Our rationale

Why it is important to teach and learn about the Holocaust

Some 80 years ago the most catastrophic mass atrocity in modern history took place. Centuries of Jewish life and culture in Europe was almost completely wiped out in just 4 years. Fuelled with antisemitic ideology the Nazis set out to hunt down, humiliate, persecute, and ultimately murder every Jewish man, woman and child on the continent.

It was a heinous crime for which relatively few were ever held to account.

The fact that Nazi perpetrators were willingly assisted by ordinary local people is a sobering but critical factor to confront and comprehend. Some colluded through profiteering from Jewish property left behind after the Jewish owners were forcibly deported; others betrayed their Jewish friends and neighbours by handing them over to the authorities; still more were passive functionaries in the supply chain required to carry out mass murder on this scale. And then of course there were those “normal people” who actively and zealously participated in the acts of genocide themselves.

What would a young person’s education amount to if does not confront this appalling truth?

Learning about the Holocaust in this way – coming to understand it as a human act – can be profoundly disturbing but with careful handling and expert teaching, students at Key stage 3 can comprehend its hardest realities. From that informed place they can draw meaning and understanding that can ultimately guide their futures.

The UCL Centre for Holocaust Education has developed a new, research-informed modular programme of professional development, ‘What was the Holocaust, how do I teach it and why does it matter?’ that enables teachers to support students as they deal with powerful and sometimes disorientating feelings that can bubble up when faced with the reality of the Holocaust. It helps them to help their students to express themselves and to develop their emotional literacy.

The course also explore how and why the Holocaust happened through detailed historical study using documents, photographs, diary entries, personal testimony and uses advance teaching strategies to explain complexity and draw out profound learning.  Central to this is an exploration of the rare but nonetheless inspirational actions of individuals who risked everything to help those who faced almost certain death.

Through studying the Holocaust students can better identify the warning signs of future atrocities and understand what sort of interventions might be available to prevent them. Indeed, in its broadest terms it can help them examine the world with greater insight.

This, together with compelling evidence of a dangerous rise in antisemitic incidents and other forms racism today, only lead us to conclude that teaching about the Holocaust must gain even greater urgency as an educational imperative.

Ruth-Anne Lenga, Associate Professor (Teaching) and Centre’s Programme Director.


A model of independent learning

At the heart of our pedagogy is the nurturing of independent thinking and learning. Our rationale for teaching about the Holocaust underpins our classroom materials, which are designed around three core principles.

Take account of pupils’ prior thinking

Uncover preconceptions

Our research tells us that most students come to learning about the Holocaust with a level of knowledge and understanding. We also know that many students have preconceptions which are often problematic. We believe it is essential to surface these ideas from the outset, in a way which feels safe and risk-free for students.
‏‏‎ ‎

Testing ideas

Focus on the evidence

How far do our ideas about the past marry with what actually happened? Once students have given voice to their initial thoughts, they need opportunities to see whether they match up with reality. By exploring an array of source material with skilful support from the teacher, students discover for themselves what the evidence from history reveals.
‏‏‎ ‎

Embrace complexity

Expectations versus reality

As students test their ideas, they often discover that the past is far more complex, more nuanced, and more troubling than they had believed. But because they have become invested in their own learning, they are better positioned to respond to this reality in genuine, authentic ways. As such, students have ownership over what meanings they wish to make and - with support - what connections and relevance they wish to draw.