Last term I was fortunate enough to assist and attend a conference organised by our own David Tollerton. Spread across two days, the ‘Engaging with the Holocaust in Secondary RE’ workshops inspired a great deal of healthy discussion and a fascinating insight into the current specifications used by major exam boards.
The first day’s workshop included presentations from Sarah Hall (University of Birmingham), Alasdair Richardson (University of Winchester), Alana Vincent (University of Chester) and David Tollerton. Sarah gave us an insight to a new exam board Judaism specification and how Holocaust studies has been incorporated into it. What was particularly interesting in this discussion was questioning how the major exam boards are expecting teachers to gather the necessary material and deliver this in a relatively short space of time. With the Holocaust being such a complex part of modern history to discuss, finding the balance of where to place Holocaust education in schools proves to be difficult. One aspect of this which was discussed at length was the argument of whether the Holocaust should be taught in history lessons as a study of past events or placed in RE as constructive activism. Nevertheless, it is a balance that must be reached, as Alana raised the point that a lot of undergraduates are undertaking their Theology course with a very narrow and limited understanding of both the Holocaust and wider Jewish experience.
The morning training event the next day welcomed current and aspiring Religious Studies PGCE students along with a selection of current RE teachers from the South West area.
Jenny Carson, Education Officer at the Holocaust Education Trust (HET) began the morning’s presentations by discussing the work of the HET and how teachers can access the resources available. Jenny emphasised the importance of thinking about pre-war Jewish life and how that resulted in quite varied experiences of Nazi persecution. With this in mind, it is crucial that teachers represent the Holocaust in the classroom in a way that ensures students are not coming out of the classroom thinking that the Holocaust is centred around Auschwitz.
We then heard from Sarah, who was interested in discussing how visual art can be used as a refreshing stimulus in Holocaust education and how this relates to current educational policy and practice. Students will of course have different ways of learning, and engaging with visual art which is accessible to all, regardless of academic ability, can be helpful in encouraging creativity of thought and emotional learning. Sarah used the praxis of SMSC which focuses on incorporating spiritual, moral, social and cultural modes of learning. All schools in England must show how well their pupils develop in SMSC and visual art can provide a useful way of addressing religious plurality when teaching the Holocaust.
Lastly, Alasdair addressed the extent to which teachers ought to ‘sanitise’ the events of the Holocaust in the RE classroom. With this he suggested that we need to put more of a focus on how students are learning rather than the outcome, and allow them the space to think in a critical and analytical way. In whichever subject the Holocaust is being taught there needs to be a certain level of impact and recognition of testimony’s importance, but without needlessly sharing gratuitous images and stories. Alasdair raised the point that when we commodify knowledge we leave no room for human connection. In the classroom, emotional engagement with a topic such as this is inevitable, with some students having a more vivid emotional response than others. An important message that the aspiring and current teachers received from Alasdair’s discussion was that to be a reflective practitioner is to understand that the pedagogy of a student’s learning goes beyond a surface level of what they know, but looks at how they affectively learn. Further to this comes a consideration of the prior experiences of students and asking what potential prejudices and connections each student is bringing to the topic.
What stood out for me from attending this conference was that teachers are powerful people who have the ability to really shape a student’s outlook. It is one thing to have all the right resources, which of course is of huge importance with this topic and something which I hope will be made more readily available in the near future. It is another thing, however, to act with honesty and integrity while having the student’s best interests at heart. From the healthy and honest discussions had by those in attendance I feel very hopeful that Holocaust studies will continue to an important part of the syllabus and will become more freely interdisciplinary.
Emma Bolton, MA student.