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What do students know and understand about the Holocaust? Evidence from English Secondary Schools

The world's largest ever study of its kind, this research builds the most detailed national portrait ever created of students' knowledge and understanding of an important historic event.

19 April 2018

By Diane Hofkins

This internationally significant research drew on the contributions of more than 8,000 11-18 year olds and included a comprehensive survey and a series of in-depth interviews with more than 200 young people.

Findings show that while students demonstrated a high level of interest and willingness to learn about the Holocaust, there were many significant gaps, inaccuracies and misconceptions within student knowledge and understanding of this complex history.

Students learning about the Holocaust

Multiple opportunities for students to encounter the Holocaust exist across all year groups and across a variety of subjects. By Year 10, 85% of students reported that they had learned about the Holocaust within their school and 70% of those wanted to know more. The study found no evidence of so-called 'Holocaust fatigue'.

Key findings

  • Although the majority of students knew Jews were the primary victims of the Holocaust, most had little understanding of why they were persecuted or murdered. Moreover, a notable proportion of students did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, with over a third of students dramatically underestimating the number who died.
  • More than half (56%) of younger students (Years 7 to 9) appeared to believe the Holocaust was solely attributable to Adolf Hitler. Students were often unclear about who the Nazis were and what their role was in the Holocaust. Very few students knew about the role played by collaborating regimes and local populations across Europe and only a small number considered whether or not the wider German public was complicit in the persecution of Jews.
  • Many students did not have a confident chronological or geographical understanding of the Holocaust. For example, 55% thought that mass murder took place in Germany (rather than in German-occupied Poland) and 40% of students incorrectly believed that mass killing began immediately after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in January 1933.
  • Students typically had a very limited and often erroneous understanding of Britain’s role during the Holocaust and 34% incorrectly believed that the Holocaust triggered Britain's entry into war. A further 18% of students appeared to believe the British drew up rescue plans to save the Jews, while 24% erroneously thought the British did not know about mass killing until the end of the war.

The Holocaust has been on the national curriculum for a quarter of a century – so why are young people still at a loss to explain how and why it happened?

The authors of this study do not interpret or present these findings primarily as a criticism of students or teachers. On the contrary, it is argued that such limitations in knowledge and understanding are in part a consequence of the problematic manner in which the Holocaust is often popularly and politically framed. Common myths and oversimplifications often go unchallenged in the classroom and typically too much time is spent on the 'lessons' of the Holocaust without students fully appreciating its complex past.

The Centre's latest student research, together with its 2009 report 'Teaching about the Holocaust in English Secondary Schools', demonstrates that teachers are at the core of successful learning about the Holocaust in our schools today. They need quality-assured professional development to help students to acquire a deeper and more meaningful understanding of this subject area.

The UCL Centre for Holocaust Education has so far helped more than 7,000 teachers to significantly improve their teaching about the Holocaust. Their pioneering national research into actual classroom needs informs the Centre's innovative and ground-breaking teacher development programmes and underpins the educational resources that it makes available to teachers across the country.

UCL Centre for Holocaust Education

The UCL Centre for Holocaust Education works in partnership with Pears Foundation, who together with the DfE, have co-funded its work since first established in 2008.  

The Centre is the only institution of its kind to combine research into classroom needs with programmes specifically designed to enable teachers to meet those needs and challenges

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In addition to its research activity, the Centre offers a wide-ranging educational programme that includes a national programme of Initial Teacher Education, a variety of in-depth and subject-specific CPD and the opportunity to engage in further study through the online accredited Masters module 'The Holocaust in the Curriculum'. The Centre also offers schools the chance to work extensively with its staff as part of the annual Beacon Schools programme that promotes exemplary whole-school approaches and effective pedagogy.
UCL Centre for Holocaust Education... is not only a research institution – it is also the UK's leading centre for development of Holocaust pedagogy; it is part of a university that has been ranked first in the world for education... 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

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