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Timelines & Living Graph Activities

Introducing Timelines

You can do a lot with a timeline, especially if it becomes a physical timeline. I can remember as a young teacher trying to get pupils to draw timelines – it seemed a very slow process involving lots of measuring out with 6 inch rulers and didn’t seem worth the effort or maybe I just feared I was turning into a Maths teacher. Physical timelines can do a better job for many (though not all) pupils of representing the concepts clearly and save those who struggle with rulers etc from feeling incompetent.

What’s the learning problem?

The key, as ever, is to work out what learning problems you’re trying to solve.

Is it about sequencing events, either over a short period to explain why something happened or in the long-term to identify patterns or think about significance?

For the latter, see Who would you most like to meet at the Year 7 party? and other end of year overview activities.

Or maybe the problem students have is understanding the relative duration of periods or events?

See Timelines for understanding duration

Or it may be that pupils are struggling with the concept of centuries or AD/BC, in which case creating a physical timeline can help a good deal.

See Making sense of BC and AD.

General Points on Timelines

Some final general points:

  • pupils do need to construct timelines for themselves, not just look at completed ones, but this may be done better physically or with cards rather than with rulers and pencils
  • pupils find it harder to get a sense of the passage of time from colourless timelines, even when they show dates and events. Use a different colour per century or whatever is the key temporal division
  • many pupils benefit from standing on a timeline and ‘moving about in history’, gaining a sense of how far it was from one date to another by simply walking across the timeline
  • timelines are frequently used to place in time an event about to be studied but pupils may gain more from re-visiting the timeline at the end of a topic when they have a more detailed understanding of it. This is also the occasion to make effective connections across time to other events

Example Timeline Activities

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Introducing Living Graphs - ‘timelines with attitude’

Living graphs, Lifelines, Living Timelines are all different names for the same thing – a graph created by using a timeline as the horizontal axis and an emotion, attitude or debate as the vertical axis. I like the phrase ‘timeline with attitude’ because the charting of changing attitudes or emotions on the vertical axis opens up controversy, debate and gives clear insights into why there are different interpretations of the same events.

There is a good introduction to Living Graphs in the Lifelines chapter of Peter Fisher’s Thinking through History book. Three examples are described – the Peasants’ Revolt where the timeline covers 1348-1381 and the vertical axis ranges from ecstasy to despair. The other, similar examples are on the history of germs and the rise of Hitler.

As the living graph activities on this site show, there are a variety of ways of constructing a Living Graph:

  • as Excel spreadsheets,
  • on paper
  • or whiteboard
  • or physically, plotting the development of the graph by asking students to take their places on a graph mapped out on the classroom floor

None of these is necessarily a superior method – which one you choose will depend on your resources and, most importantly, the nature of your class and your relationship with your students.

Living graphs can be used to chart a range of different issues and the following list is just a first set of suggestions. I’d welcome hearing of others that make a real difference to students’ understanding of a topic:

Uses of Living Graphs

Uses: Emotional reactions

Excellent for looking in detail at events over a short period of time e.g. charting the reactions of a Saxon housecarl in September/October 1066 or a German or English soldier from late 1917 to November 1918.

Uses: Success or Failure

Good for overviews e.g. using the vertical axis to chart successes or failures in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I or chart in outline the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. In each case you have to choose the standpoint of the observer and this is where the interpretations come in – who is compiling the chart – in the case of Elizabeth is it Elizabeth herself, a Puritan, a Catholic? If, unknown to them, you give different groups in the class different roles then they will produce different patterns – and bingo, you’ve created a variety of interpretations.

Uses: Good reputation/bad reputation

Or historiography by another name. Chart the reputations of King John or Oliver Cromwell over time and investigate why their reputations have changed because of the attitudes and ideals of people of different periods (see activities using this approach in ‘King John’ and ‘King Cromwell?’ published by Hodder Education).

Uses: Long-term patterns

One of the problems resulting from headteachers being miserly with the time they allocate to History is that History teachers are constantly being forced to squeeze a quart into a pint pot (add your own metric equivalent if under 30). Living graphs provide both a good means of summarising broad patterns of events in outline and also providing the context for choosing one of those events as a depth study. See, for example, Wars in the Middle Ages – what was going on?

What are your objectives?

