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Holocaust Education : Why Simulation Activities Should Not Be Used

Last year a Holocaust simulation activity at a Florida Middle School upset students, parents and community members by selecting children to be exposed to “persecution.” Without announcing or explaining the specific purpose of the activity in advance, eighth-grade students whose last names started with the letters L-Z were given yellow five-pointed stars and designated the “persecuted”, while their peers received “privileged” treatment. Throughout the activity the star-wearing students were subjected to enforced rules which ranged from forcing them to stand at the back of the class or the end of long lunch lines, to barring them from using some bathrooms and preventing them from using school drinking fountains. At the end of the day, many children were distressed, and one child even went home crying, telling his parents, “The only thing I found out today is that I don t want to be Jewish.”

While empathy-building activities in the classroom may be compelling and a popular technique for engaging young people in the history of the Holocaust, the Anti-Defamation League and other institutions with expertise in teaching the Holocaust strongly caution against using simulation activities for the following reasons:

  • They are pedagogically unsound because they trivialize the experience of victims and can leave students with the impression at the conclusion of the activity that they actually know what it was like during the Holocaust
  • They stereotype group behavior and distort historical reality by reducing groups of people and their experiences and actions to one-dimensional representations
  • They can reinforce negative views of the victims
  • They impede critical analysis by oversimplifying complex historical events and human behavior, leaving students with a skewed view of history
  • They disconnect the Holocaust from the context of European and global history

There are many effective and pedagogically sound methods that can be used instead to help students develop empathy and understand the motivations, thoughts, feelings and actions of those who lived through the Holocaust:

  • Drawing on primary source materials, such as photographs, artwork, diary entries, letters, government documents, and visual history testimony
  • Assigning reflective writing exercises or leading in-class discussions that explore various aspects of human behavior such as scapegoating or making difficult moral choices
  • Inviting survivors and other eyewitnesses to share their stories
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While empathy-building activities in the classroom may be compelling and a popular technique for engaging young people in the history of the Holocaust, the Anti-Defamation League and other institutions with expertise in teaching the Holocaust strongly caution against using simulation activities for the following reasons.

Highlights

  • Simulations reinforce negative views
  • Simulations stereotype group behavior
  • Simulations are pedagogically unsound

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