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Timelines for Understanding Duration


Timeline work often concentrates on sequencing events but understanding duration is at least as important and can be even more important in some topics. Obviously a sense of duration is something that grows over a long time but specific activities built in at intervals will help speed this process up. The following examples suggest ways in which a sense of duration can be slowly built up.

Most of these activities do this by relating, in various ways, the passage of time during historical events to pupils’ lives and the lives of their relatives. Another quite frequent way of doing this is to chart events on a 24 hour clock but I wonder (very conjectural this!) whether one of the weaknesses of this ‘clock’ approach is that a single day isn’t a lengthy time and so to use it to build a sense of duration across a much longer period may not make sense.

One final point by way of introduction – it can be just as important to focus on duration at Advanced Level as at Key Stages 1 and 2. It’s just the quantity of detail and the complexity of understanding that differ. As an example, I used to mark out key events on a timeline while teaching the period April-July 1483 at final year degree level. Telescoped into paragraphs in a book events apparently followed each other with great rapidity. However mapped on a timeline set out as a real calendar students began to appreciate the real-time gaps, sometimes 3 or 4 weeks in length and began to think about what might have been happening in those periods of time.

Please note this is a somewhat random collection of ‘duration’ activities (arising out of teaching and Inset) so please send in your own versions and I’ll add them to this collection or let me know which other events you’ve applied these different models to.


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Or, a WORD version of this activity can be downloaded, click here.

These activities are based on the ’Timeline’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.

How long were the Romans here for?

Britain was part of the Roman Empire for nearly 400 years – a number that has a powerful impact but only once your sense of duration has matured quite a lot. Another way to look at it is to work back from now. If the Romans were leaving now then they’d have arrived sometime in the reign of James I – think of all the events that have happened in that time – but again that only works if you have a developed sense of events between the early 1600s and today.

So how can we help pupils towards a sense of that enormous 400 year period? As usual it will help to have lots of space but don’t start with the whole timespan from 43 to early 400s AD. Here are some ideas for developing a sense of the duration of Roman Britain.


1. Start with the Roman invasion and the one event almost everyone covers – Boudica’s rebellion in AD60. Add them to your timeline and then relate that period to the age of your pupils – how far along the line between 43 and 60 does their lifetime reach? Does anyone have a brother or sister who fits that gap exactly? What words would they use to describe that length of time? (This may help show that Boudica’s rebellion wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the Roman invasion).

2. Now add in Hadrian’s Wall, built c.120AD. Would someone born in 43AD still be alive when the Wall was built? Only just of they were very old – try relating this to pupils’ parents’ ages and, more usefully, their grandparents’ ages. How many generations would it take to fill this gap – start with a child born in 43AD, then they have their own child in 68AD, then a grandchild is born in 93AD and finally, just as the wall is finished, a great-grandchild is born. This mapping the generations will help with that sense of duration – always difficult to define which is why, I suppose I use the word ‘sense’.

3. Now extend the line to c.400 – just marking this out physically will help build the sense of a long-time (and make the class walk the timeline so they walk the amount of time). Adding one pupil per generation every 25 years will deepen this. You could even develop this by asking each child, in turn to say ‘I’m going to call my child [name of the next in line]’ to enhance that sense of generations. It takes 15 or 16 generations to get to the departure of the Romans.

If you are looking at this in more depth you could build in, for example, other rebellions or the stages when particular areas of the country came under Roman rule or when villas and towns were at their peak and in decline.

Another add-on would be to use a physical timeline to relate ‘Roman Britain’ to the whole history of the Roman Empire – which will help pupils see that Britain was a relatively late addition.

Romans, Saxons and Vikings – the Overlaps

I started out with a simple sequencing activity – can you get the Romans, Saxons and Vikings in the right order? But, of course, that doesn’t allow for overlaps and duration. So here’s a timeline activity that goes beyond simple sequencing.

1. You’ll need 15 pupils to form your line, each represents one century.

(You may need to have done some work on getting a sense of duration re centuries beforehand, maybe by measuring a century against granny – see below in Victorian activity).

2. Each pupil needs a tabard or card saying who they are (Roman, Saxon or Viking) – maybe colour coded to help distinguish between them. You need:

  • 4 Romans
  • 7 Saxons
  • 4 Vikings

3. Start with the Romans and build them up, one century at a time. Begin by asking how long the Roman army was here or how long pupils think it was here. Then bring in your 4 centuries of Romans.

4. Now who came next – Saxons or Vikings? And did Saxons arrive after the Romans left or before? This is our first overlap - with Saxons sharing 4th century Britain with the Romans. So you can add in your seven centuries of Saxons with the first one kneeling in front of the last Roman to signal overlap.

Note on spacing – having 15 pupils in a straight timeline means that they can’t see each other – create it with a slight bow inwards so everyone can see the others.

Note on centuries – this is a useful place to do some work on dating centuries i.e. which century is 873 in – the eighth or the ninth? (See another activity on this website for ways of doing this, Making Sense of BCAD).

5. Now for the Vikings – when did they first arrive? The first attacks were in the late 8th century so they overlap the Saxons a lot – 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th century – again you could have your Vikings kneeling down in front of the Saxon centuries to get across that overlap.

So now you have a timeline that’s a lot more sophisticated than a simple Romans, Saxons, Vikings sequence. Depending on the age and ability of pupils you could develop this further, into looking at whether these new arrivals changed anything or whether the people of Britain carried on much as before whoever was in charge.

