‘Standing together’ with teachers: Reflections on research in progress for Holocaust Memorial Day

A little over eleven years ago, I began working as a researcher in what was then called the Holocaust Education Development Programme (or HEDP) at London’s Institute of Education, now part of UCL. I had just completed my PhD, an ethnographic study of a very multicultural, comprehensive secondary school. The government had recently emphasised the important role they felt schools should play in promoting British citizenship and my study had explored what that looked like in practice – how it impacted on individual students, their teachers and their wider communities.

I was by no means a specialist on the history of the Holocaust, nor on the history of anything else for that matter, having opted as a thirteen year old to study geography instead at school. And I had never trained as a teacher: indeed, in those days, when visiting schools, I was much more regularly mistaken for a returning sixth former than as a member of staff. It was therefore with some trepidation that I joined the IOE’s newly established team of history and religious studies educators funded by the Department for Education and Pears Foundation to support the delivery of the highest quality Holocaust education across England’s secondary schools.

What I brought with me instead was a keen interest in how schools might help (and hinder) young people to navigate and make sense of identities built around important ideas like ‘ethnicity’, ‘nation’ and ‘race’. I also brought my experience as a researcher having spent much of the previous five years, listening to, learning from and attempting to understand the various and sometimes competing perspectives of individual students and teachers in schools. The latter was especially important because a unique and central tenet of the HEDP from its inception was that all its work supporting teachers should be built from a rich and comprehensive understanding of what was already happening in schools.

And so, in our first year we completed a landmark national study which detailed for the first time the scope, scale and content of existing practice of teaching about the Holocaust in English secondary schools. Through more than 2,000 survey responses and 24 in-depth, small group interviews we learned directly from teachers about when, where and why they taught about the Holocaust and the challenges and opportunities they encountered when doing so. From that basis, the HEDP – now known as the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education – built its internationally acclaimed programmes of continuing professional development and initial teacher education, impacting the practice of some 12,477 teachers by the close of 2019.

But that was ten years ago. In order to remain responsive to the realities of actual classroom practice we considered it vital to return to the field and throughout 2019 we conducted a second, comparative survey and series of interviews. We are currently analysing and interpreting data from this more recent cohort of more than 1,000 survey responses and 50 additional small group interviews. We look forward to sharing our findings in various formats throughout the coming year. However, the occasion of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day and its theme, ‘Standing Together’ provides the opportunity to offer just a few tentative reflections on some of things our ongoing analysis seems likely to reveal.

One strikingly consistent feature among survey responses in both 2009 and 2019 is teachers’ ongoing commitment to Holocaust education. In both cases, the vast majority of survey respondents suggested they believed it will always be important to teach about the Holocaust and, in the most recent survey, almost 90% of respondents indicated that they considered the Holocaust to be one of the most important subjects that they teach.

On the 75th anniversary of its liberation, it is also relevant to note that, among those who completed last year’s survey, almost 80% told us they commonly included content related to Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, given concerns raised by a number of eminent historians – that in recent years popular conceptions of Auschwitz have come to loom so large in many people’s understanding of the Holocaust that they risk overshadowing other important dimensions of its history – it is perhaps also significant that, among certain groups of teachers at least, the dominance of Auschwitz over other potential content (such as the actions of the Einsatzgruppen, accounts of Jewish resistance, and/or the long history of antisemitism, for example) appears to be becoming a little less pronounced than it was a decade ago.  Ahead of the 25th anniversary of Srebrenica later this year, it is also instructive to observe that two thirds of teachers who completed the most recent survey believed genocides other than the Holocaust also deserve dedicated curriculum time.

Finally, given the specific remit and purpose of Holocaust Memorial Day, it is also fitting to consider that, among recent survey respondents, over 90% reported that they encourage their students to reflect on the meaning of the Holocaust for contemporary society. This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme invites teachers to engage their students in consideration of what it means to ‘Stand Together’: against ‘othering’ discourses and ‘us versus them’ language; against divisive propaganda that stereotypes minority groups and mobilises prejudice; and against hostile cultures that risk normalising hate crime.

This theme appears particularly resonant within accounts shared by teachers in our most recent research. Among those completing the 2019 survey, a number of teachers made their own, unprompted observations as to ‘parallels’ they saw with ‘the current political climate’ – characterised in their own words by ‘Brexit’, ‘Trump, ‘the rise of the far right’, ‘increasing xenophobia’, ‘media propaganda’ and ‘fake news’ – and the particular challenges this has recently brought into their schools.

The extent to and manner in which it is either possible or appropriate to draw contemporary ‘lessons’ from the history of the Holocaust is an area of considerable and ongoing contention and debate. It was also a central point of discussion and analysis in our 2009 research. Colleagues across the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education share the perspective that, without critical reflection, exclusively ‘present-oriented’ and, in practice, often rather imprecise, teaching aims – ‘to learn the lessons of the past’, for example, or ‘to warn of the dangers of prejudice’ – are not always entirely pedagogically sound and can themselves serve to reinforce mistaken and misleading misconceptions about this complex history. It was of some concern then, although perhaps not surprise, that precisely such generalised and instrumental aims dominated teacher accounts in 2009.

With a great deal of analysis still ahead of us, it is important not to prematurely determine or pre-empt related findings from our more recent research. Even just the free-text responses described above, however, suggest that in emphasizing the contemporary salience of the Holocaust and in drawing their own ‘parallels’ with ‘the current political context’, teachers might be doing – and asking for – something somewhat different here. For just as the Holocaust Memorial Trust have done, they appear to be identifying rather more specific contemporary concerns.

And the wider social and political contexts which frame teachers’ and students’ experiences in classrooms have themselves undoubtedly changed over the last ten years. Whatever your own view on the matter, it is hard not to acknowledge that the Brexit referendum and its protracted consequences have contributed to a heightened sense of fracture, division and uncertainly within British politics while populist and far right ideologies as well as various expressions of hate crime are also on the rise, not only in Britain but across Europe and further afield. Returning to one of the Centre’s core principles and objectives – to support teachers through better understanding the realities of actual classroom contexts – it is arguably not only ‘appropriate’ but imperative that the 2019 research is taken as an opportunity to consider how we might best continue to support and ‘stand together’ with teachers as they grapple with the profound and complex pedagogical implications of precisely challenges such as these.

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Dr Alice Pettigrew