The Boy in the Nazi Jumper: Literacy and Knowledge Creation in the History Classroom

Nicholas Dennis - Assistant Head, Felsted School, Felsted, Essex.
A key question is how to harness the potential of ICT to deliver what is pedagogically useful in day-to-day history teaching, rather than what is technologically impressive in terms of ‘what can be done’. Terry Haydn

History is essentially about people: their hopes, jealousies, fears and the complexities in between. Chapman (2009) believes that the study of History is about understanding ourselves as we cannot make sense of the present or act in the future without some understanding of our past. It seems logical to conclude therefore that our endless fascination with others and ourselves and the explosion of educational technology in schools should naturally combine to create learning experiences that are meaningful and significant. However, as Haydn’s quote suggests, a substantive answer from educational institutions and companies producing the technologies seems to be lacking. With an emphasis on ‘better, faster, easier’, technology is seen as a simple panacea to intricate and divergent learning problems our students confront. his ‘better, faster, easier’ view has been reinforced in part by the many blogs, web pages, conferences and tweets highlighting the latest technologically impressive use of a tool without referring to the context. Driven as teachers are by a desire to improve learning, colleagues around the country have latched on to these tools in the hope it will have some effect on the students without really knowing if it is helping to achieve the stated desire. It is no wonder then, that we appear credulous to colleagues when they ask for proof of learning or suggest another activity that can have the same result.

Moving beyond a simplistic understanding of ICT in the History classroom where it becomes pedagogically useful in day-to-day teaching demands us to think carefully and critically about what we are trying to teach before we apply the use of technology. In the following paragraphs, one possible way to overcome the issue of the banal use of ICT in History teaching is outlined by focusing on what is effective or important rather than what is impressive or urgent.  

Defining the context of the important - the learning problem

Wider reading and the understanding that comes through reflecting about what has been absorbed distinguish the good historian from the outstanding one. Literacy is important for progress in History and as such, the department at Felsted has encouraged wider reading in a number of ways; at A2 the students have to read and review AJP Taylor’s The Course of German History and throughout the school we have a History Book Club where fiction is matched with the activities covered during Year 9. Despite the modest success of the push with more analysis that is detailed and citations in essays and in class discussons, the level of student motivation at GCSE level does not match their self-motivation/concentration in other areas of their lives, such as playing computer games. Claxton (2002, p.19) in discussing the four dispositions for successful learners highlights the ability to be rapt or intrinsically engaged with the object of learning. Students may become engaged for a variety of external reasons such as a desire to please the teacher or fear of the consequences if they do not complete work. Essentially, there is nothing wrong with these motivations apart from it does not lead to being ‘rapt in learning’ and pursuing, as Counsell notes, the most difficult of tasks when they are fired up and excited. (2000, p.62) Engendering a sense of intrinsic motivation and allowing them to develop the ‘habits and dispositions…so that over time they become second nature’ (Claxton, 2002, p.19) is more effective than a short term burst of externally driven productivity.

To help resolve the learning problem of literacy and motivation at GCSE, a return to the source material (be it the textbook or wider reading) with the issue defined is necessary as this often throws up interesting possibilities. After a chance conversation with an International Baccalaureate (IB) student, a book called ‘Destined to Witness’ written by Hans J. Massaquoi was recommended as something which would interest the students. The son of Liberian father and German mother, he grew up during the Nazi period in Germany, fought in the Korean War and became heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement. His story was bursting with a complexity absent from the textbook but also a familiarity in terms of a young person trying to make sense of the world around him and as such, the book seemed to be a good choice in helping to resolve the literacy issue. However, it was the image on the front of the book that sparked the idea to use it as a motivational tool for wider learning.


What made it arresting was his jumper and the Nazi Swastika sewn into the middle of it. Immediately, questions began to bubble; was he made to wear this as a punishment or did he choose to wear it? When was this picture taken and how did he manage to survive and locate this picture? Although ideal as a piece of Initial Stimulus Material (ISM) (Phillips, 2001) to introduce the topic of life in Nazi Germany and generate interest, it would not create the necessary internal motivation for study by itself.

Wikipedia and the SAMR Model

However, the richness of Hans’ life story and the ability to make the familiar (life in Nazi Germany) strange demanded that the use of the image should be more than an introductory tool. As part of the research process, the simple method of ‘Googling’ Massaquoi threw up a number of surprises. First, there was very little online about this remarkable man and second, the amount of information on Wikipedia, the readily cited source by many students and seen as the definitive guide to all knowledge, lacked even a moderately considered treatment of his life.

At this stage, a decision had been made about the use of Massaquoi’s book in a range of lessons. First, his story would introduce the topic on social life in Nazi Germany but also provide contextual ‘colour’ for the area of study. The GCSE unit on life in Nazi Germany covers the treatment of minorities and Nazi policies on the young, workers and women. Massaquoi’s book provided rich and compelling source material for each of these topics. Second, Massaquoi’s story seemed a natural fit in terms of promoting wider reading. The intention to use his story as a contextual wrapper was deliberate as it was hoped that enough interest would be generated whereby the students would want to find out what happened to him. However, it needed something more conclusive if it really was to fire the imagination of the students and it at this juncture, Reuben Puentedura’s model for thinking about the use of technology in schools had a profound impact. 


