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Seeing The Bigger Picture
Developing Chronological Understanding

Tabards, masks and hatsThese notes address some facets of developing chronological understanding and provide a summary of key points made in the 'Chronology' workshops at the London History Forum, the Northern History Forum and TeachFirst

In the short time available in these workshops much had to be summarised and other things omitted but there is much else on ThinkingHistory that relates to the development of chronological understanding.


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For a PDF of the handout from the Workshop PowerPoint [ click here ]

Point 1

1. Chronological understanding is a portmanteau word embracing a number of facets:

• Sequencing

• Duration

• Language and terminology

• Sense of period

• The big picture of events across time

It’s these individual facets that need to be the objectives for teaching and through them pupils build up an overall chronological understanding.

Point 2

2. The development of real chronological understanding can be difficult to see as a teacher. Knowing whether a pupil knows the date of the battle of Hastings in easy but it’s far harder to determine the development of e.g. a sense of duration or a sense of period. These develop slowly and often imperceptibly. Even so they need to be taught for and developed explicitly. Chronological understanding doesn’t just happen because events are covered in order – it develops because teachers identify the component understandings and teach explicitly to develop them.

Point 3

3. As in other aspects of teaching it’s important to identify the specific problems children have with learning and then create activities that tackle those problems explicitly. The classic example is the issue of 1450 being in the 15thC – many students continue to think it’s in the 14thC. Therefore an activity such as the BC/AD timeline may help by explicitly identifying the problem and making it visual.

See the activity: Making Sense of BC/AD

Point 4

4. Students of all ages will be helped by taking part in physical timelines to develop a sense of overview. In terms of the broad outline of British history one starting point is to use pupils to create a timeline, using one pupil per century from the birth of Christ to today. This physical timeline can then be used to identify periods, peoples, the duration of periods, overlaps between peoples (e.g. Saxons and Vikings) and much else. Hats, tabards and other props will make this into a strongly visual and enjoyable activity – and thereby make it memorable. If students don’t remember an activity they can’t re-use what they’ve covered.

See the activity: The Big Human Timeline

Point 5

5. Within this timeline are a number of hidden concepts such as ‘century’. It may be tempting to hold back from working on centuries until you feel that pupils have a full understanding of what that is but – when will that be? How do you know? Concepts such as century need introducing and developing from well before students really understand them – it’s working with them that helps them develop.

Family history in its many guises will help with centuries and much else. See MORE…

Point 6

6. Why are dates important? This is an obvious but perhaps neglected issue – maybe pupils of all ages would be helped if they tackled activities that explain why knowing and using dates does help. Otherwise dates tend to be seen as the historical equivalents of push-ups, irregular verbs and other things inflicted upon them for no obvious reason.

Put simply, dates are important because

a) They give us a common language that helps us describe sequence and events – try recounting historical events or explaining when your birthday is without using dates.

b) Dates are critical for explaining events because they help us understand both sequence and, at least as importantly, duration. Obvious examples include the events of September-October 1066 and the summer of 1914 when it’s vital to know how close together the dates of events are to understand why events unfolded as they did. In many ways dates are like the letters of the alphabet – not much use individually, it’s forming them into patterns that’s important.

Point 7

7. Relating the duration of historical events to pupils’ own lives can help develop their own sense of duration. For example the length of the Civil War period, beginning in 1642 and ending with the execution of Charles I in 1649 may make more sense if they see the Civil War beginning as they transfer into Y7 but that Charles I wasn’t executed until they’re half-way through y13. Examples of this kind abound and will gradually if imperceptibly develop sense of duration.

See the activity: Duration Timeline on Charles

Point 8

8. Helping KS3 students develop a big picture of the past is not just about ‘doing events in order’. In fact the traditional way of starting with the Romans and working forward has many problems, most notably the way topic hop from politics to social history to empire preventing pupils developing making effective links across time. In addition covering ‘the whole of British history’ within 2 or 3 years at KS3 while maintaining any sense of depth and interest is only possible for those who have never sat down to work out how to do it in practice within a set number of lessons.

The alternative may be to help pupils by 14 to develop understanding and knowledge of a series of thematic big stories e.g. the development of standards of living, of Power  (kings, parliament and voters) etc. This doesn’t necessarily mean thematic coverage but making themes very explicit within chronological coverage and making sure there’s plenty of to-ing and fro-ing across time when pupils can see the whole story at one time.

There are plenty of examples of this on this website MORE…

Having said that, there’s a need for much more work on how this can be handled in practice. Many of the activities I developed for 2008 were good for showing teachers these ‘big pictures’ but placed huge demands on classroom time and control. What’s needed are more day-to-day activities which many more teachers feel confident in handling but which still give students a strong visual sense of overviews. At the same time there’s a need for more work on sense of period, a key element that’s often the Cinderella of chronological understanding – often mentioned but rarely taught for explicitly. So again I hope that new resources will appear on Thinkinghistory in future to tackle these issues.


In conclusion, some core points:

• Developing chronological understanding is centrally important in History

• Focus In teaching on the components of chronology

• Create activities to tackle the problems students have in learning

• Keep at it, it needs repetition – Regular Rapid Reinforcement

• Make it memorable, lively, physical

• Work on your own sense of ‘big stories’

• Focus on ‘big stories’ as the ultimate takeaway at KS3


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

This Article

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Chronology Section

Chronology Introduction

‘Seeing the Bigger Picture’ (a chronology update)

Chronology for KS2

Example Activities

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‘Teaching History’