12 student from Peterborough turned that idea on its head.
“I didn’t stop being racist because of learning about the Holocaust … I’ve always not been racist,” she said.
Ella is one of more than 9,500 students consulted by University College London (UCL) researchers as part of a three year-long national study looking at secondary school students’ knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust. This study (launched by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education) drew primarily on survey responses from almost 8,000 young people and interviews of nearly 250 students. It aimed to find out what young people should know about the Holocaust and why.
Holocaust Memorial Day: teaching your students about genocide – in pictures
The Holocaust has been part of the national curriculum since the early 1990s, but many teachers are uncertain about what the educational aims of teaching this subject should be and what content to include or to prioritise, especially when faced with limited time and a packed curriculum. The centre’s earlier study, Teaching About the Holocaust in English Secondary Schools, found that in a variety of subjects teachers’ intentions were most likely to enable students to understand the ramifications of racism, transform society and learn the lesson of the Holocaust to ensure it never happens again. However, as the study went to argue, such universal, trans-disciplinary aims are difficult both to assess and to translate into pedagogical practice.
The effectiveness of these teaching aims is questioned even more in the centre’s most recent study, which shows that students share some of their teachers’ appreciation for broad, ethical aims but also highly rated the importance of historical knowledge and a moral duty towards the victims. In fact, 83% of those surveyedagreed that they should be taught about this history in school to understand where racism can lead, respect the memory of the victims, stop something similar happening again, deepen their historical knowledge and learn about what caused the Holocaust .
But despite this commitment, many flaws in students’ core knowledge and understanding of this history were highlighted by the research. More than half of younger students (years 7-9) believed Hitler was solely responsible for the Holocaust. Young people often did not understand who the Nazis were or what was the number of Jewish victims. And few students were aware of the different roles played by collaborating regimes and ordinary people in the development of the Holocaust. Knowledge of the Holocaust’s chronology and geography was also limited. Moreover, many students were unsure about what Britain’s response was.
Critically, while the majority of students knew Jews were the primary victims, they had little understanding of why they were persecuted. Their explanations often relied on misconceptions and stereotypes. For example, in interviews, a number of students alluded to the Jews as a single group being “rich” or “having power” and therefore being perceived as a threat. In fact, 68% of students appeared unaware of what antisemitism means.
None of these findings are intended as a criticism of students or teachers. Rather, they are likely to reflect significant curriculum constraints and the problematic manner in which the Holocaust is often framed in popular discourse. The eminent historian professor Yehuda Bauer, honorary chairman of the 31 nation state International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, summed up the problem when he said: “The Holocaust is too often turned into vague lessons of the danger of hatred or prejudice at the expense of really trying to understand the reasons and motivations for the genocide.”
Educators and organisations must distinguish between commemoration and education. Effective teaching about the Holocaust must provide young people with substantive knowledge and understanding, challenge popular misconceptions and confront difficult and profound questions. This requires developing students’ criticality, independent thinking, reflexivity and emotional literacy.
Teachers' tips: ideas and advice for teaching about the Holocaust
But to achieve that, teachers need to be given clearer recommendations on the minimum amount of time required to teach about the Holocaust and explicit educational aims of the work. Better guidance on the most appropriate approach in different curriculum areas would allow a deeper and more meaningful exploration of this complex history.
Greater priority should be given to releasing teachers who wish to attend quality assured professional development programmes. That would increase the quality of their teaching and address areas identified by this research as vulnerable, such as progression in students’ learning at different stages of schooling and appropriate assessment framework. Continuing professional development that is university-led, research-informed and empirically tested has the potential to provide the best impact on improving teaching and learning about the Holocaust, and it is important that the government continues to invest in such programmes.
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Lord Baker now runs a series of university technical colleges which teach courses on the lives of great British engineers, scientists and inventors, a model he would like to see applied more widely.
"Why I’ve got a thing against the Holocaust and all of that is I think you study your own history first,” he said.
“I’m sure that German children are not studying the British Civil War, right?
“I think children should leave a British school with some idea of the timeline in their minds – how it came from Roman Britain to Elizabeth II.”
He stressed that he would not entirely exclude European history, saying that in order to study the Tudors and Stuarts, students would have to learn about Luther.
“I would focus much more on British history basically. But that takes you over the seas – we’ve been a great international country. It takes you into the empire. We’ve been a seafaring nation – you get to know other countries.”
Holocaust charities dismissed his suggestion.
James Smith, Chairman of the Holocaust Centre, said: “The study of the Holocaust leaves children ill-disposed to present day Germany only if it is badly taught. The period of the Nazis was not just a blip in German history; the Holocaust was a Europe-wide crime.
“The Holocaust is why the nations of the world, not only Germany, ratified the United Nations Convention to Prevent and Punish the Crime of Genocide and why the United Nations looked forward to the day the International Criminal Court would be established.
“Forgetting how much of our legislation that protects fair and equal societies is rooted in the knowledge of how far humans can sink would be a backward step for civil society and democratic values.”
His remarks come as ministers prepare to overhaul the curriculum.
The Coalition has tasked an expert panel with reviewing the structure of existing lessons in England and is expected to issue a report next year.
It could recommend making history compulsory up to the age of 16 – instead of the current cut-off of 14.
Lord Baker said that his biggest regret as education secretary was not extending the school day by at least one period.
He said it was “outrageous” that most schools finish for the afternoon at 2.30 or 3pm, causing “huge, huge problems with childcare”.
He would prefer schools to teach until at least 4 or 5pm, extending their lunch hour to include an hour of sport, drama, debating or even puppetry.
By extending the teaching day until 5pm and adding two extra weeks a year in his university technical colleges, the institutions have gained the equivalent of an extra teaching year for every pupil over five years.
But he was forced to retreat on his ambitions as education secretary because of opposition from teaching unions, he said.
“There was a two-year teachers’ strike and by settling it, we made an agreement with the teachers that they can only spend – I think the figure is still the same – 1,215 hours a year.
“If I was going to ask them to do another 40 minutes, I’d have had to reopen the negotiations – I just couldn’t take it on.”
He added that union resistance would still block the idea today.