Holocaust lessons take the sting out of racism

Elizabeth Buie and David Henderson report on the latest classroom thinking from the annual conference of the Scottish Educational Research Association in Perth

A project investigating whether teaching children about the Holocaust changed attitudes to issues such as racism found it had an immediate impact. However, one surprising finding was that after learning about the Holocaust, only 28 per cent of pupils were able to define anti-Semitism.

The researchers, Henry Maitles of Strathclyde University and Paula Cowan of Paisley University, also made the "worrying" discovery that while attitudes changed positively towards religious groups and black people, they became more hostile to English people in the aftermath of the project.

The research was carried out as a longitudinal study of 99 P7 pupils across four classes in two rural primary schools who then went on to the same secondary school. The aim was to discover whether education on the Holocaust would have any impact on citizenship values and attitudes at a time when the Scottish Executive was launching its anti-racism campaign, "One Country: Many Cultures!"

Funded by the Executive, the researchers asked the question: "Is there a difference between children who do receive the Holocaust education and those who don't?"

While analysis is still in progress, Mr Maitles and Ms Cowan told the SERA conference that there had been some "welcome immediate improvement" in attitudes and values. They hope to shadow the same pupils in S2.

After analysing questionnaires distributed before and after the Holocaust lessons, they concluded there was "a significant improvement on every indice" in understanding of what racism was.

But the researchers observed that teachers did not talk explicitly about anti-Semitism when teaching the Holocaust, defining it instead as racism - with the result that the issue of anti-Semitism was less widely understood than they expected. Indeed, in one of the two schools only 4 per cent of the pupils were able to define anti-Semitism.

The score was much higher in the other school - again almost certainly a product of different teaching styles or content.

"The teachers managed to teach the Holocaust without the word 'genocide', which is not to suggest that they didn't make the links eg with Sudan or Rwanda. They just didn't use the word genocide or develop the theme of anti-Semitism," Ms Cowan states.

There was a marked shift in attitudes to refugees. Asked in November 2003 (pre-Holocaust lessons) whether there were too many refugees in Scotland, 24 per cent agreed and 32 per cent disagreed. By March this year (post-Holocaust lessons), this had shifted to only 4.2 per cent who agreed and 71.9 per cent who disagreed.

There was a less significant shift in attitudes when pupils were asked whether there were too many refugees in the UK. Pre-Holocaust lessons, 23 per cent agreed, with that figure dropping marginally to 21.9 per cent post-Holocaust lessons. Pre-Holocaust lessons, 37 per cent disagreed with the statement and post-Holocaust lessons 51 per cent.

Pupils' voting intentions or attitudes were also tested before and after the Holocaust teaching. The question was phrased as: "I think I would be just as likely to vote for a . . . as a . . . for the Scottish Parliament" and the categories were: woman as a man (80.5 per cent - 82.3 per cent); Catholic as a Protestant (64 per cent - 75.1 per cent); Jew as a Christian 65.5 per cent - 74 per cent); Muslim as a Christian (60 per cent - 68.7 per cent); black person as a white person (75 per cent - 82.3 per cent); English person as a Scottish person (62 per cent - 43.8 per cent) - the only category where the shift was negative rather than positive.

Mr Maitles sought to find out why attitudes to the English had become more hostile between November 2003 and March this year and found a link with broadcasts of the rugby World Cup.

"Talking to teachers, we suggest that there was an issue whereby it is not uncommon that teachers would turn a blind eye to anti-English statements in schools, which they would not allow in other areas. For instance, an anti-black statement would be treated one way but an anti-English statement another way," he said.

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