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Time for Chronology?

Ideas for Developing Chronological Understanding at Secondary Level

In 2002, when the Historical Association held its Past Forward conference on ways forward in history teaching, there was no seminar on chronological understanding, nor was there a paper on the topic in the conference report. Key Stage 3 textbooks, for all their strengths, provide few, if any, activities that explicitly develop chronological knowledge and understanding. There has been important work at Key Stages 1 and 2 but, at secondary level, the assumption that pupils develop chronological knowledge and understanding by studying topics in chronological order still seems to hold sway.

Yet we don’t expect pupils to understand how to evaluate and use sources just by reading them. We break down the process into its constituent objectives, analyse pupils’ problems and misconceptions in relation to these objectives and create activities designed to overcome them. We plan for development across Key Stage 3. This doesn’t seem to be happening in relation to chronology – but it has to if pupils are to develop their chronological knowledge and understanding effectively. This article therefore aims to identify the key issues that need resolving in order to develop chronological understanding at secondary level.

In doing so I am building particularly on the work of Terry Haydn, who has written several valuable pieces defining chronological understanding and suggesting possible teaching activities and on the work of Denis Shemilt, whose challenging article ‘The Caliph’s Coin’ should be read by anyone involved in curriculum reform in history. Despite their work, however, holes remain, most notably the vital practical area of moving from definitions to planning across Key Stage 3 for the reinforcement of chronological knowledge and understanding that is, perhaps, the key ingredient for success. Planning issues are therefore at the heart of this article before it moves onto constructing activities and finally to suggesting some of the implications of these ideas for GCSE and for 14-19 developments. This article cannot offer certainties or promise complete success; rather it’s a form of thinking aloud with the intent of encouraging debate about this extremely difficult area of history teaching.


Time for Chronology?

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The rest of this article can be downloaded so you can read it away from the computer, at your ease.

It includes sections on:

  • What is chronological understanding?
  • Why can we be optimistic about teaching for chronological understanding?
  • Planning for enduring chronological knowledge and understanding - an agenda for discussion.
  • Why plan KS3 history around thematic stories?
  • Implications for History at 14-19

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This Article

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Chronology Section

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‘Seeing the Bigger Picture’ (a chronology update)

Chronology for KS2

Example Activities

Articles from
‘Teaching History’