Holocaust education: Teaching the ‘unthinkable’
Submitting InstitutionUniversity College London
Unit of AssessmentEducation
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Education: Curriculum and Pedagogy, Specialist Studies In Education
Summary of the impact
The IOE's Centre for Holocaust Education has transformed the way that this disturbing historical
event is taught in many English schools. The Centre's highly regarded research-informed
professional development programme has benefited thousands of teachers and ensured that an
estimated 1m pupils experienced a deeper emotional and intellectual engagement with this difficult
subject. The Centre has established a group of `Beacon Schools in Holocaust education' which
have developed programmes of study that are now being shared with their own school networks
throughout England. It has achieved international `reach' by producing educational materials for the
UN and providing advice, training and consultancy for organisations such as Yad Vashem,
Jerusalem's international Holocaust memorial museum.
Context: The Holocaust has been a compulsory topic in England's schools at Key Stage 3 since
1991, but there is no government guidance on how this complex and potentially contentious
subject could, or should, be approached. Nor was there, prior to the IOE's study, any national
research into the challenges faced by teachers or what support they needed. A 2007 symposium
on Holocaust education raised concerns that teachers were struggling. This led to £1.5m in R&D
funding (grant G1) from the Pears Foundation and the DCSF to establish the Holocaust Education
Development Programme (HEDP, now known as the Centre for Holocaust Education). The 2008-9
study described below — Teaching about the Holocaust in English Secondary Schools — was
designed to inform the work of this IOE programme.
Research methods: Teachers' understanding of the Holocaust was investigated by means of an
online survey completed by 2,108 teachers and follow-up interviews with 68 teachers in 24 schools
Key findings: The Teaching about the Holocaust study (R1, R2, R3) revealed that:
- very few teachers received specialist professional development: 82.5% considered themselves
self-taught and 77.5% wanted CPD.
- there were serious gaps in teacher knowledge. Teachers gave scant attention to pre-war
Jewish life, or victims' perspectives. This reflects the content of commonly used textbooks that
focus on perpetrator-orientated narratives (R3).
- the topic was taught in all secondary years and several subjects, but received most attention in
Year 9 history where teachers on average spent six hours on the subject; however, many
taught the Holocaust in just one or two lessons.
- 85% of teachers believed the Holocaust should be a compulsory part of the secondary history
curriculum, but many found it difficult to articulate its distinct historical significance.
Research team: Professor Stuart Foster (executive director); Dr Alice Pettigrew (research officer);
Jonathan Howson (head of research); Paul Salmons (programme director); Ruth-Anne Lenga
(specialist adviser); Kay Andrews (outreach co-ordinator).
Other underpinning research: The Centre's approach to teacher development and materials was
also partly underpinned by two earlier IOE studies. The first was the 1991-96 Concepts of History
and Teaching Approaches project (CHATA), which involved pupils in Years 3, 6, 7 and 9. It
mapped children's working assumptions in three key areas of understanding: historical evidence,
historical explanation and historical accounts (R4). The data enabled the researchers to establish
progression models for these areas of learning and identify key shifts from less to more powerful
ideas about history. Peter Lee and Alaric Dickinson were PIs of the CHATA project and Rosalyn
Ashby was the research officer. The other (2006-8) precursor of the Teaching about the Holocaust
project was Usable Historical Pasts: A study of students' frameworks of the past, by Stuart Foster,
Rosalyn Ashby (research and evaluation co-ordinator), Peter Lee and Jonathan Howson (research
officer). This small-scale qualitative longitudinal study focused on a purposive sample of 36 pupils
from three English schools. The sample included a) pupils who had dropped History at the end of
Year 9 and b) pupils who opted to take the subject at KS4. It concluded that many pupils see the
past as a catalogue of arbitrary and disconnected events, while a smaller group think more deeply
about processes, themes and trends. The study did not support the common complaint that pupils
"don't know any history". The main issue it identified was that teenagers often cannot apply their
References to the research
R1: Pettigrew, A., Foster, S., Howson, J. & Salmons, P. (2009) Teaching about the Holocaust in
English Secondary Schools: an empirical study of national trends, perspectives and practice,
R2: Foster, S. (2013) Teaching about the Holocaust in English schools: challenges and
possibilities, Intercultural Education, 24(1-02), 133-148.
R3: Foster, S. & Burgess, A. (2013) Problematic portrayals and contentious content:
Representation of the Holocaust in English history textbooks, Journal of Education Memory
and Media. 5(2), 20-38.
