Teaching History
Two girls sit at a typewriter inside the Secret Wartime Tunnels at Dover Castle

Teaching 20th Century

The 20th century was a time of rapidly developing technologies, many of them spurred on by the two World Wars. These acted as catalysts for unprecendented social change. 

Read advice from our educational experts and historians on how to approach this dramatic and often devastating period, and find suggested activities to try with your students at home, in the classroom, or on a school trip.

This guide is intended to help anyone teaching the 20th century, but the activities featured will be of particular interest to National Curriculum Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 learners. 

Girl looking through binoculars
  • Link the chunks – For ease of study, it's helpful to break things down into manageable chunks but by doing so the links between them can be lost. Take time to re-map things once the basic knowledge has been acquired to strengthen students’ understanding of the bigger picture.
  • Challenge presumptions of inevitability – It can be all too easy to view the past as a series of events happening in a predictable (and often seemingly progressive) way. Exploring connections is a good thing, but pursuing a linear narrative can lead to ‘blind spots’ in your interpretation. Keep an open mind and try not to completely predict the ending before you get there!
  •  Embrace a range of sources – The range of source material from earlier periods can be limited, especially when trying to explore underrepresented voices of the past. The breadth of sources available should be greater for the 20th century so try to be as representative as possible. Encourage your students to talk to their relatives, explore their local records office, investigate the history of their homes and visit historic sites. Make clear that history isn’t just something you read about in books but can be visible, actively explored and often lies within the lived experience of someone they know.

Suggested Reading and Activities

History At Home Live! Dover Castle and the Dunkirk Evacuation

Watch History At Home Live! with Ben Shires and our expert Paul Pattison to find out more about the role the Secret Wartime Tunnels at Dover Castle played in the Second World War. 

Two students on a hill holding semaphore flags

Get to Grips with the Period

Both World Wars had a major impact on daily life, technology and society. 

A number of English Heritage sites were altered and used in new ways during this period in response to the demands of war. Old fortresses like Pendennis Castle were updated for new kinds of warfare. Private houses such as Wrest Park were converted into hospitals and convalescence homes, while the Courtaulds transformed their cellar at Eltham Palace into an air raid shelter for themselves and their guests. The Secret Wartime Tunnels beneath Dover Castle played a major role in saving the nation in 1940, acting as the command post for Operation Dynamo.

The casualties of both wars are remembered by the London war memorials cared for by English Heritage. York Cold War Bunker is a reminder that the threat of even greater destruction remained ever-present in the second half of the century. 

Read our Introduction to 20th-century England
  • The Richmond Sixteen

    How 16 First World War conscientious objectors detained at Richmond Castle were taken to France and sentenced to death for refusing to obey orders.

  • Fortress Dover and the First World War

    Use our virtual tour to explore a building at Dover Castle that played a vital role in safeguarding Dover as a garrison and naval base in the First World War.

  • Operation Dynamo: The Dunkirk Evacuation

    The mission to evacuate Dunkirk in May 1940 was directed from Dover Castle’s secret wartime tunnels.  Find out the key facts about Operation Dynamo. 

  • The decline of the country house

    How the precarious survival of Brodsworth’s Victorian interiors reflects the determination of its final owners to preserve a way of life that became almost impossible in the 20th century.

20th Century Glossary

  • 20th Century Definitions

    Adolf Hitler (1884–1945)
    Leader of Germany’s Nazi Party from 1921 to 1933, and then Chancellor of Germany, was one of the most powerful and dangerous dictators of the 20th centuy. His order for the German armed forces to invade Poland in 1939 resulted in the outbreak of the Second World War.

    Admiralty Casemate
    One of the tunnels, used by Vice-Admiral Ramsay for his naval headquarters deep beneath Dover Castle during the Second World War. 

    air raid shelter
    A trench, building, or room, usually partly or wholly below ground, that protects people from falling bombs.

    Allied Forces
    The armed forces of those nations fighting against Germany and Japan during the Second World War, led by Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States and China. 

    Armistice
    An agreement between two enemies to stop fighting while a peace treaty is agreed. The armistice of the First World War, at 11am on 11 November 1918, is now commemorated as a date of international remembrance for the Armed Forces and civilians of all the nations involved in the war.  

    Art Deco
    A style of the visual arts, architecture and design which flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, that used bold geometric shapes and strong colours.

    Battle of Britain
    The battle fought with aeroplanes and anti-aircraft guns for control of the skies over England between the Royal Air Force and the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) in 1940, during the Second World War.   

    British Expeditionary Force
    A British military task group formed to make a specific military intervention overseas.  

