World War Two Living Graph

This activity is a good example of how a physical activity can be used at increasing levels of complexity, gradually increasing the demands on students’ thinking. It was developed by Dale Banham who wanted his Year 9 students to gain an overview of the events of World War Two – but an overview which focussed on understanding patterns and turning points (not just a sequence of apparently random events) and which in turn led into discussion of interpretations.


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

Setting Up

For this activity you need:

1. Plenty of space to construct the graph

2. Tabards for each student with the names of events written on them – see list below or on pp. 150-151 of the textbook Peace and War (Hodder-Murray).

The tabards need to be colour coded e.g

• events involving British forces - Yellow

• events involving Russian forces - Red

• events in the Pacific – Blue

(as an alternative to tabards you could use large cards for students to hold)

3. Labels for the graph – sheets with years 1939-1945 for the horizontal axis and sheets headed Success/Failure for the vertical axis.

4. And possibly a digital camera to record the final graph for future use.



A possible list of events – it is not the intention that students will recall each and every event but that the overall list and activity enables them to identify which events were most significant and to whom. It’s the overall pattern that counts.


Germany invades Poland



Germany invades Holland






Italy declares war



Battle of Britain




Germany invades USSR

Pearl Harbour

Large-scale Allied bombing of Germany


Fall of Singapore



Battle of Midway



Landings in Guadalcanal





USSR army counter-attack



German surrender at Stalingrad

Allied landings in Pacific

Invasion of Sicily

German army moves out of USSR

Invasion of Philippines

Surrender of Italy






Paris liberated




USSR army in Yugoslavia and Hungary


Invasion of Germany

Invasion of Germany


German surrender


Air attacks on Japan



Atom bombs dropped


The Activity

This is how the activity unfolds:

1. Students were given an event each and had to sort themselves into sequence along the horizontal axis, labelled 1939-1945. This can be done in different ways – students could be given their event in advance as homework and be required to research the date and details of the event or they could be given e.g. 10 minutes to work in small groups as a team, researching the events of the members of the group.

2. Once students have positioned themselves along the horizontal axis you have a sequence. Now ask them to move along the vertical Success/Failure axis – those events which were a failure for the Allies stay where they are, those that were a complete Success take 4 steps forward up to the Success line, the others take an appropriate position along the success/failure axis. An alternative way of doing this, if you’ve less space or it’s more fun, is to keep the original line and ask each event to stay standing if it was an Allied success, to sit down if it was an Allied failure or to kneel up of it was in-between. Either way you get a clear pattern – showing, for example, that the early stages of the war saw few successes from an Allied point of view.

3. Time to move on to as many levels of complexity as you wish. The following are not in a particular order.

a) Use the colour coding – what can you learn from/does anything surprise you about the red cards (representing the Russian forces)? Similarly what’s to be discovered from the spread of Blue (Pacific) cards?

b) What about continuous events e.g. the Battle of the Atlantic – unfurl a piece of string/wool and run it the length of the event to show how long it lasted.

c) Which events could be described as Turning Points? Pearl Harbour? El-Alamein? D-Day? This grows out of the visual pattern of success/failure that’s been created.

d) having identified Turning Points, does the war break into clear periods of e.g success/failure for each side? Then create labels for these sections of the timeline – labels which characterize events – e.g. what would the Allies call the period 1939-1941? Would the Axis powers give that period the same label? This can lead into ideas about interpretations and significance. Would each country’s history of WW2 contain the same list or balance of topics?

4. You could also use a digital camera to take a picture of the living graph once pupils are in position (re success and failure). This provides a visual record which can be used in later lessons as an initial hypothesis that pupils test by undertaking further research. The key is for pupils to see the living graph as an interpretation - which can be challenged as they learn about an event in more depth - eg - after studying Hiroshima in greater depth the teacher might want to refer pupils back to the photo and ask ‘Did we get it right in our overview lesson?’ At the end of studying WW2 the living graph can be recreated - and a photo taken - and compared to the initial one.

Another possibility is for pupils to create more than one living graph (e.g. what would the graph look like in a US/Russian classroom?) photograph them with a digital camera and compare them.


1. How effective was your use of space and movement? Would you do anything differently in terms of organization next time? (and don’t be afraid to pat yourself on the back!)

2. How often have you used this kind of living graph activity before with this class? Does the frequency of use affect its effectiveness and, if so, what effects will this have on your overall course planning?

3. How did tackling this topic through this physical activity affect students’ learning? e.g. was understanding of the patterns of events deeper? Did they have a better-developed sense of the possibilities for different interpretations?

4. [For later] What was the impact of this activity on students’ later work on World War Two? Did it improve their confidence and overall understanding? [discuss with students]

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Setting Up

The Activity