Promoting responsible history education – the case of EUROCLIO

EUROCLIO, the European Association for History Educators, propagates an approach to history education that smoothes out the ragged edges of nationalism and other ideologies, deconstructing historical myths and negative stereotypes and putting traditional enemy-images into perspective.

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By Joke van der Leeuw-Roord

Many academic theorists of history and history education have been writing about reconciliation through the learning and teaching of history. However there is little empirical information or insights into the practical applications and implementation of such approaches. In this contribution, I would like to have a closer look at EUROCLIO’s working methods in areas with internal political, ethic and religious tensions such as  Bulgaria, Estonia,  Latvia,  Moldova, Rumania, Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey, and in countries and regions which have experienced recent violent conflicts such as Bosnia, Croatia, Cyprus, Georgia, the Republic of Macedonia and Serbia. I would then like to explore the question if the work of EUROCLIO could qualify as example for reconciliation through teaching history.

Educating young people is a responsible task of a society. History education has always been used to enhance the national sense of belonging of younger generations. In the late twentieth century, these aforementioned countries have demonstrated that historical interpretations of recent and distant events in the past still play important roles in the public and political debates, and easily fuel tension and conflict.

Directly after the fall of the Berlin Wall a group of history education professionals understood that it was time to have a common critical look at the traditional approach to school history, and to increase the innovative quality and sense of responsibility of history educators. They founded in 1993 EUROCLIO, the European Association for History Educators, with the mission to promote and support the development of innovative and responsible history education, whilst strengthening peace, stability and democracy. The Association propagates an approach to history education that smoothes out the ragged edges of nationalism and other ideologies, deconstructing historical myths and negative stereotypes and putting traditional enemy-images into perspective. It promotes the sound use of history education towards building and deepening of democratic societies and therefore tries to connect across boundaries of countries, ethnicities and religions. Over time, building on the practical work carried out within numerous projects, EUROCLIO has been able to define and constantly refine an innovative history education methodology, also applicable when addressing more difficult, sensitive and controversial issues.

In order to achieve its ambitions, EUROCLIO believes that school history demands responsible well-rounded professionals. It chose – as an independent civil society organisation – to work primarily with the professional group (namely teachers, teacher trainers and advisors and curriculum developers targeting on history, citizenship and heritage education). All the work of the Association is based on three pillars: intense professional capacity building, resulting in the development and implementation of innovative, class-room applicable teaching materials; national and trans-border networking and the creation or strengthening of sustainable and professional national, regional and local History Educators Associations in all European countries and beyond. These organisations act as multipliers of the EUROCLIO work on the national level.

EUROCLIO projects bring together history and citizenship educators across national, cultural and religious borders to explore the sometimes painful past in a safe environment, and through a professionally guided and closely monitored process. In creating a carefully designed methodology and a stable working environment, it has been possible to bring professionals representing different communities involved to gather and produce collaborative results. The exemplary teaching materials for history and citizenship classrooms are published in many languages such as Albanian, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Croatian, Estonian, Georgian, Macedonian, Latvian, Rumanian, Russian and Serbian and are important outcomes of such collaborative work. Generally the produced materials are very well-received by educators and students. External reviews and press coverage are mostly positive, although opponents, especially in Russia, have sometimes sounded alarm bells over the lack of patriotic attitudes of the authors (1).

Although these history text and resource books are used to this day as complementary materials by many, their predominantly function is in depth development of professional capacities. In all EUROCLIO projects in politically-sensitive contexts, and in particular those in the former Yugoslavia countries, participants managed to grow their own and genuine awareness of the innovation of history education and the supranational perspective. By fighting the instrumentalisation of history education for petty political objectives, these projects promote the essence of school education, continuous seeking and questioning, and represent a step towards less segregated societies. Since 1991 over 13,000 history, heritage and citizenship educators have been trained to develop innovative material respecting diversity and to implement the material in the classroom.

The projects are based on trust building among educators participating, who belong to divided societies and/or countries which were recently at war. In Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, Former Yugoslavia, Latvia, Georgia and Central Europe this has been enacted with a high level of success – with the transformation of the target group in their thinking and teaching skills having received governmental and international recognition. Bringing together representatives from teaching communities of the ‘victims’ as well as ‘perpetrators’ and ‘bystanders’; ‘the oppressors’ and ‘the oppressed’, and creating a safe environment for them to work together, the approach creates sustainable working and personal relationships to emerge across conflict divides.

