Pedagogical Recommendations

Benny Christensen , Copenhagen, Denmark / Olivia Durand , Oxford, UK

3255 words


World War II memorials can be used as teaching tools as part of wider history education programmes. However, the pedagogy used when working with them depends very much on each country’s approach to the study of history in schools. This monument-focused methodology provides teaching options that range from the visual study of memorials in textbooks to the physical integration of such memorials in lessons through visits aimed at developing citizenship competences. This chapter introduces teaching strategies that mobilise students’ analytical and cooperation skills, with the ultimate goal of enhancing their understanding and respect for different perspectives and opinions of World War II, as well as their capacity for cross-cultural understanding in general.
The following paragraphs outline pedagogical recommendations that educators may choose to apply and adapt to their own specific teaching context. These recommendations are meant to provide a general blueprint for teaching the history of World War II through memorials and monuments. They do not aim to address all the nuances of the European memorial landscape (or indeed non-European memorials).

Preliminary discussions

  • Preliminary discussion 1: Discuss why and for whom memorials need to be built.
This preliminary discussion raises the question of the purpose of memorials and the identity of the people or events that they commemorate. The discussion does not need to focus on a specific memorial. Instead, it should try to mobilise existing knowledge of local, national, or international monuments among students. This is in order to enter into a wider conversation about memorialisation.

The educator can complement the discussion with a short list of monuments that can show the plurality of narratives that memorials might seek to commemorate. These could be, for example, legacies of fascism, communism, colonialism, inter-ethnic tensions, race- and gender-based violence, military conflicts, human rights abuses, and other relevant subjects. Among the learning activities, the discussion of the Stumbling Stones (and its companion, the Last Address in post-Soviet countries – see Annex II) can be a good example of an initiative that seeks to commemorate a plurality of victims. Similarly, France’s Mémorial de la France Combattante could be the start of a conversation on the connections between the legacies of Europe’s colonial empires and the authoritarianism fought in World War II.
  • Preliminary discussion 2: Discuss how politicians have used or misused memorials in the past, and how we can also see that happening in the present.  
This preliminary discussion raises the question of the utilisation and exploitation of memorials, in particular by political regimes. It aims at fostering the idea that conflicts over memorials are rooted in present political, social, and economic inequalities and tensions as much as they are based on diverging understandings of history.

The educator can ask students why the selected memorial was built in the past and what need it sought to answer at the time, then ask again what need the memorial might be fulfilling in the present (and whether its purpose has changed). Similarly, students can discuss what political goal the construction/removal/demolition of a memorial served in the past and whether this process of memorialisation through monuments serves the same purpose in the present. The educator can use the controversy around the two memorials to the Katyń massacre located in Poland and Russia as an example of this divide, with a discussion of the past and present use of these memorials for political purposes. The learning activity can be the start of a reflection of the concept of truth in history and how the establishment of memorials is always politically motivated, though the motivations vary.

Independent research

  • Independent research 1: Providing students with a research agenda during classroom learning using IT facilities prior to the visit.
The educator can provide the students with a research agenda during classroom learning, with a pre-circulated list of trustworthy IT resources (Project Gutenberg provides free e-books; depending on the country, websites of national archives often provide directories of trusted websites and educational blog posts about their collections) and vetted public history texts (for instance, The Conversation publishes short journalistic articles written by academics). The aim of the research activity is to reinsert the selected memorial within its own historical context ahead of the onsite visit, and to analyse the wider causes and effects of its construction. For example, students can be tasked with reading case studies of contested monuments on the Contested Histories website, which features over 400 sites around the world, or do a simpler fact check through online encyclopaedias (i.e. Encyclopaedia Britannica or others based on the country).

Depending on the age/study level of the students, the educator can provide more detailed questions about the information that they should be looking for: dates, places, statistics, etc.
  • Independent research 2: Providing students with a selection of primary source materials about the memorial prior to the visit.
In addition to/instead of IT-based research, the educator can compile a selection of primary sources (texts from newspapers, interviews, excerpts of historians’ work, caricatures, photographs, radio or video segments, etc.) which can provide the base for an intertextual analysis of the event/individual/group commemorated by the memorial.

This activity would enhance critical analytic skills that are essential in approaching sites of commemoration, while also providing an opportunity for autonomous learning. An example of this could be the German Trümmerfrauen (rubble women). The educator can request the students to collect a variety of source materials to be used in a presentation and comparison of Trümmerfrauen statues and highlight their use over time for political purposes.

Analytical skills

  • Visual Analysis
Both onsite and/or in the classroom, students should be encouraged to analyse memorials through their visual materiality: the educator can invite them to think about a selected memorial’s dominant shapes; the materials and colour schemes chosen; the emotions its physical features inspire; the location of the memorial in the city/country but also within its own street/square; and reflect on how style can have an impact on the ideas conveyed.

