Studies in Nazi Germany

4th June 2004 at 01:00
Michael Riley takes a look at textbooks that deepen GCSEstudents'

understanding of this period of history

Our preoccupation with the brutality and destruction of Hitler's dictatorship continues unabated. The German ambassador has argued that an overemphasis on Nazi Germany in the history curriculum encourages a distorted view of modern German history. There is truth in this. The "Hitlerisation" of the history curriculum has occurred to an unjustifiable extent in some schools. Students can find themselves studying big chunks of Nazi Germany in Year 9, at GCSE and again at ASA2. Such repetition can be distorting. But, taught well, a study of this uniquely defining period in German history can help students to appreciate the complex truths that lie behind simple labels.

All the major awarding bodies offer a study of Weimar and Nazi Germany at GCSE, either as an option in the Modern World specifications or as a depth study in the Schools History Project (SHP). The recent crop of GCSE "topic" books provides some excellent resources to support these studies.

As usual, we are spoilt for choice.

Most of the texts aim to be comprehensive in their coverage. Not surprisingly, much of the content is fairly similar. Most books begin with the problems faced by the Weimar republic, explain how the Nazis came to power and give students an understanding of what this meant for the lives of ordinary Germans.

Those books that have the edge make the learning focus explicit by using carefully worded enquiry questions. The better books engage GCSE students through powerful narrative, fascinating case studies and intriguing historical sources.

Where these textbooks differ hugely is in the thought that authors have given to providing challenging and motivating learning activities. Too many of the textbooks are hidebound by the present formulaic models of assessment in GCSE history. They present pupils with a dreary diet of pointless questions on dull little gobbets. Some books rise above this, preparing students for GCSE exam questions and, at the same time, encouraging learners to think deeply and to communicate creatively.

These texts seek to engage students with fundamental historical issues and to provide structures to support their thinking. They are also enhanced by inspired design that places the understanding of 14 to 16-year-olds at the heart of the resource.

Dr Michael Riley is senior lecturer in history education at Bath Spa University College and history consultant with Somerset LEA

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