    Cuban Missile Crisis
    The confrontation between the United States of America and the Soviet Union in 1962 during the Cold War, over the placing of Russian nuclear missile sites in Cuba. 

    D-Day
    An invasion of France via Normandy by Allied forces on 6 June 1944. Codenamed Operation Overlord, D-Day is seen as a major turning point in the Second World War due to the Allies’ success in liberating France from German occupation.  

    First World War
    A global war between 1914 and 1918 that began in Europe when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated. It was one of the largest wars in history. Over forty million military personnel and civilians died because of the war.

    Home Guard
    A volunteer part-time military force recruited for the defence of Great Britain during the Second World War. 

    Ministry of Works
    The government department responsible, from 1940, for managing state property and heritage sites. It had been the Office of Works since 1851. 

    No Conscription Fellowship
    A group formed in 1914 to support people who objected to taking up arms in the First World War. The NCF kept records of every conscientious objector's (CO’s) objection, charge and tribunal. They visited COs in camps, barracks and prisons and tried to publicise their ill-treatment.

    Non-Combatant Corps (NCC)
    A section of the British Army made up of conscientious objectors. Its members had been conscripted but were only prepared to accept non-fighting duties. 

    Operation Dynamo
    The evacuation of Allied soldiers during the Second World War from the beaches east of Dunkirk, and from Dunkirk harbour, in northern France and Belgium, between 26 May and 4 June 1940. Often referred to as the Evacuation of Dunkirk. 

    Vice Admiral Ramsay
    A high-ranking Royal Navy officer who directed the evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk during ‘Operation Dynamo’ in May and June 1940, from inside the tunnels at Dover Castle.

    Revolution
    The overthrow, by force, of a government or social system to introduce a new system.  

    Richmond Sixteen
    Sixteen conscientious objectors who were imprisoned at Richmond Castle for their opposition to the First World War, then transported to France, where they were court-martialled and faced a death sentence. 

    Russian Revolution
    A time of political and social change in Russia that began in 1917. It started with the removal of the monarchy, caused a civil war, and ended with the forming of the Soviet Union.  

    Second World War
    A global war between 1939 and 1945 that began in Europe when Adolf Hitler ordered his troops to invade Poland. Around 75 million people (military personnel and civilians) died as a result of the war.       

    U-boat
    A German submarine, shortened from the German word ‘Unterseeboot’. 

    VE Day
    Short for ‘Victory in Europe Day’ (8 May 1945). The day that the German armed forces formally surrendered to the Allied Forces in Europe, marking the end of the European phase of the war. 

    VJ Day
    Short for ‘Victory over Japan Day’ (15 August 1945). The day the Japanese armed forces formally surrendered to Allied forces, marking the end of the war in south-east Asia and the Pacific theatre.  

    War Office
    A department of the British Government responsible for the administration of the British Army between 1857 and 1964.  

    Winston Churchill (1874–1965)
    The man who was famously Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the Second World War.

A woman in a Royal Navy uniform presents a coded message on a blackboard to a student in the Secret Wartime Tunnels at Dover Castle

Expert Advice

We asked one of our historians for their thoughts on what to consider when teaching the 20th century:

The 20th century witnessed unprecedented change and cataclysmic events including the First (1914–18) and Second World Wars (1939–45). It saw the break-up of European colonial empires and the clash of ideologies represented by the Soviet Union and the United States, with the ascendency of the latter, while China emerged as a rival power. 

The century produced rapid technological change: the internal combustion engine, aircraft, radio, television, and computers resulted in an intricately connected world. This connectivity fostered social and economic change, globalisation, multiculturalism, urbanisation, consumerism and huge benefits in living standards for many, and in better health and effective medicines in vaccines and antibiotics. Massive population growth caused increasing competition and depletion of resources, which contributed to global warming and the degradation of ecosystems, including increasing species extinctions. 

Paul Pattison, Senior Historian

Video Resources

Immerse youself in the 20th century with our variety of themed videos. 

Meet Admiral Ramsay, commander of Operation Dynamo at Dover Castle and find out more about 1930s fashion in the chic interiors of Eltham Palace. Take a tour of the Cell Block at Richmond Castle, uncovering conscientious objector graffiti, and discover York Cold War Bunker 

  • 1930s Fashion at Eltham Palace

  • Inside the Cell Block at Richmond Castle 360 Tour

  • Discover York Cold War Bunker

Help with home learning

In these challenging times many parents and carers are home schooling their children for the very first time, and often in difficult circumstances.

We have gathered together advice from our team of teachers and education experts on how to approach home learning during the current crisis.

Read our home learning help
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