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Teaching chronology in KS1 and KS2

Main Subject: CPD

Subject: Cross Curricular

Author: Chris Russell

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Teaching chronology in KS1 and KS2

History is fertile ground for creative lessons, but there’s always the danger that important knowledge and skills, such as understanding chronology, become lost, says Chris Russell...

I was recently approached by a local primary school to help them refocus their history schemes of work. They felt that, in recent years, the emphasis of their history lessons had shifted away from historical skills, enquiry and an understanding of chronology in order to accommodate creative learning experiences. In a climate where the word ‘history’ is disappearing from timetables in favour of ‘topics’ or ‘knowledge and understanding’, it is refreshing that this school was able to sit back and reassess their direction. In doing so, they concluded that the concept of chronology had been lost.

It would be an easy task to compile a list of enquiry-based lessons and, to some extent, the same could be said for sequencing and ordering activities. However, teaching the concept of time is not a straightforward or easy thing to do.

Time is not a concrete entity, it is an ethereal thing – concertinaing in our memory in elasticated waves. For children, it is the most difficult of concepts to wrap their brains around. When you also consider that some schools do not teach their history topics in chronological order, you begin to see that teaching chronology is more than a little bit challenging.

Children find it difficult to grasp a sense of depth in time. Understanding that something happened in the past is different to appreciating when it happened in the past. Knowing that their teacher is older than them is one thing; knowing that their teacher wasn’t alive during WWII is another.

Teachers can provide any number of sorting and sequencing activities that require the children to understand the order of events and in doing so will feel that they are addressing chronology. However, a concern remains as to whether these sequencing activities genuinely develop an understanding of chronology or simply tackle the issue at a surface level.

To address this, the online video (tinyurl.com/ tpchronology) demonstrates the effective use of such activities and goes some way towards demonstrating how sequencing can be used to develop a deeper sense of chronological understanding.

As is often the case, the value of the lesson is directly proportional to the quality of the teaching input: the children are enthusiastic in their responses; the information they are dealing with is real; and teachers reinforce chronological understanding through high quality questioning and prompting. The clip also highlights the opportunities history provides for crosscurricular work and assessment.

This is a clip that I use with my trainee teachers, as I believe it demonstrates good history teaching and reinforces best practice.

In addition to this, practitioners can take a holistic approach to the teaching of chronology, whereby the children are continually introduced to the concept in each new history topic they encounter. In much the same way that road safety is taught, or e-safety messages are shared, the children’s understanding and emerging ideas of chronology will be enhanced and developed over time in relation to the present time and previously studied eras.

Timelines, although often derided, come into their own, helping a class to place their topic in time, and the important events associated with that period in order. The use of technology arguably makes the teaching of chronology more accessible. Interactive timelines have the ability to show gaps in time more clearly than has, perhaps, been possible before. Web 2.0 resources such as Time Toast (timetoast.com) make this facility readily available to teachers, as does the timeline template within Smart Notebook.

Children’s understanding of chronology can be addressed through the activities, artefacts and resources that are usually used to deliver history lessons. Living history experiences and visits to museums are invaluable to the development of children’s historical understanding, including that of the concept of chronology. In other words, the use of photographs, artefacts, looking for clues and asking questions go hand in hand with the development of chronological understanding. It is also worth considering that just as our understanding of the world continues to develop after we leave school, so too does our understanding of the concept of time. It doesn’t end in Y6.

A web search for ‘teaching chronology’ reveals two things. Firstly, that there is a wealth of suggestions, on a range of web pages, that provide ideas as to how to address chronology in the primary classroom. Secondly, that there doesn’t seem to be an agreement between teachers as to how important teaching chronology actually is. I’m not sure I agree with those who think it can be discounted. I think an understanding of when things happened is as important as an understanding of what happened.

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