A tale of two trips

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Peter Liddell reflects on how visits to Europe can stimulate teaching

Last term, along with 20 other British history teachers, I took up an invitation from the European Academy in Berlin to gain a better appreciation of modern Germany and the progress made since reunification.

We toured three German cities and observed lessons in two schools. We learned about the Holocaust from a modern German perspective and were accompanied in Berlin by a Jewish professor from the Free University who showed us many of the sites, such as the Reichstag building, where significant events of the 20th century had taken place.

The visits to German gymnasia (which I presumed to be like our grammar schools, and therefore having a high proportion of clever pupils) were fascinating. We looked at the syllabuses and textbooks used, and attended some lessons.

In one bilingual lesson, 16-year-old students were giving presentations about North American history, speaking only in English.

Every person contributed and there were even jokes when words were pronounced wrongly (Yosemite) and about meanings which had become confused (a president who had too much at stakeof steak).

The trip was tremendously enlightening and I have used examples of what I saw many times to brighten up my lessons.

The German education system had some advantages over ours. Students seem to take more responsibility for their studies. But facilities, especially ICT, did not seem to be as good. Many classrooms had no computer at all and there were lots of examples of outdated practice, such as poor use of an overhead projector.

However, I felt press reports in Britain seemed keen to show the German government as subtly paying to brainwash British teachers into steering clear of Nazism and teaching instead about other events in Germany in the 20th century. We felt we were portrayed as pawns in a political game about history, history teaching and what is taught in schools generally.

Two weeks later, I was off with 44 Year 11s on our annual trip to look at the First World War battlefields in northern France and Belgium, which produces a wonderfully mature and sensitive response.

We visited battle sites, heard accounts of heroism and tragedy and visited museums. With several thousand others we shivered under the Menin Gate for the ceremony and Last Post on November 11. The students were visibly moved and not afraid to say how much it had affected them.

Imagine my shock to discover that two boys had apparently been seen by other pupils writing a crass message in the German cemetery at Langemark, and behaving disrespectfully at the Menin Gate.

The other students were upset and we, the staff, took appropriate action.

However, the fact that it happened at all, in a group of students from a good comprehensive school, is surely a message to those who believe that these things are a relic of the past.

We must teach the Nazi period in history, but make links with the present and be open-minded about the merits of other countries. You can hardly blame modern Germans for wanting to focus equally on other eras.

I look forward to a time when our young people show as much interest in other cultures as Europeans seem to show in ours.

Peter Liddell teaches history at Oakmeeds Community College, Burgess Hill, West Sussex

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