IHRA Conference on Education about the Holocaust


IHRA's international research conference on education about the Holocaust took place at the PH Luzern University of Teacher Education from 15-16 February 2016.

The conference was organised by Monique Eckmann, Chair of IHRA's Steering Committee on Education Research and Peter Gautschi, Professor of History Didactics at the PH Luzern.

Watch a number of the keynote addresses from the conference on our Youtube Channel.

The research presented at the conference was born out of a need to examine the educational context of the Holocaust, which has developed significantly in the past two decades. Alongside increasing numbers of state initiatives, educational programmes, guidelines, and more professionalization, there has also been rapid development in the empirical research being undertaken. IHRA’s Education Research Project analyzed studies from 15 different language regions, about how the Holocaust is taught and learned about. By collecting these studies and providing a cross-language and cross-national overview of current research, the project aimed to foster exchange amongst the different languages, regions, and disciplines covered.

The two-day conference attracted 150 participants from almost 40 countries. A number of keynote speeches and lectures preceded more detailed presentations and discussions of the research results in parallel workshops. The conference ended with two roundtables in which educational policy makers and organisations providing funding for projects discussed the research results and offered recommendations.

Rapidly growing research – diverse results with some trends

The results presented by Monique Eckmann at the conference came from the evaluation of around 635 publications of which 375 were unique studies. These spanned 15 languages from the “language-regions” German, Nordic, French, Romance, Polish, Slavic, English and Hebrew. The different cultural and pedagogical contexts and traditions resulted in the lessons from this research being deeply contextual, and made it difficult to draw generalisations across the board. Rather, as Doyle Stevick remarked, the research is like “650 puzzle pieces from 40 different puzzles,” offering the most helpful insights at the micro level.

Nonetheless, some broad trends in the research literature were identified across languages and regions. These points were brought up repeatedly throughout the conference:

  • Students and teachers experience the Holocaust as distinct from other topics
  • There are high levels of engagement and interest from students and teachers of all backgrounds
  • There are high expectations and ambitious goals for teaching the Holocaust amongst teachers, coupled with a desire for more preparation, assistance and time for teaching the topic
  • “Curricular creep” was observed, in which the Holocaust is taught to students of ever younger ages
  • Teaching and learning about the Holocaust is more effective in addressing ignorance and passive stereotypes rather than challenging consciously held, strong views or ideologies
  • Less confident teachers tend to employ more emotive teaching approaches, whilst confident teachers tend towards more cognitive and experiential methods
  • Group encounters are effective in reducing prejudice or stereotypes about the “other”. However, whilst the greatest changes seem to occur through facilitated reflection after the contact, this step is often bypassed in classrooms due to time constraints
  • Museum and site visits, although having authenticity, tend not to be effectively integrated into broader instruction. Rather, they are often conducted solely by site facilitators and adopt a stand-alone nature
  • Teachers can be anxious about teaching the topic to students with migrant backgrounds
  • On the whole, teaching and learning about the Holocaust appears to lead to improvements in historical understanding, political tolerance and moral reasoning; to a reduction of stereotypes and prejudice towards Jews and other minorities; to increased empathy and engagement and in a desire to learn more about the topic

For further details on the challenges and to read more about the key-note lectures, see the full conference report here.

Recommendations by policy makers and funding organisations

Two roundtables allowed educational funding organizations and policy and curriculum makers to reflect on the findings and discussions from the conference, and make a number of recommendations.

Educational policy and curriculum makers recommended that further research should be conducted into the topic, and more funding for national research should be provided by individual countries. The research presented at the conference should also be further examined to create a set of concrete policy recommendations to governments. It was suggested that there should be a focus on the development and sharing of instruments for research – methods, standards and tools that are freely accessible and available in multiple languages. More work should be done to address the knowledge gaps regarding multicultural classrooms and competing memories – especially given the current relevance of this in Europe and beyond with the increasing number of refugees and migrants. More time to teach history or to work on cross-subject projects in schools would be welcomed, as would the inclusion of teachers in the planning of curricula, given how central they are to the effective teaching of the Holocaust. More teacher training was also requested, along with increasing the availability and accessibility of teaching material. Finally, policy makers pointed out a need for improved communication between the academic level, decision makers and curriculum developers.

Representatives from funding organisations recommended that educational programmes about the Holocaust should include time for critical self-reflection and that programmes should be diverse, collaborative and encourage discussions. Projects in the field of Holocaust remembrance and education should be formulated in a way that they are sustainable, and have long term impact. They also identified a need for more exchange and debate on the European level – for this to work, broader translation of materials is needed. Finally, funders said they would like to see more conferences such as this one, as it allows for a more nuanced and balanced outlook on the state of the field.

“Mutual understanding and balanced outlooks” – Conclusions, reactions and future possibilities

Overall, the conference demonstrated that the field of teaching and learning about the Holocaust is a dynamic one that is growing and maturing. With an increasing number of research studies and scholars, a variety of approaches to the research have appeared. While it tends to be difficult to compare experiences and thus learn from them, a number of similarities were identified across the regions.

It was remarked several times, with reference to studies in various regions, that imparting knowledge about the Holocaust is not sufficient to change the attitudes and perceptions of students. National narratives and local contexts also need to be explored in order to create personal connections to the topic and increase the likelihood of positive reactions toward minority groups.

While there was no conclusive evidence about the overall level of knowledge about the Holocaust amongst students, there tended to be more knowledge about perpetrators than about victims. As for teachers, those dealing with the topic comprise a diverse community with high levels of interest and strong personal commitment. However, they often feel insufficiently prepared, desire more training, and tend to be unaware of existing resources available to them.

Areas requiring particular attention in future research included younger students, expressions of antisemitism in the classroom during sessions about the Holocaust, and emotions provoked by the topic. There were also several references to the current refugee crisis – it was suggested that Holocaust teaching could be used to speak to students about this topic as well.

The research presented at the conference will also be published in full in an academic publication by the IHRA, expected to be released in 2017.