R4: Lee, P., Ashby, R. & Dickinson, A. (2000) Progression in historical understanding among
students ages 7-14, in Stearns, P., Seixas, P. & Wineburg, S. (eds). Knowing, Teaching and
Learning History: National and International Perspectives, New York: NYU Press, 199-222.
R5: Pearce, A. (2008) The development of Holocaust consciousness in contemporary Britain,
1979-2001, Holocaust Studies: A journal of culture and history, 14(2), 71-94.
G1: HEDP/Centre for Holocaust Education, a total of £6m for R&D 2008-15, from the Pears
Foundation, DCSF/DfE, HEFCE and the Claims Conference (for the Beacon Schools programme)
(Grant holder: Foster).
G2: Concepts of History & Teaching Approaches at KS2 & KS3 (1991-6), ESRC, £81,482. (Grant
IQ1: The 2009 report (R1) and resulting CPD programme were praised by international Holocaust
scholar Professor Yehuda Bauer (Impact source S1). He said the programme was the first in
the world to explicitly link national research in Holocaust education to leading scholarship and
IQ2: In 2011, Pears Foundation and DfE decided to extend the original £1.5m funding from 2011
until 2015 - at £4.5m. Additionally, in March 2013 DfE granted an extra £500,000 to March 2015 -
matching the contribution from Pears and doubling their original funding for the next two years.
IQ3: Academics in Spain, Portugal and Greece are using the Centre's questionnaire to investigate
teachers' understanding of the Holocaust in their countries.
Details of the impact
Beneficiaries and dates of impact: More than 3,200 teachers and more than a million pupils are
estimated to have benefited from the teacher education programmes that the Centre has provided
since 2008. Crucially, the educational programmes were designed in response to the challenges
identified in its 2009 landmark research (R1). Teachers and children around the world have also
benefited from the IOE research and the educational materials and approaches it has generated. It
is, however, society as a whole that is the ultimate beneficiary because this education is essential
in helping pupils to examine how the flaws in modern societies can allow them to descend into
genocide; gain a greater understanding of the causes of mass violence and to help strengthen
efforts toward genocide prevention through recognising warning signs, engendering feelings of
responsibility towards vulnerable groups, and understanding what forms of action and intervention
Reach and significance: As Yehuda Bauer (impact source S1) has recognised, the Centre's
distinctive contribution has been to use — for the first time — large-scale national research into the
challenges of teaching about the Holocaust to ensure that approaches, activities and materials are
specifically designed to meet classroom needs. The Centre's ground-breaking CPD and Initial
Teacher Education programmes are taught across England and the wealth of information derived
from the 2008-9 study (see section 2) is now shared with all involved in Holocaust education
nationally and internationally. As the following evidence demonstrates, the impact that the Centre
has had is `instrumental'1 (it has changed teaching practice), `conceptual' (it has changed the way
that teachers and children think about the Holocaust) and `capacity building' (it is developing the
expertise of Beacon Schools which are now building and supporting their own school networks).
International impact: Since 2008 the Centre has:
- developed educational materials for the UN. The Footprints for Hope materials (S2) had more
than 50,000 downloads in 2012, and more than 3,000 hard copies were distributed to
government and NGO representatives from some 30 member states in the International Task
Force (now the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance), and to UN officers around the
world for use in their Holocaust education work. The materials have been translated (online)
into French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese. They have also been translated into
Romanian and distributed among the country's public schools.
- worked directly with teachers across four continents in countries including Canada, USA,
Ireland, Croatia, Hungary, South Africa and Israel.
- provided advice and consultancy services to organisations such as: the EU's Fundamental
Rights Agency; the Salzburg Global Seminar (on its genocide prevention educational initiative);
Final Account, a major new oral history archive; Stephen Spielberg's Shoah Foundation; Yad
Vashem and, regularly, the Imperial War Museum. The Centre also plays a leading role in the
International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance as part of the UK delegation, led by the Foreign
and Commonwealth Office.
