Active Learning on

Physical Maps and Family Trees

Using Physical Maps

It can be dangerous to assume that students know their way round maps of Britain, Europe and the world at large. They often don’t. While it’s tempting to blame geography teachers it’s better to find effective ways of helping students understand where places fit in geographical relation to each other. Doing this by creating a physical map in the classroom, using students as places, then also enables other concepts to be made concrete, such as the relative power of states. For many students this is much more effective than simply looking at a map in a book and the activity can be used with all ages – including Y12 and 13.

This model activity can be used in a host of contexts – the spread of the Roman empire, England, Normandy and the Angevin empire, changing urbanisation and wealth in Britain across the centuries, the spread of the Black Death, the alliances before 1914, Hitler’s acquisitions of territory in the 1930s etc.

Exemplar Activity – Reformation Europe

a) You need space sufficient to create a map of Europe and place your students in different countries. The first thing to do is to arrange your students geographically, allocating an individual per country. Start with England and Scotland and then build up the map across Europe, nominating individuals as France, Spain, the Empire, the Pope and, if you have the numbers, individual students to be small German and Italian states. If you don’t have enough students, substitute cuddly toys for the small states.

b) Ask students if they think every country had the same amount of power – military or other kinds. Now add in more students to get a sense of the relative strengths of countries. Start with the Scot and have three English – then ask how many should France have in comparison. Eight would be about right – then continue so that it’s clear that England is both on the fringe and is a relatively low-level power.

c) Now identify religions. Start with everyone Catholic and ask which countries were the first to become protestant – use tabards (orange a good colour) to identify some German states and the Netherlands but keep England Catholic. Then turn England Protestant and compare the relative strengths of the Catholic powers and Protestant powers. This, at a level, helps students understand why it was so difficult for Elizabeth to offer explicit support for the Netherlands.

d) I once did this activity in the gym, which gave lots of room, allowing me to have a solitary student a long way away as the Americas. This proved useful in demonstrating how the focus of events shifted across the sixteenth century. Early in the period much political attention focussed on Italy with England very much on the margins of events but the development of links to the Americas, represented by turning everyone physically around to face my ‘America’ student showed that later in the century England was more central to interest and rivalries. For some students this physical representation got the point across much more economically and effectively than any amount of reading or exposition.

Example Activities

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Using Physical Family Trees

Almost every teacher has used students to construct a feudal pyramid – a King at the front, a few nobles, a dozen knights, all set out in that nice pyramid that bears no relationship to historical reality whatsoever. These activities are essentially very similar but it’s worth noting one crucial point.

These activities only make a real impact when they’re solving a problem of understanding. Simply creating a family tree with your students won’t, in itself, have much impact. You have to do something with it in relation to their misunderstandings. So what does someone get wrong every year? If you do the Tudors a fair proportion confuse Mary Tudor and Mary, Queen of Scots. Lots of people think they’re the same person, a bit like James VI and I (who was only one person). So, as always, start with what students gets wrong and construct the activity to remedy it.

An activity below specifically targets this learning problem.

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Example Activities

The Big Story of Conflict

Every war between 1066 and 1900 in one activity - creating links across KS3?

Romans in Britain

Turn you classroom into a physical map and tell the story of the Roman invasion

Making Sense of Hadrian's Wall

Use your pupils as milecastles, turrets and forts to help them understand the Wall and, if they’re lucky, where their site-visit fits into the big Wall picture

Who's Round the Table?

Help your A level students remember who was who

Holy Box and the Altar Table – 16th century religious changes

Create your own church interior – then change it, then change it again, then ...

Elizabeth I and Europe in 1558

You'll need to move the furniture for this one – but it clearly, simply and painlessly explains the power situation in Europe in 1558.

Physical Family Trees

Ever confused Mary Tudor and Mary, Queen of Scots? A simple way of disentangling the Marys and many other confusing people.

Which one is Piedmont again, Sir?

Getting started with Italian Unification at A level.
A physical map activity helping students make sense of all those different states and the story of unification.

How much history did the Industrial Revolution overturn?

An outline idea for helping students understand how revolutionary the Industrial Revolution was

How did the Industrial Revolution change where people lived?

The Population Revolution 1750-1901: Use the space in your classroom to map out the change from rural to urban life

Shall we escape to the West?

Will students risk trying to cross the Berlin Wall?
A practical activity that really improves discussion, thinking and understanding.

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Physical Maps

Physical Family Trees

Example Activities


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