Statues (e.g. National Memorial to the Winter War in Helsinki, Finland; Monument to the Women of World War II, in London, UK; and Brest Fortress Memorial Complex in Brest, Belarus – all in Annex II) are probably the best examples with which to start a visual analysis with students.
  • Narrative Analysis
Although not all monuments are figurative, they all commemorate the story of individuals or groups, heroes, or victims. The educator can ask students to identify visually which people and groups are being memorialised, speculate on the reason, and discuss which stories are being told and given prominence through their inscription onto a monument (and which ones might be missing).

The Karlshorst Museum in Berlin, Germany, is one such example, as it will make students think about the presentation of history in the past, present, and future, and make them question what is worth remembering and why (see Learning Activities).
  • Analysis of Symbols
Ultimately, this approach will lead the educator and their students to an analysis of the symbols (i.e. commonly understood signs used to represent a particular person, group, idea, value, or quality) displayed on the monument. Both through iconography and through the identity(ies) of those memorialised, they can jointly interrogate what values are upheld through the construction of the memorial. These values may be important for local/regional/national identification in the past and the fostering of a sense of community. Past and present disputes surrounding memorials and monuments can similarly indicate that these values are not comprehensive or provide a limited view of the history and the communities involved. For instance, the high density of local war memorials to veterans can inspire a strong sense of regional and national identity as well as community pride – it was especially the case with memorials erected in the direct aftermath of World War I, for a conflict which was in the living memory of many during World War II (see, for example, Veterans Affairs Canada (2022). ‘Canadian National Vimy Memorial’,, accessed 18 January 2023).

Comparative approaches

In addition to the suggestions above, students must understand that no memorial is fully removed from other monuments. That is, memorials are created in a time and place. As such they draw upon shared cultural understandings – for example, the importance of forests in Germany, or of formal gardens in the UK. There are cultural and societal norms to commemoration that influence memorials, as well as networks of symbols that connect them. Thinking about memorials and monuments invites students to understand the similarities and divergences between the visited site and other examples, and in this process to start thinking transnationally. Comparison allows students to start thinking about how memorialisation differs between societies and over time.

Going beyond national stories in this way helps foster multiperspective approaches among students. This is an attitude which is equally useful on a single site (where several narratives may be in evidence) or across borders, to understand how different groups, states, and political regimes commemorate similar events.

Definitions of multiperspectivity

In the following, two definitions of ‘multiperspectivity’ will be used. Multiperspectivity as:
  1. Various present-day views on/interpretations of a specific historical event/period
  2. Different perspectives over time on a specific historical event/period (pasts-presents-futures)

1. Various present-day views on/interpretations of a specific historical event/period

World War II is still one of the most studied topics in history education. Every new textbook adds another interpretation, and resources used in studying the topic will vary according to the perspectives highlighted in teaching it.

World War II memorials constitute a particular kind of source, since they generally need textual support to be studied in a productive way. This support will mostly be in the shape of acquiring textbook knowledge. But it can also take the form of reading about debates around their erection or views on them over time. Without textual support, memorials can still be used, e.g., as a starter, by prompting students for immediate analysis and/or emotional reactions.

Different present-day views on a memorial will often be rooted in cultural or political beliefs and will be disseminated in students’ worlds via media, communities, families, etc. In the history classroom, introducing and challenging a variety of present-day views, some of them perhaps opposites, demands that the teacher provide resources that use (or misuse) history to argue their present-day position. A good knowledge of the historical circumstances of the memorial is very important, and learning strategies such as ‘compare and contrast’ can be used.

Studying a memorial that may be a sensitive topic in the students’ wider world through a multiperspective approach may present challenges to the classroom learning strategies, but also provides opportunities to strengthen students’ citizen-building competences in areas such as analytical and critical thinking skills, empathy, conflict-resolution skills, and tolerance of ambiguity.

2. Different perspectives over time on a specific historical event/period

Relics from World War II, such as camps, battlefields, or cemeteries have been used as memorials and interpreted for political purposes ever since. They can be used in the classroom, e.g. by a sample of textbook extracts from various periods since 1945 in one country, or from countries with various political regimes from 1945 and until the present time. Using a multiperspective approach gives learners insight into changes over time in the ways a specific era, generation, or ideology have been viewed, and the approach will inform students that there are no absolute truths in history, even if they are often told so outside (or inside) the classroom.

Classroom use of post-World War II memorials such as monuments can also benefit from a multiperspective approach. Such memorials will have been created in a particular post-war situation, in which a society or part of a society had a particular motive to initiate the erection of the monument, and in many cases such memorials have been re-interpreted over time. Teachers may use either physical evidence of re-interpretations (removals, re-shaping, new inscriptions or plaques, etc.) or resources that explain, argue, or discuss changes. By studying a variety of opinions and arguments over time, students will learn that memorials are continually being used or misused, and they may reflect on how their generation is using their versions of memorials as well as envisage how future generations will interpret World War II memorials.

Applying such multiple perspectives will add to the development of competences such as knowledge and critical understanding of language and communication, analytical and critical thinking skills, skills of listening and observing, and valuing cultural diversity.

Ways of teaching

In general, one could suggest 3 ways of teaching about memorials:
  1. Classroom-based learning activities
  2. Classroom and visit-based learning activities
  3. Visit-based learning activities

1. Classroom-based learning activities

Depending on the nature of the curriculum, the overall aims of the learning programme, and the topic and intended outcomes of the Learning Activity, a classroom-based lesson can be planned and developed according to various didactic angles. By ‘didactic angle’ is meant a learning strategy that the teacher decides to use for a lesson, or a series of lessons.

One didactic angle is a perceptual angle, such as:
  1. Initiation (starting) stage (e.g., preparatory work, use of preparation, brainstorming)
  2. Comprehension stage (different levels of understanding and using understanding)
  3. Reflection stage (including assessment in class by students, or students and teachers, such as the group discussion activities outlined in the Learning Activities)     

Another didactic angle can be linked to preparatory work and classroom learning strategies, such as individual work, individual presentations, pair work, group work, class work – and presentations (oral or written) that are results of the selected learning strategies. An example of this angle could be that in groups, students study separate sources on the debate on a memorial. They make notes, and then present to the other groups the main points of the sources, using these presentations as a starter for a class discussion on the memorial as an example of the use and misuse of history.

A classroom-based learning activity on memorials can be structured in many ways. It may be based on textbook learning of a specific topic (like World War II), generally supported by historical sources of which images of memorials can be featured. Memorials may also become the focal point of a sequence of learning, e.g. by starting out with an image of a memorial, and then supporting the analysis and further use of the memorial by adding textbook knowledge and relevant sources.

2. Classroom and visit-based learning activities

When an onsite visit is possible, it may well add value to the classroom study of memorials in various ways.

Before the visit

The didactic angles stated above will still be relevant. In general, students will be more curious about an onsite visit to a memorial when they have prepared in-depth for the visit. If students are given preliminary tasks, such as presentations to do during the visit, and provided with time to prepare them in the classroom, they are likely to demonstrate a higher degree of motivation during the preparation phase. An example of a presentation: 1) describe the memorial’s physical characteristics, 2) use your knowledge from your textbook to explain how the memorial is an important source for us, and 3) read aloud the inscription on the monument and present your view as to whether or not the inscription is meaningful to young people today. Group work is a good strategy here, especially in a large class where the teacher will want more than one student presentation in the course of the same visit. Within the group there may be different tasks to prepare for the presentation, including the distribution of roles and the description of each role, as well as planning the preparation time and giving feedback on group members’ presentations. Tasks like these may enhance students’ autonomous learning skills, cooperation skills, and willingness to take responsibility.

During the visit

Student presentations when visiting memorial sites can be quite different from presentations in the classroom, as can the learning outcomes.

Firstly, the presentation will happen in a public sphere, often in the open air. To make the communication to classmates successful, the student must gather the group of classmates in a secluded spot and speak in a clear and direct way to make sure that the content is clearly received. Secondly, with cases such as monuments, the physical shape adds the possibility of moving from angle to angle to highlight artistic and cultural interpretations at the same time as conveying the historical content. This means that students will need to plan to use the information they prepare, so that it can interact with aspects of the site. The targeted learning outcomes of the onsite visit will include competences such as knowledge and critical understanding of language and communication, as well as skills of listening and observing.

After the visit

Back in the classroom, time for class assessment/reflection of the learning activity will be needed in order to make visible the extent to which the targeted learning outcomes were met. The teacher may plan the reflection session to centre first on the students’ voices, either via group work or as a class. They may present and discuss how successful the pre-visit lesson was for the on-site activities, and what might be fine-tuned for a future visit. Students may be encouraged to assess how well their respective oral presentations were delivered, and perhaps assess the quality of their own contributions. For instance, the learning activity on Moldova’s Șerpeni memorial provides several worksheets to guide students through the description of the monument, a photo quest, and questions for reflection.  

A post-visit lesson is also important for reflections on the memorial as a historical source about the past in the present. How well did it work as an additional source for the students studying the topic? How might it be interpreted by future generations of students or visitors in general? Written feedback may also be used here.

3. Visit-based learning activities

A visit-based learning activity will often include a guided tour, but it can also be planned and executed by the teacher. A visit may be used to support past learning, or it may be used as a starter for the next topic. The visit is not a substitute for preparatory in-class teaching and independent learning – it is important to keep in mind that the information received during a tour/guided visit will only be partially retained. The educator (if possible, in conjunction with the guide) needs to identify 2-3 key points/questions they want their students to keep with them after the visit which would not have been as evident in the classroom. For instance, in visits to camps, questioning the idea of scientific neutrality and how it became a tool for racist policies; or the industrial character of the concentration and extermination camps.


Post-war societies have changed politically and culturally over time, and as these societies have changed, World War II memorials have continued to play an important role in them. Both war-period and post-war memorials have been and are still used, for example to support or challenge interpretations of World War II relative to political or cultural circumstances.

Therefore, it is imperative that school history teaching commits itself to learning about World War II memorials in a way that confronts the misuse of memorials, while at the same time activating students’ competences in critically analysing the narratives upheld by these memorials. Ultimately, this pedagogical approach to history teaching aims to support and strengthen young people’s respect for diversity and cross-cultural understanding.

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