When thinking about whether to use a living graph the most important thing is to think about your objectives and what is tricky for students to grasp – it’s not just a case of picking a topic. So, for example, one of the real problems of teaching about the Civil War in the 1640s is that many pupils tend to think that Parliament wanted to execute Charles all along because that is what happened in the end. Therefore creating a living graph which charts the attitudes of MPs using the vertical axis as a continuum ranging from ‘Let the King do what he wishes’ to ‘Negotiate and keep him as King’ to ‘Execute him’ will show clearly that MPs only reached the decision to execute Charles very late on.

Age Range

Living Graphs work with all ages. They are just as useful with A level and university students as with younger pupils. The activity Henry VII’s Road to the Throne was constructed for A level and with the expectation that, later in their course, groups of students would be given the task of creating their own living graphs and turning teacher. It’s a simple idea that students should be asked to use themselves.

Example Living Graph Activities

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Timeline Activities

The Big Human Timeline

Use your students to create a memorable timeline that will help them understand all kinds of issues of chronology

Making sense of BC and AD

Turn you pupils into a timeline and accelerate their understanding of vital chronological terms

Punishments through Time

An introductory activity that will get students thinking and asking questions and will reinforce their chronological understanding

Outlining Historiography at A Level

Create a timeline showing why interpretations change

Timelines for Understanding Duration

Simple techniques for developing a key aspect of chronological understanding

How long were the Romans here for?

A timeline to develop a sense of duration

Romans, Saxons & Vikings – the Overlaps

A timeline to develop a sense of duration

Henry VIII & his Wives – which Queen lasted longest?

A timeline to develop a sense of duration

Will you have finished school before Charles I is executed?

A timeline to develop a sense of duration

Did Victoria’s reign last longer than Granny?

A timeline to develop a sense of duration

Comparative Lifetimes

A group activity for comparing periods of history – good for KS2 and KS3 – good for A level synoptic understanding.

Inventions, Inventions!

Find the connections and show how one invention led to another and transformed the textile industry

Wine Gums, Timelines and Really Big Overviews

The only edible timeline in existence, guaranteed to stretch and develop students’ chronological understanding.

Who would you most like to meet at the Year 7 party?

An end of year overview activity. Bring your own jelly and ice cream.

Which ‘Big Events’ were most important in KS3 History?

An overview activity for the end of KS3.

Which people were the most significant in KS3 History?

An overview activity for the end of KS3 that asks students to think about significance.

Change and continuity in Ancient Medicine

Create a physical timeline, using students to represent the periods and key developments in Ancient Medicine

Big Ideas in Medical History

A grand overview, creating a physical timeline across the room and asking students to identify the big medical ideas of each era

Using family generations to link back to past events

Create a timeline of your family's generations to travel back in time to …

Is Granny really ‘well old’?

How to use Granny to develop a sense of duration as far back as the Romans.

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Living Graph Activities

The Big Story of Monarchy

Use Top Trumps cards and the Rebellion Steps to help students see the really big picture

The Big Story of Everyday Life

The Middle Ages to the present day - all in one graph for the 2008 KS3 PoS

Germs have feelings too! A Lifeline

A valuable revision activity for GCSE, telling the story of the germ!

Public Health through the Ages

A living graph that examines change, continuity and significance in the history of Public Health

Wars in the Middle Ages – what was going on?

The Crusades, the Hundred Years War & Edward I’s British wars – all in one lesson

Henry Tudor's Road to the Throne

Create a living graph to show just how unlikely a king Henry Tudor really was

How do you feel about the country’s new religion? An overview 1547-1700

Students develop a living graph to create an overview of religious and political changes 1547 to c.1700

When did they decide to execute Charles?

Create a graph to tackle students' misconceptions about what Parliament wanted from the Civil War.

When did Prime Ministers and Parliament become more powerful than the monarch?

Complete the thematic story of monarchy with a graph showing when monarchs really lost power

Germany 1918–1939; Living Timeline

An active overview of key events that creates more complex explanations

South Africa in the 1930’s & 40’s: A Living Timeline

An active overview that’s challenging, enjoyable and effective

World War Two Living Graph

A really good overview activity that helps students to see the patterns in all those events.

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This page

Introducing Timelines

Introducing Living Graphs


Example Timeline Activities

Example Living Graph Activities


Other Activity Areas

Using Activities

Types of Activities

Hot Seating

Washing Lines

Timelines & Living Graphs

Role Plays


Decision Making

Physical Maps & Family Trees

Archaeology & Mysteries

Creating Communities

Market Place

Miscellaneous Models

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