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Members' research

We invite members of the society to discuss their research or to announce their latest publication through a short blog post.

Catriona Pennell

The First World War in the Classroom: Teaching and the Construction of Cultural Memory

I am a social and cultural historian of the First World War with a particular interest in the experience of the conflict amongst non-elites in Britain and Ireland. For the past three years, at the University of Exeter, my research has fed into my third year undergraduate module ‘The First World War: Interrogating the Myths’. Taking some of the most well-established myths surrounding the war in turn, this module challenges what students think they know about the First World War. It provides students with a well-rounded and in-depth understanding of the war from a British perspective, although additional European and non-European comparative perspectives are integrated throughout.

Most students who opt to take this module do so because they think they know something about the war having been exposed to it at some point during their education, whether at KS3, 4 or 5. It is always fascinating to hear about the individual encounters my students have already had with the war. Some fixate upon images of ‘mud, blood and poppycock’. Others have begun to question the simplicity of claiming the end of the First World War inevitably resulted in the outbreak of the Second World War, and other such linear conclusions. Whatever their starting point at the beginning of the module, all my students end up agreeing that the module has exposed them to something they did not know about the war and are excited by the refreshing take on the subject that the latest research – encapsulated by the scholarship of members of the ISFWWS – allows.

In order to assess my students’ ability to communicate complex and ‘revisionist’ ideas about the war to a non-academic audience (as well an encouraging them to reflect on the difficulties of introducing unfamiliar ideas about the war to the general public), this module contains a unique piece of assessment in the form of a school workshop. In groups, students plan, deliver, and reflect upon a 60 minute primary source based workshop on a chosen theme relating to the module to Year Nine/Ten history pupils in local schools. This initiative has run for three years and has proven to be a highlight of the module for students, participating teachers and pupils, as well as myself. It is tremendously rewarding to see students collaborating effectively to research and communicate ideas (that they themselves are passionate about) to an external audience.

While I have always strived to integrate my research into my teaching, it is at this point where, interestingly, my teaching has begun to influence my research. It was from the experience of seeing the First World War being taught in classrooms that I began discussions with my colleague, English Literature scholar Dr Ann-Marie Einhaus at Northumbria University. We share an interest in the way the ‘Great War’ has shaped British collective memory and, together, we sought to secure research funding for a project entitled ‘The First World War in the Classroom: Teaching and the Construction of Cultural Memory’. In December 2012 we met with success via an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) ‘Care for the Future’ exploratory award. The project seeks to gain greater understanding of the link between education and the way the First World War is perceived and commemorated at the point of its centenary anniversaries. The project is about examining the way the war is taught and remembered in the present, to allow us to consider its future relevance to national consciousness and cultural memory as an event that can bridge the generational divide through its abiding interest. One of the key aspects of our research is instigating the first ever national survey of teaching practice in English and History classrooms across England.

Working in partnership with the English Association, the Historical Association and the Institute of Education, the survey launched on 21st June 2013 and ran until early December. This kind of survey has never been undertaken before. In the light of the forthcoming centenary commemorations, it is of vital importance in helping to understand the way young people interpret this seminal event in British and global history. We are interested to know what teachers think, whether they teach the First World War or not.

We are now in the process of collating and analysing our data, gathered from both the survey as well as a symposium held in February 2013 and a series of focus groups hosted with participating teachers in London, Newcastle and Exeter. In the spring we intend to hold a final focus group to discuss the survey results in more detail, preferably in a central location such as Birmingham. The results of the project will then be published in the form of a final report (available via the project website) followed by more in-depth analysis of our findings in relation to our respective disciplines in two peer-reviewed journal articles. In the interim period, a preliminary report is appearing in the Spring 2014 ‘Literature and the Great War’ special issue of the English Association’s The Use of English. The project website has a lifespan beyond the project cycle (which ends officially in May 2014) and we hope it will continue to develop as a hub for dialogue and exchange between academics and teachers of the First World War. Finally, we are in discussions with members of our Academic Steering Committee about developing this pilot project into a large grant application, exploring the way modern conflict has been taught over the past fifty years from a comparative international perspective.

For more information, please visit the project website at

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