In each project EUROCLIO identifies key people estimated to have developed sufficient ownership of the process of innovating history teaching in a responsible way, and to have the capacity to act as multipliers of the project outcomes, via the sharing of experience and expertise with their colleagues. Based on the educational materials developed within the project, they are able to train other people via lectures and interactive workshops in their own country and abroad, in other contexts where EUROCLIO is dealing with controversial and sensitive history. The core group of educators identified in each project also establishes dialogue with national educational authorities, media and other civil society organisations to advocate curricula changes and follow-up partnerships to widen the impact of the project.

The EUROCLIO methodology promotes an approach to history as a multi-layered and complex reality based on interpretation. In contexts where history has been instrumentalised for political purposes, this represents a radically new way to address historical knowledge. The projects seek to help history educators answer the challenges this new approach implies by developing alternative complementary classroom materials. Through the study of various sources, students discover multiple narratives and learn how to distinguish between facts and opinions, between evidence-based information and propaganda. Traditional assignments for the history lesson are questioned and engaging activities requiring empathy, communication and team work are introduced. Such approach is potentially valid in many other fields related to the education of young people, since it aims primarily to develop their skills and attitudes. History works in this sense as a lever for a broader educational innovation. In this conception, history, citizenship and heritage education is directed towards developing democratic competencies in an active learning manner, adhering to the key and transversal competencies, formulated within the EU education framework (2).

The projects in problematic political contexts foster a teaching of history that enhances critical thinking and the willingness to question simplistic narratives, as well as promotes empathy skills and the ability to disagree about interpretations of the past and their implications for the present without resort to violence. The teaching resources created by inclusive teams of history educators illustrate how these skills and attitudes can be developed among students. Rather than remember the details of specific (and potentially ideologically charged) historical narratives, the materials ask students to investigate questions and develop their own conclusions, based on original historical sources directly linked to the questions, which further reinforces a critical, rather than ideological, approach to history. The focus on the recent past, often neglected by the curricula and favoured by students according different research projects, allows students to be more involved in the collection of evidence, thus fostering active learning (3).

In order to implement a responsible and innovative approach to history education in politically sensitive contexts, the projects are conducted in a highly-inclusive and collaborative manner. Key processes in this regard are collaboration within the project management team between EUROCLIO professional project managers and local volunteer coordinators from the national History Teachers Association; the setting up of teacher-led writing teams to create new educational materials; the transnational cooperation and peer-learning with educators from other countries. The evaluation methods used in the projects include the assessment of project activities by local and foreign participants based on an anonymous evaluation form, external reviews of educational material developed within the project by a history didactics expert, and the conduct of formal and informal interviews with project team members and leaders (conducted individually, in small focus groups, and in whole-group discussions). This diverse feedback allows a constant refining of the methodology within a given project as well as from one project to the other.

However methodological changes cannot stand alone. Responsible and innovative teaching history also requires new ways to address historical knowledge. This means a much better balance between geographical dimensions and political, cultural, economic and social perspectives, as well as a shift towards a more global perspective. There is now more emphasis on everyday life history and the Islamic world. Concepts such as migration, gender, mutual inclusiveness, human rights, diversity and environment have become relevant within curriculum debates in Europe, but are implemented to various degrees. Even not earlier discussed white spots such as national crimes against humanity, colonialism and slavery are slowly entering the European curricula.

EUROCLIO is active in promoting these shifts in both the methods and content of school history, aiming to implement a new paradigm of history education based on learning history as an open narrative rather than as a closed positivistic discipline. EUROCLIO does not advocate an educational approach white-washing and sanitizing problematic national and global narratives of the past, in order to get a non-controversial, rosy picture. However the history it promotes has become more multidimensional and complex and consequently less one sided, biased and politicized. This can be exemplified by past workshops that took place within the EUROCLIO project Experiences and Perceptions of Migrations in Europe’ (2009-2010). Also, clear ready for the classroom results are prepared in the EUROCLIO Historiana project, the cross border and comparative educational web tool, with themes ranging from conflict and cooperation, to life and leisure.

Is there a different approach when it comes to addressing history in areas with internal political, ethnic and religious tensions, or in countries and regions which have recently experienced violent conflicts? I think not. Basically all history is multi-perspective and therefore controversial, fully acknowledging that some topics are (far) more sensitive than others. However our experience in several projects taught us that sensitive history can be addressed with the same methodology. In Cyprus, EUROCLIO organised trainings in 2008-2009, where a Greek-Cypriot trainer and a Turkish Cypriot trainer ran a workshop together about the year 1571, when the island was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. This event is in the Greek national memory considered as a national disaster. In Russia, a country with a Russian-centric national narrative, the team of ‘Mosaics of Cultures’ invented in 2003-2005 an way to teach the unknown concept of multiculturalism (4). In the former Yugoslavia, a chapter on the hidden history of the existence of forced labour camps and the atrocities committed by the Tito regime in 1944 and 1945, was in 2008 included in the book without big debates between the team members from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia (5). In Macedonia, a EUROCLIO project, ‘Retelling the History’, designed an exemplar curriculum on the history of the recent Independence, including a chapter on the violent inter-ethnic relations, which almost led to a civil war in 2001 (6). As team members, we observed the use of these materials by 15/16 year old mixed students from four ethnically divided schools from Skopje. The resources were an inspiration for them and led to remarkable creative thinking, when asked to design programmes for different political parties which based their constituencies on different ethnic groups. Their capacity to develop emphatic programmes was amazing.

History education according to the method carefully developed by many seems to allow very sensitive themes to be addressed. However, extra attention has to be paid to the working environment of professionals in situations where past events are still very emotionally loaded. As stated before, trust building is consequently a basic concept, as only under stable and responsive conditions within the professional group can a sensitive and often painful history be dealt with. Therefore extra attention is also required for the use of emotionally loaded language and narratives. We advocate thinking about the use of impartial concepts and adjectives. In some cases this leads to the design of tasks for students about the sensitivity of certain concepts or language. In the project with Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, the concept of Yugoslavia initially led to heavy emotions betweens Serbs – “we have to use it” – and Croats – “we should avoid using it”. Eventually, however, they concluded that a task to make students in the region reflect on the emotion that the use of Yugoslavia evokes would lead to an important learning outcome.

New high quality helps history education to distance itself from the traditional and often stereotypical grand national narratives. In August 2010, in Lviv, Ukraine, a group of colleagues were working hard to open the conventional Ukrainian school history and to acknowledge in the learning and teaching of history the multicultural character of Ukraine’s past and present society. They used (new) academic research as expert views in the interesting teaching modules collection they were developing. However traditional stereotypical presentations were still not critically addressed. I noticed general images as Ukrainians are victims; Poland, Russians and others were responsible for the fact that Ukraine had such a large Jewish population; the Jews used to be rich and did not have to pay taxes like all others and last but not least Ukrainians were the autochthonous population, all other peoples were migrants. With such historical knowledge one can hardly expect that history education could offer innovative inclusive approaches. The work of the Network of Concerned Historians (NCH) including their code of ethics for historians is not yet generally acknowledged as the fundament for historical studies (7).

The ability to disagree about interpretations of the past is an issue we try to address when working in areas with political, ethic and religious tensions and conflicts. In projects on Integration of Society in Estonia and Latvia in 2002-2004, the inter-ethnic teams looked for a series of topics, which are very differently interpreted in the Estonian, Latvian and Russian speaking communities. The Estonian resource book, ‘History is not only History – the Past is not yet History’, dared to address sensitive questions such as ‘1940- Occupation or Voluntary Uniting with the USSR?’, and ‘the Soviet Republic of Estonia, An Independent or a Marionette State on a classroom level? (8). The Latvian project produced, ‘We in Latvia. Six themes. Methodical Supplementary Aid for History Teachers’. One of the themes in this book was ‘Identity’, aiming on developing the understanding about multi-ethnic factor in historical development of Latvia and the Baltic States and the changing identities of the population throughout time (9). In this chapter the stereotypes in the current Latvian society about ‘ours’ (Latvians), who were fighting against the ‘others’ (so called ‘invaders,’ starting already in the early ages) were addressed through critical thinking approaches.

What certainly is needed, if we really want to address difficult pasts, is time, as we experienced, especially in post war situations like the former Yugoslavia. Only after four project years, in the very last meeting of the editing team, the joint Bosnian, Croat and Serbian team decided that the building of the Kosovo crisis could not be left out (10). This team of history educators and historians has always stressed that their understanding and mastering of innovative approaches to the subject were a prerequisite for their ability to ultimately address this extremely sensitive issue. And mind you, when it happened, it was in the period that the independence declaration of Kosovo was pending.