Sir Andrew Burns, former UK Ambassador to Israel and now Britain's Envoy for Post-Holocaust
Issues, says the IOE is "at the leading edge" of Holocaust education internationally. "The IOE's
approach marks a shift away from simple `lessons of the Holocaust' to genuine engagement with
the complexity of the past, and deep learning about one of the most traumatic events in human
history," he says. "What is remarkable is the extent to which such complexity can be made
accessible to pupils." (S3)
Impact on teachers and pupils: The professional development and resources provided by the
Centre enable history teachers not only to fulfil their curricular obligation to teach about the
Holocaust but to do so more confidently and effectively, with deeper knowledge about this complex
past, and the supply of age-appropriate resources and activities supports young people as they
engage with this difficult and emotionally challenging subject. Nick Gibb (then Schools Minister)
referred to the Centre's work in the House of Commons in January 2012 and added: "The level of
teaching expertise in England's schools on the Holocaust is now higher than ever before — a
- The IOE runs a free two-day programme for teachers across England, with on-going support
through a virtual learning environment. Some 905 teachers took the CPD course between 2009
and July 2013. Participants access free educational resources from the Centre's dedicated
website, including: student-centred investigations into questions of Jewish resistance; detailed
examination of the layers of complicity in genocide; and a range of activities exploring the
impact, legacy and significance of the Holocaust. More than 90% of teachers who took the
CPD courses said they have used or will use these resources.
- Further free online resources, available on the open access parts of the Centre's website, were
used by more than 2,500 site visitors by July 2013.
- The Centre has designed and run one-day Initial Teacher Education sessions at 24 universities
from York to Exeter. Some 731 student teachers benefited between April 2012 and July 2013.
- The researchers reached thousands of other teachers by guest-editing the History
Association's Teaching History journal (December 2010) and addressing the Schools History
Project's annual conference.
- In 2013, the Centre began exploring ways of working systematically with all teaching schools,
at the request of the DfE.
Teachers attest to substantial change in their lessons. For example, Leanne Judson (S5), writing
for the Guardian Teacher Network in 2012, told how the Centre's CPD course spurred her to
change her school's whole scheme of work. "Devoting a session [in the CPD] to pre-war Jewish
life, to contextualise the impact of the Holocaust, was a `lightbulb' moment," wrote Ms Judson, a
'teacher of excellence' in the Humanities and an ex-head of history. Her pupils said that the
resulting classroom work was "the most memorable study they had done and the one that had the
biggest impact on them emotionally and intellectually". Teachers who attended a training
programme for Beacon Schools in July 2013 reported that it had clarified their thinking and
understanding, for example:
- "I want to really focus on the human stories behind the Holocaust. Some teachers, in my school
included, sometimes focus on a sterile portrayal of statistics and industrialism without
remembering the human cost. Without the stories I feel the teaching will be counterproductive".
- "Having recently taught year 9 a short series of lessons at the end of the summer term I
realised how random and ad hoc our approach was. This seminar has reinforced the need to
create a framework of specific lessons with specific aims".
High quality resources: The pedagogical approaches that were largely based on Teaching about
the Holocaust (R1) were featured in two 2010 Teachers TV documentaries. These showed
teachers using IOE lesson ideas and materials, such as survivor testimony and a dynamic timeline.
The IOE also worked with Teachers TV to produce a set of BAFTA-nominated lesson materials
Beacon schools: By July 2013, there were 32 IOE Beacon Schools in Holocaust Education,
working with a network of at least five schools each. Royal Wootton Bassett Academy, Wiltshire,
had established a network of more than 30 schools from around the country, and also worked with
PGCE students from the University of Southampton. Two inspectors who visited Royal Wootton
Bassett (S6) judged the Holocaust lessons they saw as outstanding. They commented:
- "The engagement of students, their understanding, empathy is quite unique - a truly holistic
and powerful learning experience. It is hard to judge this against various criteria as we have
never seen anything quite like this. Extraordinary."
- "It is an experience of what education should be."
The Foreign Office (S7) has also stated that the UK became - in 2010 - the first country to
thoroughly review and re-submit its Holocaust Education report to the International Task Force for
International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research "on the basis of
the IOE's groundbreaking national research". The UK thus has the clearest empirical picture of the
state of teaching and learning about the Holocaust, providing an essential platform for meeting its
Sources to corroborate the impact
S1: Yehuda Bauer (2010), Professor of Holocaust Studies, Avraham Harman Institute of
Contemporary Jewry, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
S2: The Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme, The Footprints for Hope Project
S3: Sir Andrew Burns, the UK's post-Holocaust Envoy (comments available in Working with
Teachers to transform Holocaust Education [hard copy])
S4: Teachers TV materials http://www.tes.co.uk/teaching-resource/Teachers-TV-video-collection-Secondary-History-The-Holocaust-6112548/
S5: Judson, L. (2012), `Transforming Holocaust Education' http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2012/jan/18/holocaust-education-teaching-resources
S6: Head teacher, Royal Wootton Bassett Academy (testimonial available)
S7: FCO (2012) Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance
and Research Country Report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Using Evidence: How Research can Inform Public Services (Nutley, S., Walter, I., Davis, H. 2007)
All web links accessed 15/10/13