What do young people know and understand about the Holocaust? (2016)

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National research with international significance

Our latest report, What do students know and understand about the Holocaust? Evidence from English secondary schools, draws on contributions from more than 8,000 11-18 year olds, making it the world’s largest ever study of its kind.

The research included a comprehensive survey and a series of in-depth interviews with more than 200 young people to build the most detailed and authoritative national portrait ever created of students’ knowledge and understanding of an important historical event.

Many of our findings are surprising, some deeply troubling, all will help to shape the future of Holocaust education for years to come. 

Our evidence shows many young people encounter learning about the Holocaust in school and we know that they are interested and willing to learn more.  However, significantly, their knowledge and understanding of the subject is often limited and based on inaccuracies and misconceptions.

For example, when the depth of student knowledge and understanding was explored further it emerged that overwhelmingly students saw ‘perpetrators’ of the Holocaust in the person of Hitler or a vague conception of the ‘Nazis’, with very little awareness of the complicity of a wide number of individuals, agencies and institutions in the Holocaust.

UCL Centre for Holocaust Education…is not only a research institution – it is also the UK’s leading centre for the development of Holocaust pedagogy; it is part of a university that has been ranked first in the world for education two years running….and it is devoting its expertise not only to research that reveals classroom issues but in the development of resources and pedagogy that respond to these challenges.

Professor Yehuda Bauer
Academic Advisor to Yad Vashem

WhoWasResponsible_yellowFrequency of terms used to describe perpetrators

Key findings

Opportunity and engagement

We found that students had multiple opportunities to encounter the Holocaust across all year groups and across a variety of different subjects.  By Year 10, 85% of students reported that they had learned about the Holocaust within school.  They also showed interest and willingness to learn.

  • 83% believed the Holocaust was important to study at school
  • 82% found the subject interesting
  • 70% of those who had learned about the Holocaust wanted to know more

Significant gaps

Despite this widespread exposure, the evidence showed that student knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust was often limited and based on inaccuracies and misconceptions.  For example, just 37% of young people surveyed knew what the term ‘antisemitism’ means.  So while young people knew that the Jews were primary victims of the Holocaust, most could not explain in any depth why they were murdered.

Collective conceptions

1-radar-chartFascinatingly students across all age groups framed ‘the Holocaust’ in remarkably similar ways.  Their descriptions focused almost exclusively on what perpetrators did to their victims (see diagram).  Overwhelmingly, the recurring refrain was ‘Hitler and the Nazis killed the Jews in the camps’.  Other aspects, such as the scale of the Holocaust, when and where it happened, or – crucially – why and how it could have happened, were rarely touched upon.

These are troubling findings, particularly considering that the Holocaust has been a staple of the curriculum for almost 25 years.

The influence of wider society in the classroom

Britain and the Holocaust imageWe do not see these findings as a failing of teachers or students, however, but as a result of the ‘common knowledge’ of the Holocaust which circulates widely within British society today, and the wide acceptance of myths and misconceptions about this complex past.

Popular culture is full of representations of Hitler and the Nazis, a shorthand for ‘evil’ now so common that people widely believe they know about the Holocaust without actually having studied it.

Students’ ideas appear to draw heavily from that popular culture. This is borne out by the certainty with which many students held incorrect ideas about the Holocaust.  Wrong answers in the survey were not just guessed at: often students said they were confident that they were correct.

Oversimplifications, myths and misconceptions have not been effectively addressed in the classroom.  Perhaps this is because they do not get in the way of a core message of ‘lessons from the Holocaust’ which has prevailed in the last 25 years.  You do not need to know very much about the Holocaust to agree passionately that it demonstrates the ‘dangers of hatred, prejudice and racism’.  Our research bears this out: young people agree strongly with the message, and they think the Holocaust is something we should never forget. The problem is, in common with much of British society, it appears that most do not know or understand very much about it.

More on key gaps in student knowledge and how we are addressing them

Click here to find out more about the dynamic relationship between the Centre’s research and our portfolio of lessons, which is under constant review and development as we continue to respond to the key findings emerging from the research.

World-leading research comes alive in the classroom

“I am far more confident with the use of student led tasks and stepping away from the didactic preacher form of teaching.

RE and PSHE teacher after attending UCL’s teacher development programme

Centre for Holocaust Education teacher resources

We believe secondary school education, with its potential for a deeper exploration of a subject, is uniquely placed to address misconceptions and misunderstandings about the Holocaust circulating in our wider culture.  Our study serves as a call to action.  We need to reclaim the classroom as a space for deeper, more challenging, and more meaningful teaching and learning about the Holocaust.

Better understanding of teachers’ and students’ needs enables us to create the most powerful and effective support for schools available – which means more inspiring learning for young people across the country.

The Centre’s teacher development programme and education materials are uniquely responsive to real life classroom contexts.  We believe education practice should be informed by academic scholarship, empirical research and practical classroom experience.  Our team is made up of globally renowned academics and educators, almost all of whom have worked previously as school teachers themselves, so we can ensure that every aspect of our programmes are designed with a deeper understanding of the realities of working in the classroom today.

Click the link below to download a PDF of the report

What do students know and understand about the Holocaust?

Ordering a hard copy of the report

Please submit your details via the form below and we will happily post you a hard copy of the report.

Research report order form

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If you would like to order more than one hard copy of the report please contact us via email at holocaust@ioe.ac.uk

This page includes photography by Olivia Hemingway

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Scroll down to the bottom of the page to download a PDF of the full research report or submit your details to receive a hard copy in the mail.