Henry VIII and his Wives – which Queen lasted longest?

With Henry VIII’s wives, students can become fixated on the number and sequence when the most important thing is really to understand the pattern of marriages across Henry’s reign and what this tells us about how surprising the changes of the 1530s actually were. Use this at KS2, KS3 or A level and adapt the questions and understandings to your class.

1. Make six tabards, each with the name of one of Henry’s wives and give them to a group of students.

2. Identify one side of your room as 1509, the other as 1547 – use big notices if this helps. Add marker dates in between.

3. Ask the six students to stand on the timeline in sequence – involve the rest of the class to check they’re right or re-position them.

4. Place Catherine of Aragon in 1509 and ask where Ann Boleyn goes on the timeline – the answer is the year of marriage, 1533.

5. Now place the rest according to the year of marriage (JS 1536, A of C January 1540, KH July 1540, CP 1543)

6. Discuss – what you discuss is obviously a function of the age of your students and your teaching objectives but start with open-ended questions such as ‘Has anything surprised you about this pattern?’ Does this change your ideas about Henry?’ ‘What does this suggest about Henry and Catherine of Aragon?’ ‘What questions do you want to ask about Henry and his marriages?’

7. Repeat in a week or two to consolidate knowledge if necessary.

Will you have finished school before Charles I is executed?

This is a different twist on comparing historic time with real time as understood by pupils. Gaining a sense of the length of the Civil War is difficult, as is placing the execution of Charles I in relation to the rest of the events. Maybe this will help – with A level as well as Y8.

1. Map out your pupils’ school career – either physically on the floor or on the board – but on the floor in a big space will be much better. Map each year from Y7 to Y13, mark GCSE and A levels and mark in summer holidays too to help build a sense of the reality of this long period of time – at least it’s long when you’re 12!

2. Now bring in your historic events – beginning by equating the beginning of the Civil War (August 1642) with the beginning of Y7.

Mark this with a large label saying ‘Beginning of Civil War’

3. Now hold up a large label saying ‘Execution of Charles I – end of civil wars’ and ask ‘where do you think this goes on our school timeline – will you be in Y8, Y9, Y11 or still in Y7 when Charles is executed?’ Get a range of suggestions, then place the Execution label in the correct place – half-way through Y13, just after Christmas.

Now ask about the length of time – choose your own questions to suit your class but e.g. – how long does this feel? How old will you be when you’re nearly taking A levels or have left school? Are you surprised it was so long? What has this taught you about how long the Civil War was? What words would you use to describe this length of time?

4. Now move on to develop this in whatever ways you wish e.g.

– questions might include ‘do you think they were fighting all the time?’

– you could chart the two civil wars, key battles (where do Marston Moor and Naseby fit into the school career – before or after GCSEs?) and when Parliament finally decided to execute Charles.

– create a research task for students, giving individuals or groups events to research and relate to the Y7-Y13 pattern

This activity should therefore help with two things – knowledge of the sequence and pattern of events and a sense of duration overall and within the history of the civil war. In turn this sense of duration should help with understanding e.g. that Parliament was loathe to execute Charles and it took a very long time for that stage to be reached.

This style of activity will also work in the context of the Norman Conquest, the World Wars and probably a fair number of others events.

Did Queen Victoria’s reign last longer than Granny?

A good quiz question – 1837-1901 – 64 years – but how long is that? This is a rough outline that needs to be tailored to individual classes and can be used in relation to other reigns or periods.

1. Create a physical timeline in your room, one end marked 1837, the other 1901. Now do some arithmetic – how many years was Victoria queen for?

2. Now, how old are you? (to pupils in the class)

(Using age 8 as an example) - Well, how far along the line do your years go?

Measure 8 years from 1837 and put the first pupil at 1845 – get pupils to describe how far that seems – what words would they use to describe the proportion of time taken up by an 8 year as part of Victoria’s reign.

[Could develop this by building in more 8 year olds – how many do you need to fill the whole reign?)

3. Now use a parent – how far along the line does a Mum or Dad go – or even you as teacher or a classroom helper – measure this out again and repeat. There’s still a lot of time left – maybe we need to try a Granny?

4. Has Granny (having carefully discovered the age of someone’s granny beforehand – ideally with a picture to help focus) taken up the whole of Victoria’s reign – what do you think before being told age? Shorter or longer? Now measure out granny against Victoria.

So our outcome is that Victoria’s reign (or any other reign or period) was even longer than granny’s life (to date hopefully!). This doesn’t produce a very concrete outcome but it may well accelerate the development of that rather vague ‘sense of duration’.

Notes & Variations

This kind of activity can be used to establish patterns of duration in days, months, weeks, years or longer periods – any topic where a better understanding of duration aids understanding.

It can work with short-term periods such as the Cuban Missile Crisis or longer term such as the Civil War or Victoria’s reign.


Things to think about to evaluate and develop the activity:

  1. What exactly were you trying to achieve and was the impact of this activity on students’ understanding?
  2. What’s the best way of students’ recording or consolidating what they have learned?
  3. Where else might you use this technique within your teaching?
  4. Did you enjoy the activity yourself? If so, why?


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

Top of the page

This Page




Roman Empire

Roman, Saxon, Viking Overlap

Henry VIII’s Wives

Charles I’s Execution

Victoria’s Reign


Notes & Variations