 Puentedura’s model presents a simple checking system for the use technology in schools with each level clearly indicating the opportunities available with each half of the model stating whether the use of technology would be merely an enhancement of what already exists or allow for the transformation of learning. Thinking about Wikipedia in relation to the SAMR model ignited the idea that the students could do something transformational with the material from Massaquoi’s book and gain an appreciation of the role of what an actual historian does by writing for an audience. The final outcome of their reading would be to produce ‘new’ knowledge for the world by editing and adding to Massaquoi’s Wikipedia entry. This simple editing exercise would fulfil Haydn’s principles on the effective use of ICT in History teaching as the pupils are asked to do something with the information they are given and there is a valid historical purpose to the activity undertaken. (2000, p.105). It would also provide the necessary motivation – who would not be motivated to reveal something that did not ‘exist’ before?


With a clear purpose, the learning process could commence. The image of Massaquoi became the centrepiece for the whole unit of work rather than just a lesson and the confusion, awe and intrigue it provoked provided the momentum for the learning journey. The students were amazed when told of the Wikipedia entry objective and this led to an interesting discussion on their authorial power as knowledge producers and Wikipedia’s impermanent nature. Each sub-topic within the unit of work, such as the role of women, began with a passage from Massaquoi’s book which generated a sustained interest in his life which ultimately led to a few students deciding to read the book themselves as they could not wait until the next lesson to find out what happened to him and his family. Exam question answers and class discussions became littered with examples from Massquoi’s life and the class returned with regularity to the unique experience Massaquoi faced in comparison to the information in the textbook.

Writing the Wikipedia entry was helped enormously in that the site’s rating for articles closely resembles a GCSE mark scheme in detailing what is needed to achieve the grade. Repurposed with students in mind, the ‘mark scheme’ was given to the students with a clear target of a ‘C’ class article.

 Class of article  Criteria Reader’s experience Editing suggestions     
 Start An article that is developing, but which is quite incomplete and, most notably, lacks adequate reliable sources  Provides some meaningful content, but the majority of readers will need more.    Provision of references to reliable sources should be prioritised; the article will also need major improvements in content and organisation.
 C The article is useful, but is still missing important content or contains a lot of irrelevant material. The article should have some references to reliable sources.      

Useful to a casual reader, but would not provide a complete picture for even a moderately detailed study.

Considerable editing is needed to close the gaps in content.
 B The article is mostly complete and without major issues, but requires some further work to reach good article standards.  

Readers are not left wanting, although the content may not be complete enough to satisfy a serious student or researcher.


A few aspects of content and style need to be addressed, and expert knowledge is increasingly needed. The use of supporting materials should also be considered if practical.

The target was made even more manageable by relaying to the students the two things they needed to do:

1)   Provide information about Massaquoi’s life that was not on the page.

2)   Provide page references.

The first requirement was straightforward for the class as they regularly absorb and recount key information from sources. What was different was the focus; they wanted it to be as good as possible. The second stipulation was slightly more difficult as GCSE students are not required to reference works but they quickly grasped the idea.  In groups, the students were given extracts from the book and were told to focus on the ‘C’ class requirements and the level of focus and the writing produced was impressive and their entries can be seen on the Wikipedia alongside the work of History teachers at the Schools History Project conference workshop.


In terms of the original objective to promote greater literacy, the project met the intended outcome. In particular, the boys in the class were motivated to read the book themselves (which they helpfully showed throughout the rest of the topic). It also got the students to engage with a piece of text that they all read eagerly for five minutes at the start of the lesson and enabled wider contextual knowledge for the GCSE unit as a whole, accounting, in part, for the excellent external GCSE results with a number of the students attaining full marks. As a supplement to reaching a better understanding of life in Nazi Germany, the project also made them aware about the role Wikipedia should play in their future studies.  It also instilled a sense of purpose – they had produced ‘new’ knowledge for the world that for any person, regardless of age, is impressive.

The study of History is essentially about how we relate to each other and the work the students conducted through the project retained a sense of wonder and horror about our capacity as a species to treat other human beings with kindness and cruelty. Stories such as Massaquoi’s demand to be treated with the appropriate respect:

I fell through the cracks of modern history’s most extensive, most systematic mass-murder scheme, with the fortunate result that I am still around and able to write this account of my life. (Massaquoi, 1999, p.xvi)

Attempting to build this sensibility with impressive technology does a great disservice to the education of the students under our care and to lives of the people who have gone before us; such stories should never fall through the cracks caused by our inability to discern what is really important in the face of the technologically impressive urgent. 


Chapman, A., 2009. Introduction: Constructing History 11-19. In: H. Cooper and A. Chapman, eds. Constructing History 11-19 London: Sage 2009

Claxton, G. Building Learning Power Bristol: TLO 2002

Counsell, C. 2000. Historical knowledge and historical skills: a distracting dichotomy. In: J. Arthur and R. Phillips, eds. Issues in History Teaching London: Routledge 2000 

Haydn, T. 2000 Information and communications technology in the history classroom. In: J. Arthur and R. Phillips, eds. Issues in History Teaching London: Routledge 2000 

Massaquoi, H.J. 1999. Destined to Witness London: HarperCollins 1999 

Phillips, R. 2001. Making History Curious: Using Initial Stimulus Material to promote enquiry, thinking and literacy Teaching History 105 December 2001.