Active Learning on

The Big Story of Conflict
Britain’s Wars Across Time


There are several big stories of conflict - how wars have been fought, why people have risked their lives in fighting, the impact of warfare. This particular big story deals with the causes of wars directly but can then be compared and contrasted with the reasons why individuals have risked their lives.

I have used this activity now at a number of courses and it’s prompted a lot of discussion and follow-up requests for the resources.

The basic idea is to create a large map on the floor, using colour-coded cards (a different colour per period) to show the changing geographical spread of the wars in which England/Britain has been involved. As a second step you can use props to show reasons for these wars. As a support or an alternative medium to this use of floor space, we have now created a PowerPoint version.

I think it has sparked interest for one or more of these reasons:

a) activities that usefully cover a thousand years of history in one lesson are still relatively rare, especially if they don’t involve a timeline!

b) the use of colour-coded cards and props to chart the changes and causes is highly visual, making the outline conclusions very clear.

c) for some teachers it reduces the guilt felt by having to rush past or omit many wars that they’d really like to include

and, hopefully most importantly, it demonstrates two critical aspects of planning and teaching:

d) how to create links between outline and depth through enquiry, using an outline to initiate depth studies on individual conflicts

e) creating course coherence at KS3 linking, for example, 1066 and the World Wars of the 20th century and conflicts today.

Like many potentially really useful activities, this does need plenty of thinking and careful planning to reduce potential discipline problems and to ensure students get the most out of the activity. Some of the issues are noted below but trainees who may want to use this should ensure they know, for example, what lesson/s the class has had before and how they normally respond at that time of day.

And finally – it’s worth trying this out on the living room floor at home! This will give you a quick sense of how the use of colour helps create patterns of change and continuity and might help persuade you to try the activity.

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A formatted version of this activity should print from your browser (omitting this support section).

Or, a WORD version of this activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:

• For a WORD version of this activity [ click here ]

• For War Cardsclick here ]. Note that these cards are already formatted for printing. They are in four groups (see bottom right of card). You need to print each group on a different colour card

• Alternatively, for a WORD version of the War Cardsclick here ]. This helps you to amend the wording of the cards to suit your classes

• For Region Cards [ click here ]

• For the PowerPoint [ click here ]. This provides an alternative medium to doing a physical map on the floor.

• For the Revision PowerPoint [ click here ]. This is similar to the above PowerPoint but is shorter (and less clicky) and is suitable for using after you have done the map on the floor - and want to consolidate/revise it.

This activity is based on the ’Physical Maps ’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.


The main purposes of this activity and associated work are to enable students to:

• understand the changing locations of Britain’s wars across time and to suggest reasons why the locations changed e.g. changes in transport and technology.

• understand some of the motives that led to these wars and how these motives may have changed across time

• suggest questions that they wish to ask about the causes of an individual conflict (e.g. 1066, World War One), using this outline to generate a hypothesis

• make links between past and present, identifying similarities and differences across time.

• see their KS3 History as a whole course rather than as a series of one-off topics.

These points are developed further throughout the description of the activity.

Setting Up

For the purposes of this section and the activity description below I’m assuming that you’re doing this the physical way, creating a big map on the floor. If you decide to use the accompanying PowerPoint version, maybe for reasons of class control, then the same questions and prompts apply – it’s just that the medium is different.

You need:

a) a large floor space on which to create the map – large enough to include 4 continents and sufficient space to see the war cards clearly i.e. they’re not all stuffed on top of each other.

b) copies of the 4 cards identifying continents, a small flag to denote Britain and the 25 colour coded war cards. Each set of period cards needs to be a different colour. The four sets are:

• Medieval wars [5 cards]

• 16th century wars [3 cards]

• 17th and 18th century wars [8 cards]

• 19th century wars [9 cards]

Make the continent cards a fifth colour to avoid confusion.

c) a set of props to denote the major causes of wars. As this is fundamentally a set of mono-causal explanations (see below for discussion of this apparently over-simplified approach) this doesn’t require a huge number of props. I have kept this simple and used the following:

• Crowns – to signify wars fight to enhance a king’s power [Xmas cracker crowns are cheapest]

• Bibles – wars fought for religious reasons (or use cards with a cross on them or simply the word ‘religion’

• Monopoly money – wars fought for trade and economic motives

• Pieces of paper with a big ‘F’ written on them! – wars fought for ‘Freedom’ against aggressors

War Cards

This set of cards doesn’t cover every war the English or British have fought in – I may have omitted your favourite war! It’s not intended to be encyclopaedic – simply to provide enough wars to see patterns. You may wish to take some out or add others.

You’ll note that some wars (e.g. the Seven Years War) have more than one card – this is because they were fought in different parts of the world. The text on each card refers to the war in general and to the specific place of fighting for that card so, in the case of the Seven Years war you’d have cards placed in North America, Europe and India.

The linked word document contains the text for the cards so you can amend them if you wish.

There are no cards for 20th century wars – this is tricky to cover in the same way as earlier because of the World Wars and many small imperial conflicts would obliterate the rest. However this, in itself, would create an effective research task and there is enough here anyway to link to present-day conflicts. If anyone does develop this to encompass the detail of 20th century wars I’d be interested to hear.

