When Teaching the Holocaust, Heed These Three Recommendations

Oct 28, 2019

From the landmark 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report—which sounded an alarm about student achievement and national competitiveness in the Cold War era—to today’s renewed attention to civic education, new trends in American education are often rooted in deep concerns about the present and the future of the country. Similarly, the recent growth of initiatives to promote teaching about the Holocaust comes at a moment when many Americans are alarmed about growing evidence of hate and intolerance in our country, from graffiti in school bathrooms to mass violence in houses of worship.

Twelve states currently have Holocaust education mandates, seven have state commissions tasked with the teaching of the Holocaust, and several others have legislation in the works. At the federal level, Congress is currently considering the ‘Never Again’ Education Act, legislation which would promote and provide funding support to Holocaust education nationwide. These efforts are ambitious. They seek to ensure that students learn the basic facts of Holocaust history—no small thing, given that a 2018 survey documented that 66% of American millennials cannot explain what Auschwitz was and 41% believe that 2 million Jews or fewer were murdered. Like most state mandates, the Never Again Education Act also articulates broader aims, including teaching about “the danger of what can happen when hate goes unchallenged and there is indifference in the face of the oppression of others.”

This vision of Holocaust education as an ethical awakening and an inoculation against hate is powerful, but top-down mandates also introduce significant challenges for educators.

This vision of Holocaust education as an ethical awakening and an inoculation against hate is powerful, but top-down mandates also introduce significant challenges for educators. Too often, unfunded state mandates issue directives but leave schools without proper resources and training and often have few accountability measures. Some teachers try to capture students’ attention with graphic imagery or simulations that traumatize young people. Other educators, negotiating time pressures and a packed curriculum, risk trivializing the history with shallow “coverage.”

As longtime educators representing the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Facing History and Ourselves, we agree that Holocaust education has the potential to be transformative. Studies show, for example, that Facing History’s Holocaust and Human Behavior program promotes students’ respect and tolerance for the rights of others and fosters awareness of the power and danger of prejudice and discrimination. And the USHMM’s Bringing the Lessons Home program has been found to contribute to the moral development of teens and their ability to see themselves as active, responsible participants in the world. Based on the collective experience of our institutions—which are leaders in public history, creating educational resources, and teacher preparation—here are three key recommendations for policymakers, education administrators and teachers.

First and foremost, history matters. Vaguely worded mandates for Holocaust education which focus on “the lessons of history” should be sharpened to require specific study of key events, institutions and individuals from the Treaty of Versailles and the Weimar Republic era to the post-war period. Only an accurate, detailed, nuanced study of the Nazi rise to power and its societal context—and also of the active and passive choices of individuals who experienced this history—can help students understand that the Holocaust was not inevitable; it was the result of individual and collective decisions and complex motivations, including hate, fear, and self-interest. Rich primary sources—not just textbook overviews—are crucial to this deep learning. Although many educators choose to present the Holocaust through fictional texts taught in English Language Arts classes, we believe that actual stories—found in diaries, letters, eyewitness accounts, and memoirs—do better justice to this complex history. Educators using fiction to teach the Holocaust should be mindful to supplement stories and novels with historical context.

Rich primary sources—not just textbook overviews—are crucial to this deep learning.

Pedagogy matters as well. The facts of the history, as powerful as they are, won’t achieve the ambitious aims of Holocaust education mandates unless students also have opportunities for emotional engagement and ethical reflection. Educators should aspire to create learning environments where students are supported to grapple with the enormous ethical and moral questions that are posed about the best and worst of human behavior. Knowledge in the absence of understanding the larger meaning is of limited value. We recommend crafting lesson and unit plans using a variety of teaching strategies—including establishing classroom norms, journaling, use of primary sources, art-based responses, and structured discussion models—to engage students’ minds, hearts, and consciences. To practice this kind of sensitive and creative pedagogy, teachers, too, need support. Funding for professional learning should be an integral component of Holocaust education mandates.


Learn how to select a timely and culturally relevant social studies curriculum that supports teachers and students alike in this upcoming EdSurge webinar—Wednesday, November 13, 2019.


Finally, the ability to make informed connections to the present matters. Most Holocaust mandates are rooted in the idea of “relevance,” so educators can’t simply teach the history as a series of events disconnected from the present. This history attunes us to the power of propaganda and media, the danger of hatred and “othering,” the fragility of democracy, and the power of individual choices. It can help all of us—adults and students alike—ask better questions about the present moment and more meaningfully reflect on the choices we face. Too often, Holocaust history is used as a political weapon in the form of hastily constructed memes and inaccurate analogies that obscure more than they reveal. Helping students to see more accurate and relevant connections can assist them in analyzing and deconstructing these inaccuracies. As scholar Sam Wineburg has written, history can be “a tool for changing how we think, for promoting a literacy not of names and dates but of discernment, judgment and caution.”

Such teaching also represents a moral investment in young people and a trust in their capacity to engage with deep and often confounding questions about humanity.

Effective teaching about the Holocaust requires investment from a variety of stakeholders. Departments of education and schools must invest financial resources in teacher training and quality teaching materials. Time—perhaps the most precious resource in schools—is required for educators to prepare and then teach this history in-depth. Such teaching also represents a moral investment in young people and a trust in their capacity to engage with deep and often confounding questions about humanity. These investments can pay dividends long after a particular unit of study has ended, because they strengthen the capacity of schools to educate engaged, informed, and responsible decision makers and civic actors who will build more just and inclusive societies.


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