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learning about world wars Catriona Pennell

Children and teenagers have been the focus of many of the centenary events to mark the First World War

Educationalists and academics explore how young people engage with history of the two world wars

Educationalists and academics gathered to discuss the latest research and practical experiences around the way young people engage with the complex histories of the First and Second World Wars, including the Holocaust.

Children and teenagers have been the focus of many of the centenary events to mark the First World War, but there has been little research into the ways they are engaging with this history and its ramifications.

Academics, teachers, heritage specialists, and museum curators from around the world took part in a workshop in London on Friday, 15 September, to explore how young people are engaging with, and how receptive they are, to the cultural memory messages of the two World Wars in the UK and abroad.

The one-day interdisciplinary workshop, called Their Past, Their Memory?, was organised by Dr Catriona Pennell from the University of Exeter as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Teaching and Learning War Research Network, which is running until mid-2019.

During the past three years children and teenagers have been involved in events run by governments, or in their communities, to mark the centenaries of the First World War. This includes new content on the school curriculum, field trips to battle sites, museum exhibitions, and theatre performances.

Dr Pennell said: “Just at the point where the First World War is fading from living memory, we’ve seen an intensification of focus on young people among those planning centenary events in Commonwealth countries. In many ways, they have been singled out as ‘vessels’ to carry forward memories of this global conflict. We have seen this as a recurring feature in the events organised in the period 2014-2018, and I think we can expect this to also happen during the 80th and 90th anniversary commemorations of the Second World War.

“This raises questions about how these cataclysmic events are taught in the 21st century across an international comparative framework, how education can (or even should) help young people remember, how young people respond to and interpret the cultural memory messages imbedded within these commemorative activities, and the relationship between education and commemoration more broadly.

“The way young people engage with the cultural messages about these seminal historical events is largely unexplored, but examining this can help illuminate how memories of war are shaped. This is very important to examine, as what young people learn inside and outside the classroom shapes their attitudes about the past.”

As well as considering the methodologies employed to research young people’s attitudes to the history of the two world wars, those at the event also discussed how young people engage with these subjects via formal education, museums, community level project work, and digital initiatives. Comparisons were made with international case-studies from Canada, South Africa and the United States. They shared information about their work engaging students in the research and writing of the history of the First World War, how to share the memories of people held captive during the Second World War across different generations, and how museums can engage young people in the history of global conflict. There were also presentations on how war history is taught differently in colleges and high security prisons, how to teach the human experience of war in the higher education classroom, and the challenges posed by difficult histories, national identities, and multi-cultural classroom settings.

The event included keynote addresses from two leading figures, respectively, in youth research (Professor Peter Hopkins, University of Newcastle) and conflict education (Dr Alan McCully, Ulster University). In a stimulating closing roundtable academics and third-sector educationalists discussed their research and experiences on remembrance and peace education.

Podcast recordings of the event will be freely available via the project website:

Date: 18 September 2017

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