Work on controversial and sensitive history certainly also requires sincere civil courage from the participants, as professionals under these circumstances run the risk of being attacked by local colleagues – academic historians and history educators alike – as well as by politicians or media. The president of the Macedonian History Teachers Association was very courageous when he took the initiative to present the results of the interethnic project, ‘Retelling the History’, in November 2007 National Macedonian Historians Conference, a bulwark of Macedonian nationalism. However despite scepticism and several walk outs, he was able to convince many that the model used in the project to convey a common narrative was a sound one.

In order to prevent negative pressure on the professional groups while working on sensitive history, project teams work in (relative) silence. Only when the local team feels confident to tell its story, contacts with local educational authorities, politicians, opposition historians and media are developed. This quiet procedure, by the way, also avoids accusations of foreign interference.

And finally, dealing with sensitivity requires – more than in any other situation – means respecting the seven procedural values, such as respect for reasoning and truth, as proposed by Dr. Robert Stradling in his ‘Handbook on Values for Life in a Democracy’ (11). We expect our project team members to have a positive attitude and abide to these rules. Some would see that as preaching for the converted, however many are only bystanders before they start to work together. We have learned that people who from the beginning oppose to learn and to change are not our target group.

Joke van der Leeuw-Roord is the executive director of EUROCLIO, a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation


1) See for positive reviews: Cole (ed), Teaching the Violent Past, History Education and Reconciliation, 2007, p.277; Charles Ingrao and Thomas A. Emmert (ed) Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies, A scholars’ initiative, Perdue University Press, 2009, p.410; Elizabeth Cole, Education in the Shadow of history, Education, History education and Their Place in historical Justice, unpublished Utrecht Edited Volume Chapter, draft, 3 May 2010. p10; Prof. Keith C. Barton, University of Cincinnati, Evaluation Report on EUROCLIO project ‘Macedonia: Retelling the History’, 2007. ; The Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbooks Research organised in 2009 an international Seminar on “BiH between 1992-1995” in which a team member of the EUROCLIO project in Former Yugoslavia contributed extensively.

See Dutch online newspaper Trouw, 12 July 2010, about EUROCLIO’s work in Former Yugoslavia ; see Human Rights Education in the School Systems of Europe, Central Asia and North America: A Compendium of Good Practice, 2010, by several United Nations offices and the Council of Europe, which include the publications developed within the projects “Retelling the History” ran in 2006-2007 in Macedonia and “Integration of Society in Estonia” ran in 2002-2004.

2) See the key competencies defined by the EU Agency for Lifelong Learning: communication in the mother tongue; communication in foreign languages; mathematical competence and basic competences in science and technology; digital competence; learning to learn; social and civic competences; sense of initiative and entrepreneurship; cultural awareness and expression.

3) Maria Grever, Ben Pelzer and Terry Haydn, High school Students’ views on History in Journal of Curriculum Studies1–23 (page 20). Their findings are largely consistent with the Youth and History survey from 1997, executed in 27 mainly European countries.

4) Mosaic of Cultures, school history book (320 pages) on teaching about the Russian multicultural society, 3000 copies. Also available on CD-Rom and Teacher Manual, 2005

5) Innovative regional teaching modules for the implementation of active teaching and learning approaches and critical thinking: ‘Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Country. Every Day Life in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia between East and West 1945-1990’. Available in Bosnian, Croatian, English and Serbian

6) Thematic innovative teaching material on the history of Macedonia after The Independence: ‘Retelling the History’, Mladenovski, M., Niko Company, Skopje. Available in Albanian, English and Macedonian.

7) Antoon De Baets, Responsible History, 2008.  With a Foreword by Jürgen Kocka, President of the International Committee of Historical Sciences, 2000–2005. Please find the code of ethics by clicking here.

8) ‘History is not only Past, the Past is not yet History’, Teacher resource book, published in Estonian and Russian.

9) ‘We in Latvia, Six themes, Methodical Supplementary Aid for History Teachers’, published in Latvian and Russian. p. 32

10) ‘Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Country, Every Day Life in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia between East and West 1945-1990′,p.54

11) Dr. Robert Stradling, Handbook on Values for Life in a Democracy” (Strasbourg, 2007) He gives and explains seven concepts: dignity, reciprocity, fairness, tolerance, freedom, respect for reasoning and respect for truth.

Learn more about the principles of conflict transformation!



7 Responses

  1. Pingback : Can reconciliation be pursued through history teaching? | TransConflict

  2. Marjan de Groot NL

    In twenty yearsa of experience EUROCLIO through many examples has proven that her work qualifies as example for reconciliation through teaching history.

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