Teaching Resources   How to talk about Migration

Teaching migration history: challenges and opportunities

Migration is a sometimes divisive topic in contemporary Britain. Often the subject of newspaper articles, shock television coverage and long scrolls of angry comments online, even the word ‘migrant’ is sometimes used to mean much more than a person who travels from one place to another to continue his or her life (see our definition of migrant/migration).

All the above might make migration seem like a complicated topic to cover in the classroom, one that has to be skirted around and touched upon only briefly if at all. While this site offers no specific programme of how, or even what, to teach pupils about migration as a whole, it was created with the conviction that the centrality of migration to contemporary life makes it more, not less, important to discuss in detail with young people.

'Listening is the single most important skill you can demonstrate when communicating to all ages on any given subject.' – Imperial War Museum, 'Difficult Histories Guide'

Schools are essential places for pupils to learn about and consider the world in which they live. If we avoid critical engagement with the issues we face, we can leave young people unprepared for the world that waits for them, and the world they currently occupy. 

Advice from experts

All of that said, there are many specific ways to handle charged subjects sensitively in the classroom. If there is one general piece of advice it is to set rules and be unafraid of exploring pupils’ views, whatever they may be. The site Moving Here expands this advice into several tips that include the following:

1.    At the beginning of your lesson prepare students for the content they are going to cover.

2.    Consider setting ground rules with them collaboratively.

3.    Use inappropriate comments or questions on sources as an opportunity to invite wider opinions and bring the focus back to the context of the lesson.

4.    Don’t automatically avoid contentious terms – you can make a point of discussing them and pointing out the difficulties they can cause and therefore why people might find them offensive.

5.    You may find it useful to try and teach students how prejudices and stereotypes develop. Encourage pupils to reflect on experiences where they were singled out or treated unfairly.

6.    Address any frustrations or fears that arise within the space of a lesson, and try structuring activities to explore these responses.  

7.    Make use of personal testimonies, which can help material to feel more relevant to pupils' lives.

The Imperial War Museum's short guide on teaching difficult histories , drawn from their many years of experience teaching the Holocaust and the British Empire, and Oxfam’s pack on why and how to teach controversial issues are other useful resources to help you to refine your own strategies for tackling this material.

Whatever the approach you take, we strongly support your efforts to teach this subject with a long historical view. Migration is a fundamental aspect of the world in which we live, one that necessarily touches all pupils’ lives, and, if history is any sign, will only continue to do so as they grow older. By offering pupils the means and tools to think about the topic critically, through the lens of centuries of history, we better equip them to understand and engage with contemporary Britain and the world it sits within.