Cracking the Enigma: a new approach to teaching ALL of World War Two

Thanks to David Bailey, a history teacher at Jerudong International School, Brunei, for this blogpost. David, and his departmental colleagues, have been rethinking their approach to teaching World War Two. He hopes to start a conversation about this. Please get in touch with your ideas and think about contributing a blogpost about how you have wrestled with this issue.

How do you tackle World War II in the history classroom? In my eyes, WWII is an unusual topic in so many different ways: in the number of participants, the casualties, the impact, the stories, the global reach, the sheer amount of academic work available and even down to the number of our students’ families that have been touched by it (to name but a few examples). In the multicultural classrooms that many of us teach in, few other events in living memory unite the students’ collective heritage in the same way.

The question of how to approach WWII is one I’ve wrestled with since the start of my teaching career, and I’ve never been satisfied with any approach I’ve taken. A strong disciplinary focus and enquiry question have always seemed to elude me. I often prefer a chronological narrative, but the war just always seemed to have too much going on in too many different places to make that possible. The common ‘turning points’ approach I first encountered reminded me of the fateful Treaty of Versailles: it sounded plausible at first glance but, when you really pour over it, the result is actually an unhappy compromise that didn’t do justice to anything as intended. It was perhaps my own interpretation and teaching of it, but I always felt as if it was reducing the war to a series of set-piece events that didn’t get across the full magnitude or complexity of WWII. On top of that, an off-the-cuff analysis I did with my Year 9 class highlighted a common problem with this approach to WWII. I took a sample of 5 different (UK) textbooks from my bookshelf and found that, despite the higher number of casualties there, the war in the Pacific almost came as a side-note in each book. When it did, it was defined by just two events: Pearl Harbor (and seemingly only because it drew America in) and the atomic bombs. This begged a number of questions:

  • Is there a danger that some of our approaches weren’t doing justice to one of the most bloody and significant spheres of WWII (one that is still very much resonating in global affairs today)? 
  • Could we be accidentally reducing Japan’s role to either the unsporting surprise attacker erroneously awakening the mighty America or the pathetic victim of superior Western technology?
  • Aren’t we all trying to decolonise our curriculum these days?
  • Isn’t the Eurocentricity of our curriculum a little last millennium?

The turning points approach wasn’t covering so many other crucial aspects of the WWII story. This meant that I was always left feeling it needed ‘something else’, but I didn’t know what. There have been some incredible discussions and revisions recently on teaching vast and complex topics such as Empire and the Middle Ages, rethinking the traditional approaches. Perhaps it’s time to ignore Basil Fawlty’s infamous advice and start mentioning the War.

Of course, keen not to reinvent the wheel, my first port of call was the HA for advice. Surely, I reasoned, with such a defining event, history teachers far more skilled and experienced than I will have come up with a way to adequately cover the sheer breadth of this topic (as has saved me from strained professional wrestling on so many occasions before). Trawling through the HA website and back-issues of Teaching History, desperately searching for a WWII panacea, I was pulling some great depth studies out and also some impressive work on local history, but nothing I could find encompassed everything I wanted it to. Conversations with respected colleagues went round in circles. Expanding the search to History EduTwitter, so often a source of inspiration, similarly yielded some fantastic enquiries, but I was still left feeling that too many crucial elements of the war were being overlooked in favour of, particularly, Eurocentric depth studies. Yes, I wanted depth and the war in Europe, but at what cost? The breadth versus depth debate muddied the waters further.

A recent move to Asia forced my hand. Like many departments, we are in the process of rethinking our approaches, including treading carefully through the historical white European male narratives that we’ve recently had our students reappraising. We’ve also been trying to include more scholarship and academia in our curriculum, and there’s obviously no shortage of that for WWII, but we all know you can have too much of a good thing. We wanted to cover the War in Asia for all the right reasons, but we couldn’t ignore the War in Europe either. How, then, to swallow the watermelon of WWII? How to do justice to both the War in Europe and here in Asia when the conflicts in each sphere were, for so many reasons, so very different from each other?

One solution I’ve trialled this year was unexpectedly inspired by the excellent ‘improve your historical writing’ display put together and kindly shared by @HughJRichards. There’s a section that instructs pupils to “embrace complexity” and I kept coming back to that idea as the only option. If my problem with covering both European and Pacific spheres is that they were so different to each other, then why not embrace that?

It didn’t take long to find Anthony Beevor and Victor Davis Hanson discussing the war on just such terms (the latter even adding a crucial pluralisation to his book: The Second World WarS). Now, armed with the makings of a scholarly debate and forever short on time, the revolutionary ChatGPT lent a helping hand in finding other historians to weigh in and delve into. An academic base for undoing the traditional story of WWII emerged. In past WWII units, I had nodded toward there being wildly differing ideas/arguments about aspects of WWII that we so often take for granted: when it began, what it is called and how it was fought. Now it was time to embrace that complexity by challenging the entire idea of one World War.

Figure 3: some of the historical perspectives on WWII as one war, as summarised by ChatGPT.

I started with the idea that the similarities and differences between the War in Europe and the Pacific are far more than just something to be noted in passing. I drafted the enquiry question: ‘To what extent was WWII one conflict?’ but I disliked it sounding like a GCSE question and felt it lacked the disrupting impact I was hoping for. I settled on ‘Was WWII REALLY one conflict?’. I know it’s potentially a closed question, but I felt it was more engaging and might get the Year 9s questioning what they think they know from the off.

Abandoning my usual chronological comfort zone, I decided to approach the war by themes, returning periodically to look at the similarities and differences that we witness within those to add to the debate. I was hoping this would also chunk a behemoth of a topic, making it less likely to stagnate as the term wore on. This year, for the first time teaching it, I ran the lesson sequence as follows (where some were single, others several lessons where necessary):

  1. An introductory lesson outlining the rationale of the enquiry, getting the students to start challenging what they thought they knew and creating an overview of the ‘big story’ of WWII to establish a base of knowledge for studying the global conflict.
  2. Lessons looking at the causes of the War split into Europe and Asia (including a timely assessment on the causes). Similarities and differences here left some interesting areas to be explored, as well as links back to prior learning on such topics as Imperialism.
  3. Details of the key battles in each sphere (which, in hindsight, I found too repetitive with lesson 1 and would certainly change next year. We live and learn!)
  4. (I didn’t run with it this year, but…) I did see an opportunity to look at the different reasons for fighting/motivations in different arenas, e.g. expansion, revenge, sheer survival, race, beliefs etc. and this could also bring in propaganda, which I always find offers valuable lessons to students in the 21st century.
  5. Fighting conditions – using evidence to look at how the conditions in Europe offered some similar but also many different challenges to the Pacific.
  6. Treatment of PoWs – highlighting the very different experiences of PoWs in each sphere, using case studies from both Europe and the Pacific, including the Sandakan Death Marches as some history local to our island (Borneo).
  7. The War at Sea – I felt I couldn’t ignore an aspect so decisive and widespread. In hindsight, this could have been built in elsewhere and cut a lesson down.
  8. The Home Front – more evidence analysing the impact on civilians in the two spheres, including civilians on all sides, to highlight that innocents suffered everywhere.
  9. The End of the War – contrasting the different ways in which the war ended in Europe and the Pacific, which obviously linked well to their upcoming Cold War study.
  10. Rounding up with an assessment on the historical debates and using their knowledge of the similarities and differences to explain why different people have different perspectives on the war.

It’s only our first year teaching this unit and we practise what we preach to the students in terms of reflection. I’ve included an initial pros and cons list below (and I’d welcome others to add to it based on their own knowledge and experience). I’d also be interested to see how other departments are approaching WWII and whether they feel that they are doing justice to the topic overall. I’ve yet to reach that point, so I’m keen to know if it’s possible.

N. B. If you’re wondering “What about the Holocaust???”, we cover that as a standalone unit after, though obviously linking in with their prior knowledge.

Analysis:

Pros:Cons:
The unit offered students with differing levels of prior knowledge the opportunity to engage with the War in a way where they still considered new and engaging learning at each stage.The big one: it’s still a monster of a unit, and combined with the Holocaust, it makes for a huge number of lessons. Far more than any other topic in KS3. I justify this by considering that it’s broken down into themes, so it’s almost half a dozen mini-studies, but it’s still a lot of lessons. I just find it hard to skip anything!
The student feedback has been positive so far, with even higher level, very keen students with deep prior knowledge analysing the war from perspectives new to them.There is the danger that some students’ only exposure to learning about WWII is in the form of this divisive Europe/Pacific approach and that they could leave Year 9 with an unorthodox view of the War. In my experience, just as the war itself was so wide-ranging, students’ prior exposure to it can be similarly wide: some students have incredible subject knowledge of the war from popular culture and historical interest while others admit to knowing next to nothing about it. For the latter, if this approach is their only encounter with WWII, there is a danger that students leave the unit with complex, muddled or contradictory ideas about WWII being one entity.
There is scope here for the development of various aspects of disciplinary thinking: while this first trial was steered around similarity and difference, there was room to build in an interpretations study, use of evidence, causation or significance if preferred.Returning to similarities and differences between the two spheres too frequently got a bit repetitive for the students, so this is definitely something to be mindful of.
The basis of the war in scholarly arguments gave great opportunities to get students thinking about historical debates, something we’ve been trying to do far more of.It’s still very difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out within the set time frames. I think any WWII approach will struggle with this.
I felt, on balance, that the unit did a better job of giving students a clear idea of some of the complexities of WWII, while encompassing far more aspects of it. There was an improvement in the breadth covered while also allowing for depth studies to tell key aspects of the story, including some local history.The inclusion of historiography to this extent can be quite challenging for the students and might need a careful approach with some less able students.
There is, like any WWII unit, ample scope for building in engagement/enrichment, e.g. I ended a term with a standalone lesson on some of the inspiring people of WWII, and my HoD has taken a class to the school cookery classrooms for some WWII Home Front recipes.
The unit links in well with a Cold War study, ending where it does, and gives a good foundation for the iGCSE and A Level units we study.
Not yet mentioned, but the addition of a carefully worded homework getting students to summarise the ways/possible ways that their own families were impacted by the War ensured that all students could feel a personal connection to the war as well appreciate the range of different experiences of families even within our small classroom. Scale that up to history classrooms around the world and there’s a powerful message about the war’s significance.

As always, the ink is never dry on the curriculum and we continue to reflect on the unit. As you can see, there are problems remaining and I’m hoping that writing this up will both help others with their own professional wrestling or, selfishly, cast a wider net with which to gather constructive feedback to improve the unit in future. For now, I may be edging closer to where I want my students to be with WWII, but I can’t help feeling that it remains, appropriately, an Enigma.

My thanks to my colleagues in our department for their steering, feedback and ideas-thrashing conversations that form the basis of good curriculum teamwork. I’m very fortunate to work in the supportive environment in which I do.

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