Getting students to care about modern world history

  • Why get students to care?
  • What can we do?
  • Possible ways to persuade students to care about modern world history

Why get students to care?

Getting students to care about the history they study may seem to be a borderline utopian aim. Many teachers may feel that getting their students to sit still, pay attention, do their reading and hand in assignments is enough of a challenge. Getting them to care as well might seem a step too far. And using archive sources to do it might seem incredibly ambitious ...  But there are sound reasons for attempting this challenge.

The first is that it’s important for students to care about history, and especially modern world history, because history holds the key to understanding why the world around us is the way it is. A second reason is that getting students to care might be an effective way to make it easier to get students to do all the things listed in the previous paragraph. A third reason is that an archive collection like the Churchill Archive is a way for students to understand that knowledge doesn’t simply exist on its own; it’s selected and shaped by historians based on the experiences of people who lived through history.

The Churchill Archive brings students closer to those people, both great leaders and ordinary people.

Men leaving a pit before the First World War, by Gerald Palmer for More Pictures of British History, 1914. (Wikimedia Commons)

What can we do?

Of course, it’s a lot easier to set challenges than it is to meet them! And we need to be realistic about what can be achieved. So the aim of this resource is not to ‘reveal’ how to get students to care. That would be unwise and even arrogant. The purpose is to share some approaches which teachers have used when they’ve tried to achieve this aim. In particular, the aim of this resource is to share some of the arguments and approaches which teachers have used to persuade students that they might want to care.

Possible ways to persuade students to care about modern world history

One approach is to consider ways teachers can use to help particular classes or groups within classes, or even individual students. For example:

  • Show that the history experienced by students in the classroom will often connect to their personal experience.

Example: At the simplest level, students could use historical documents to see how people in the past, for varying reasons, often said one thing publicly while privately believing something different – this is true of both the ordinary person in the street and of powerful leaders.

In the photograph, we’re given the sense that there are nothing but friendly relations between Churchill, US President Roosevelt and Soviet leader Stalin at the Yalta Conference in 1945. This is something of a shocking contrast when we read what Churchill and Roosevelt have to say about Stalin to each other immediately after the conference.
  • Make students aware of the parallels and comparisons which can be drawn (sometimes wrongly or misleadingly) between historical events and present-day issues and events

Example: Appeasement in the 1930s is often compared with present day situations such as the situation in Ukraine in 2015. The Churchill Archive for Schools resources show us that appeasement in the 1930s was a response to complex challenges and that there was debate in the 1930s just as there’s debate and uncertainty about what to do in present-day situations.

See the documents above in the Archive here and here.

Politicians and other people in the past did not have the luxury of hindsight. When we look at the 1930s we see that many, probably a majority, actually favoured appeasement. This does not necessarily mean it was the right or wrong policy but it does show how complex the situation was. If appeasement was unclear in the 1930s, then claiming that present-day situations are the same as those in the 1930s may be oversimplifying the situation.
  • Make students aware of the significance of what they are studying - why certain events are being studied while others are not.

Example: The ‘Special Relationship’ might be considered significant for students in the US or UK but not for students in other countries. The Churchill Archive for Schools has investigations which look at the nature of the Special Relationship as well as other events of relevance to students in other countries.

  • Explain how and why a good historical understanding can provide helpful information about a present-day problem.

Example: The financial crash and Depression of the 1930s can be compared with the financial crash of 2008 and the recession which followed.

  • Demonstrate that the skill-set students develop and practice in every history lesson equips them superbly for the modern knowledge economy.

Example: In a history class, a student is challenged with a question, has to search for sources of information to tackle that question, has to decide on the quality and validity of that information, has to retrieve what is relevant to the question from that information, has to marshal what has been found into an argument and then communicate a judgement clearly, with substantiating evidence. This is a daily occurrence for a history student. It’s also a daily occurrence in almost all knowledge-based industries ranging from law to marketing to media to telesales.



This web site offers courses to business leaders today about the lessons they can learn from history and how they might be applied to present day situations. This particular example looks at how Churchill managed the turbulent situation he found when he became Prime Minister in 1940 and how the lessons Churchill learned could be applied in business today.

Challenge students to apply their historical knowledge and the methods of the historian outside the history classroom

Example: When looking at websites which inform or purport to inform about historical events, students who have a good working knowledge of the subject matter and understand how the historian works will question not only the content but also the purpose and intent of the author of that content.

This set of approaches is adapted from ‘What’s History Got To Do With Me?’, an online resource from the Historical Association (England). The resource is free to access if you log in to the site. The resource contains a wide range of worked examples and resources on how to help students to see the importance of what they are studying and to care about modern world history and, indeed, history in general.