Heritage education in European classrooms

Do we need broader discussions of history and heritage in European classrooms? New research in the Netherlands says YES.

An impressive collaboration of academics has led to an ongoing research program, initiated by the Center for Historical Culture at Erasmus University Rotterdam: Heritage Education, Plurality of Narratives and Shared Historical Knowledge. Researchers seek to understand the goals and need for heritage education, and the ways in which the approach can contribute to opportunities for students to learn history.

Heritage education

A preliminary publication, “Heritage education: Challenges in dealing with the past,” reveals that, if introduced effectively, heritage education can result in a number of benefits for students of history, including identity development, pluralized perspectives in the classroom, and a personal and contextualized understanding of historical events.

This is particularly meaningful as European countries are becoming more ethnically diverse, with more historical narratives represented among students in the classroom. Although students of color can commonly feel marginalized in these settings, heritage education can bring their stories to the forefront.

Studies show that pupils consider their family history the most interesting kind of history lesson. Personal and family history gives the school subject of history more meaning and motivates pupils to learn more. …Investigating one’s own history is also valuable and encourages active historical thinking. – Karel van Nieuwenhuyse (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven)

This research is especially thrilling for Ancestors unKnown, as we’re now confident that our approach to history education is not only understood in the Netherlands, it’s needed.


Lots of rich quotes jumped from the report to validate the need for Ancestors unKnown, making us feel a little warm and fuzzy inside.

It is clear that heritage provides ample opportunities to contribute to the learning of history in a meaningful and positive way. Material and immaterial heritage can easily trigger curiosity, and authentic objects and sites can foster empathy and support pupils’ imagination of what it was like in the past. In heritage lessons, pupils can also engage in historical enquiry. Exploring historical evidence, reflecting on aspects of change and continuity, or critically questioning historical representations by using heritage may contribute to pupils’ historical thinking and reasoning. In this way, heritage can be considered a powerful resource that engages pupils with the past and enhances the learning of history. – Prof. Carla van Boxtel (Center for Historical Culture at Erasmus University Rotterdam & University of Amsterdam)

This incredible research has great timing. Ancestors unKnown is currently seeking pilot partnerships with history teachers in the Netherlands. We’re developing a local Board of Advisors,  localizing the curriculum, and rolling out opportunities for teachers to incorporate their students’ own heritage and historical narratives into Dutch classrooms. Longer term: we’ll be connecting students throughout the world to their histories – and to each other.

Ancestors unKnown Founder, Dana Saxon, presents to students in the Netherlands
Ancestors unKnown Founder, Dana Saxon, presents to students in the Netherlands

Stay tuned for more details about the international expansion of Ancestors unKnown. If you’d like to be involved, contact Dana Saxon.

For updates from Ancestors unKnown, sign-up for our newsletter!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *