Impact case study

Introducing new ways of teaching the history of the Cold War


They broke through revisionist history and made this complex subject relevant and understandable

Participant comments in follow-up survey

Research by

Professor Odd Arne Westad

Former Distinguished Professor in International History

Dr Svetozar Rajak

Research by

Dr Svetozar Rajak

Department of International History

Dr Tanya Harmer

Research by

Dr Tanya Harmer

Department of International History

LSE historians led summer schools for teachers from around the world on new ways of teaching the history of the Cold War.

What was the problem?

The Cold War has traditionally been understood and taught as a bipolar conflict centred on a nuclear arms race between the global superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union.

Although this approach is still important, new research methodologies and teaching approaches are introducing innovative, more regionalised ways of thinking about the period.

Teachers exposed to these novel methodologies and approaches gain a deeper understanding of the Cold War and of its ongoing relevance to contemporary debates on such issues as imperialism and ethnic conflict.

What did we do?

Multi-archival research by three LSE historians - Professor Arne Westad and Associate Professors Tanya Harmer and Svetozar Rajak - has focused on a new de-centralised approach to international history.

Westad's The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times transformed academic study of the Cold War by highlighting its global, post-colonial dimensions and won numerous prizes, including the Bancroft Prize and the American Political Science Association's Michael Harrington Prize.

Westad also co-edited a three volume Cambridge History of the Cold War, which is the key source for Cold War studies and which introduced new thematic elements to the field, including the roles of demography, women and ethnicity.

Rajak’s  chapter in the Cambridge History contributed to our understanding of the regional and global dynamics in the Cold War. In his book (Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union in the Early Cold War) he successfully argued that Yugoslavia's relationship with the Soviet Union  had critical ramifications for the entire Eastern Bloc and global communist movement.

Harmer published the first serious examination of Cuba's revolutionary involvement in Latin America (One, Two, Many Revolutions?) and of Chile's international relations in the early 1970s (Allende's Chile and the Inter-American Cold War). She is a leading figure in the regional approach to the study of Latin American history.

What happened?

Westad collaborated with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York to convene three week-long summer seminars for secondary schoolteachers between 2009 and 2011.

Coordinated by Westad and co-taught by Harmer and Rajak, the seminars introduced new teaching methodologies to 87 teachers from state, independent and religious schools across North America, Russia, Eastern Europe and the UK.

Participants attended lectures, but a core element of the scheme was the informal social discussion about methods and historiography that took place throughout the week. The LSE team demonstrated how they had used primary sources in their research, with the objective of enabling teachers to use the same methodology in their own classrooms.

In an initial follow-up survey, 75-90% of the participants described the seminar as 'very good' or 'excellent'. A follow-up survey in January 2013 established that the experience had a 'tremendous' long-term impact on participants' teaching. The overwhelming majority of respondents stated that their understanding of the Cold War had vastly improved and that their approach to primary sources and technology had significantly evolved.

The seminars stimulated the teachers to make formal changes to their own syllabi, moving the focus of learning away from exclusive emphasis on the superpowers and towards 'a more global conversation', including previously uncovered topics such as Korea and the Cold War dimension in the Middle East. One school introduced Skype sessions with individuals who had formerly lived 'behind the wall', while another revised a War on Terror Unit to include the 'interconnectivity' of events in Iran and Iraq. One teacher is now a consultant to the International Baccalaureate Organisation in the Hague and has designed an entirely new Global Politics course.

The project fostered communication between students and teachers across countries formerly divided by ideological divides. One of the most cited benefits, in fact, was that the scheme allowed teachers from formerly hostile countries to exchange personal and professional insights. For example, in 2010 a teacher from Tambov, 500 kilometres south of Moscow, set up an online project with another teacher in Colorado (US) entitled The Cold War is long ago: Getting to know each other.

Students responded enthusiastically to the new approaches, with one teacher reporting that her elective on the Cold War had stimulated a number of students to focus their final research papers on the Cold War and related Latin American themes. 

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