Helping educators teach the lessons of the past


A Flemish remembrance education committee is helping teachers tackle themes of tolerance and racism in the classroom

Committee was set up at the occasion of First World War commemorations

In the next four years, many Flemish teachers are likely to use the First World War commemorations as a segue to tackle difficult subjects like racism, xenophobia and tolerance in the classroom. But with such a large range of existing and upcoming remembrance education tools and projects, many of them may already be scratching their heads.

The Bijzonder Comité voor Herinneringseducatie (Special Committee for Remembrance Education, or BCH) wants to help.

Set up in 2008 by then Flemish education minister Frank Vandenbroucke, the committee unites representatives of the four Flemish educational networks and several institutions involved in remembrance education, for instance, the Flanders Fields Museum in Ieper. The committee is being coordinated by the non-profit organisation Kazerne Dossin Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights in Mechelen.

The committee was also established because the government was preparing to add two eindtermen – the final requirements for students to graduate – that centred on tolerance and insight into the role of conflicts. These final requirements, which were introduced in 2010, stipulate that students should “draw lessons from historical and contemporary examples of intolerance, racism and xenophobia”, and “present examples of the potentially constructive and destructive role of conflicts.”

“In short, students should develop a sense of historical empathy,” says Klaartje De Boeck, the remembrance committee coordinator. She adds that students gain a deeper understanding of the importance of moral values by learning about the consequences of intolerance – devastating wars for instance. “It should stimulate them to consider their own place in society, their rights and duties,” she says.

But organising such lessons can be tricky for teachers. Visits to Holocaust museums for instance can trigger strong emotions in young adolescents. Different age groups also call for different approaches. According to De Boeck, small children tend to think more black and white, and can easily place themselves in the shoes of the victims. “So their teachers should focus on this aspect,” she says. “Teachers of 16-year-olds can explain the more nuanced history, including the perspective of the perpetrators.”

Best practices

A lot of remembrance education materials were already available to teachers prior to the launch of the committee, but it could be difficult for instructors to find what they needed. That is why the committee put together an online database together with KlasCement, a network for teachers. The database packs more than 1,000 materials like lesson preparations, study books, information about exhibitions, educational packages of museums and youth literature. The database wants to be helpful not just to teachers, but also teacher trainers, and advisors or educational staff members in all sorts of educational, heritage or youth work organisations.

Students should develop a sense of historical empathy

- Klaartje De Boeck

The committee also published the Toetssteen (Touchstone), a handbook for educators who want to organise educational remembrance projects – available in Dutch, French and English. “We for example advise not to focus on dates and detailed facts of conflicts but to concentrate on the mechanisms that always return,” says De Boeck, “like the role of propaganda.”

Each year, the remembrance education committee organises its Forum Days, with specialised workshops and lectures that typically draw around 250 teachers. This year’s March edition will deal with the different protest forms of the past and present, and include presentations on Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba, and an overview of protest songs throughout the ages.

In May, the committee will also participate in a seminar organised by the Prince Philippe Fund that wants to stimulate exchange of best practices between schools in the different Belgian language communities.

Coordinator De Boeck says the committee’s work has already drawn the attention of organisations in the United Kingdom and France, since the Touchstone file is also available in their language. “But there seems to be a big difference with the way that British organisations deal with the war past,” says De Boeck. “They often emphasise the heroic aspects, while we focus more on the lives that have been lost and how the personal testimonies should be read with a critical mindset.”

Real people

To make sure that the commemorations around the First World War provide added educational value, the remembrance education committee is participating in the government’s special working group and closely works with Canon, the culture department of the Flemish education ministry. They also inform schools through brochures and the online platform it has established with KlasCement. Teachers can for example test certain activities beforehand for free, so they can determine whether they are suitable for their classes.

An important educational project at the Flanders Fields Museum is the Name List, a register of victims – civilians and soldiers – of different nationalities who lost their lives in Flanders or were fatally wounded here but died elsewhere.

The Name List is being compiled with the help of secondary schools. During a special workshop, students can also draw on several sources to put together a personal profile for the military and civil victims. This is meant to raise their awareness to the fact that these aren’t just names mentioned in statistics, but real people with their own life stories.

Other large museums that have set up special projects include the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) and the Vleeshuis (or Butcher’s Hall) in Antwerp, the M Museum in Leuven and the Dr. Guislain Museum in Ghent.

At the Karel De Grote University College in Antwerp, students were inspired by Flemish star photographer Jimmy Kets to creatively work with new media around the First World War commemorations. Kets himself is also preparing a photo exhibition around the theme, which will be on view at De Loketten gallery in the Flemish Parliament. Writer Erwin Mortier is the figurehead of GoneWest, the artistic commemorations that will be organised in West Flanders.

First World War

Claiming the lives of more than nine million people and destroying entire cities and villages in Europe, the Great War was one of the most dramatic armed conflicts in human history. It lasted from 1914 to 1918.
Flanders Field - For four years, a tiny corner of Flanders known as the Westhoek became one of the war’s major battlefields.
Untouched - Poperinge, near Ypres, was one of the few towns in Flanders that remained unoccupied for most of the war.
Cemetery - The Tyne Cot graveyard in Passchendaele is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.
550 000

lives lost in West Flanders

368 000

annual visitors to the Westhoek

1 914

First Battle of Ypres