5 Strategies For Teaching About The Holocaust Through Inquiry

5 Strategies For Teaching About The Holocaust Through Inquiry

Teach About The Holocaust Through These 5 Inquiry-Based Strategies

contributed by Tyrone Shaw

Effective teaching about the Holocaust requires asking students the right questions, and that is the beginning of any inquiry-based lesson.

The good thing, too, is that many Holocaust lessons built around the inquiry design model already exist. Teaching through an inquiry lens in my social studies classroom has yielded some of my best results with students. Naturally, I gravitated towards using inquiry-based learning and lessons in my Holocaust and genocide unit. Here are some of the most effective strategies I found in developing inquiry-based activities when teaching about the Holocaust and genocide. 

1. Developing a Compelling Question

Studying the Holocaust lends itself to developing strong, compelling questions students can grapple with as they build an understanding of the Holocaust and other atrocities. There are many ways to develop compelling questions around the Holocaust, depending on what goal teachers have in mind for their lesson. Questions should be complicated and require students to think from diverse perspective and draw on multiple sources:

“Are bystanders collaborators?”

“Can choices be choiceless?”

“Is the Holocaust about memory or action?”

“Is ‘never again’ really never again?”

All these questions are written in student-friendly language but require students to view the Holocaust through a nuanced lens and wrestle with the reality that there are no easy answers, yet, realizing all these questions raise significant and valid ways for examining the Holocaust.

2. The ‘5 E’ Lesson Model

Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate, the 5 E Model is how I plan each inquiry-based lesson. Planning a lesson around the 5 E model sets students up for success by pushing them to grapple with the often emotionally challenging content they come across while studying the Holocaust. This ties into the best practice of taking students ‘safely in and safely out’ of lessons when teaching about the Holocaust.

While there are not always concrete answers to the questions that arise when teaching about atrocities like the Holocaust, the 5 E lesson model does require the learning process to come back to a place of positive thinking and sustained inquiry.

3. Content Rich Resources 

The content from Echoes & Reflections, a Holocaust education program that provides resources and professional development to secondary teachers, is organized in a way that makes it easy for educators to build inquiry-based lessons around the 5 E Lesson format. Echoes & Reflections includes numerous primary and secondary sources like maps, diaries, and letters, as well as the new Timeline of the Holocaust – students can delve into these documents as part of a self-paced unit, or a traditional lesson, to support inquiry.

One way I have heavily pulled on their resources to support inquiry in my classroom–and that students have responded to–is the use of survivor testimony. The testimonies add emotion, context and survivor voices to lessons and make it easy to find and use them as sources for students to investigate various topics.

4. Using Case Studies

Case studies are also a great way to build inquiry into Holocaust education. One example of a ready-made inquiry-based lesson comes from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). It is also very fitting for the classroom as it asks students to wrestle with questions about actions taken by teachers during the Holocaust, and how some of those actions impacted students.

The case study lesson, “Oath and Opposition: Education under the Third Reich”  was developed specifically for teachers, and easily lends itself to an inquiry framework that students can access. When using this in my classroom I have broken up the case studies and use them in a jigsaw with my students where each group takes a particular case study and then have to share their findings with the rest of the class.

After this student then go on to develop arguments about what choices were possible for each of the cases and the impact those choices would have. This inquiry gives students the opportunity to challenge and complicate their thinking about the role of collaborators bystanders and upstanders and the different impact of each of their roles.

5. Exercising Caution and Curiosity 

While the Holocaust lends itself to an inquiry-frame, it is important that teachers be cautious in their approach.

It can be easy to oversimplify and trivialize events and concepts in an effort to get students involved in the lesson. Teachers should avoid using compelling questions for ‘shock value,’ and should not ask students to question already settled topics for the sake of raising controversy.

Avoid questions that ask students to compare suffering and instead use questions that lead students into discussions of more relevant points of inquiry. This is why the ‘safely in and safely out’ method of Holocaust and genocide education is so important for educators to understand and practice in their classrooms. Teaching the lessons of the Holocaust and other atrocities is very emotionally strenuous work for both teachers and students.

Thus, it is important that teachers keep in mind the emotional toll that this work can have on students. It is imperative that teachers make sure that when students are engaged with this work, they are well prepared emotionally to engage and then leave the classroom not feeling emotionally burdened. What this looks like in my classroom is, at the end of every lesson I do a check in with students on not just what they got from the lesson, but how they are feeling and what next steps I could provide that could help them further process the information.

This way when students leave my classroom I have a fuller understanding of the impact of my lesson and their emotional temperature at that time. 


While the inquiry design model has long served teachers of other disciplines like science teachers in their classrooms, I find that it is just as useful in my social studies classroom as a way to get students to contend with information on their own and help them to develop higher level thinking and reasoning skills that will serve them long beyond my classroom.

It also has a particular place in Holocaust and genocide education where students really need to absorb this information on their own especially when dealing with the rich primary source documents like survivor testimony or analyzing photographs and transcripts from trials after these atrocities have happened. This way students can be deeply engaged with the content and leave the classroom with a deeper understanding of the events and more concrete ways of how they can then affect change in their communities.