At the Centre for Holocaust Education we view the idea of ‘authentic learning’ as central to our pedagogical approach. For a learning experience to be authentic, several connected elements are necessary:
Authenticity requires some tangible connection with the past. Artefacts, documents, original photographs and film, case studies, personal histories and sites where the historical events took place can all provide opportunities for an authentic encounter with the past. These remnants open up a possibility for us to investigate what happened in the past and to reconstruct the lives, ideas, and actions of those who lived before us.
Authenticity requires a space for learners to make their own meaning. We must avoid an over-mediated presentation of the past. Students’ conclusions must be freely arrived at as the result of open discourse, personal reflection, critical thinking and enquiry. The past should not be instrumentalised; meaning should not be predetermined; lessons should not be devised to lead students inevitably to the teacher’s way of thinking. The conclusions that young people draw and the questions they ask may be quite different from those in the mind of their teacher, but they will at least be authentic rather than borrowed meanings, if our students have been allowed to arrive at those questions and conclusions freely for themselves.
Respecting the evidence
Authenticity presupposes a desire for truth and a respect for evidence. Insisting on students’ right to draw their own conclusions does not imply that all meanings are possible, nor that all are equally valid. Conclusions must be grounded in accurate contextual narratives, and constrained by what the historical evidence will reasonably support, if they are to be valid. Clearly, this allows no place for the work of Holocaust deniers, who manipulate the historical record wilfully to distort the past.
Finally, it is important for students to be given space to reflect upon what they have learned and on the process of learning if they are to be able to transfer this approach to thinking about other issues in the future.