The Activity

This describes a sequence of activity but the one thing I can’t do is describe the pace at which you will do this – this will vary considerably from class to class. Pace is important to keep interest and a sense of moving on but students will need some help with where to place cards on the map and in choosing props. Therefore this can only indicate a general approach – you will have to tailor exactly how you implement it (and at what pace) to individual classes.

1a. Set out the 4 cards naming continents on your floor space (Asia, Africa, Europe, America) – a flag to denote Britain will also help.

1b. Distribute the war cards amongst the class – you could do this one card to an individual but this leaves some children with no card or obvious task quite quickly. Alternatively split the class into pairs or threes and give each group two or three cards from different time periods.

Make the props visible to inspire interest [‘what are they for?’] or visible with a difference – pile them up but cover them with a sheet [‘what’s under there? Is that for today’s lesson?’]

2. Medieval cards - start with the Norman Conquest and ask the student to place the card on the right geographical spot. Assume you’ll need to help. Then ask that student read out what’s on the card so that everyone can hear [or read it out yourself if this removes any problems for, for example, dyslexic students] – ask the group or the class to choose one prop to explain why that war was fought, using the words on the card – and place the prop over the card – in this case it’s a crown.

Next get students to put down each of the other four medieval war cards in turn and one prop per card. Depending on the class you could do this one card at a time or get all 4 put down at once.

Now discuss the pattern that’s emerged – how widespread were these wars? Why do you think the English weren’t fighting further afield? What seem to be the main causes of war?

In preparation for next set of cards - Do you expect this pattern to change under the Tudors (prompt - what do they remember about e.g. Henry VIII and Elizabeth?)

Note – this pattern of one cause per war is obviously grossly over-simplified but that’s what an outline is – to begin with. Starting with an over-simplified model doesn’t mean that we finish with one – that’s where the link between this outline and likely depth studies comes in – see below.

3. 16th century wars – repeat the process described above for medieval wars. If you wish you could add a card for Anglo-Spanish wars in the Americas over silver, trade and slaving during Elizabeth’s reign.

Again look at the geographical pattern – why hasn’t it changed much? Have the reasons changed or begun to change? And again ask whether pupils expect change in the 1600s – what do they know about life then that might help them – prompt with clues to get thinking about possibilities. If they think that a wider spread is likely and they’re proved right it helps their confidence.

4. 17th and 18th century wars – a much wider geographical spread. Repeat the process of placing cards – if all the cards are put down at once it helps establish the point about war spreading across the globe but double-check that the cards are in the right places! Props – again read out the details to prompt choosing of props to signify causes - lots of Monopoly money now appears to signify trade.

If you wish this is a good place to point out that the reasons for war may depend on whose viewpoint you take – the British may have been prompted to fight the American War of Independence for economic reasons but the Americans would have put down the ‘F for Freedom’ card. If you want to introduce the idea of greater complexity of causes it would fit well here.

Get pupils thinking about why wars have spread across the globe – technology, shipping, ideas about empire etc.

5. 19th century wars – repeat the same process - this time the pattern reveals an even wider geographical spread – southern Africa, China, Afghanistan [wars against Russia or to prevent Russia’s incursions in the Crimea and Afghanistan point up the value to Britain of India]. You may want to add other imperial wars e.g. New Zealand.


You now have a very visual display of the geographical spread of wars and their major causes. You could follow up with questions standing around the map or return students to their seats and use the revision PowerPoint as a reminder.

- can students describe how the geographical spread of Britain’s wars changed – and when these changes took place?

- can they suggest reasons for this changing geographical pattern of wars?

- what have they learned about the major causes of these wars and how they changed over time?

You might want students to record the results on a blank world map – it’s important to use colour to replicate the activity. This may also be needed to settle everyone down.

Linking to the rest of KS3

This activity provides an outline framework which is of some use on its own but its major value lies in providing a link between depth studies on conflicts in different periods and particularly in helping students to think and hypothesise about both causes of war and motives for fighting in them.

For example you could:

- if you work through time across KS3, you could use this activity at the beginning of Y7 before you do the Norman Conquest. One part of your work on 1066 would be to deepen the explanation for war in 1066 that’s contained in this activity. You could then re-use this activity – either as a floor map or using the PowerPoint before covering later wars, perhaps those in the 20th century to create hypotheses about why there have been so many wars since 1900.

- if you follow a thematic study of Conflict across time, perhaps in a single term, this could again be used as an introduction to the whole theme either before work on 1066 or afterwards to provide a linking outline activity across time.

- it could be used to stimulate discussion about the differences between the ‘causes of wars’ (trade, religion etc) and the motives of individual soldiers for fighting – are they the same or do soldiers have a different set of reasons for risking their lives? This could then be investigated through, for example, motives for joining up in 1914 or 1939.

- it could be used to make links to conflicts today, their whereabouts and causes and similarities and differences with past wars.

And there’s probably lots of other uses!


1. What class management issues emerged unexpectedly and how will you deal with them next time you use this activity?

2. How will you help students to get more out of this activity next time?

3. How can you use this activity to link to depth studies on conflicts e.g. 1066 or World War One?

4. How can you use activities like this to help students see their KS3 history course as a course and not a series of separate items?

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Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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Setting Up

War Cards

The Activity


Linking to the rest of KS3