A fresh look at the classroom timeline By Bev Forrest and Stuart Tiffany

Yes we are teaching time!” is the cry I hear from teachers whenever I visit schools, but how often does this just consist of displaying a timeline on the classroom wall and possibly referring to it at the beginning of a topic? While at Key Stage 1 the inclusion of chronology can often be reserved to sequencing a few artefacts. The teaching of time should be so much more than this and you may be surprised how it can easily become a key element within any topic taught.
A major issue highlighted by OFSTED in their 2011 report History for All was that pupils and even teachers lacked chronological understanding. The immediate response to this from those working on the new history curriculum was to blame the fragmented nature of the existing curriculum for the problem. They decided that to solve the problem teachers must teach topics in chronological order. Fortunately, the final curriculum proved more enlightened giving teachers the option of working their way through the required topics in an order that they considered to be most appropriate for their pupils. It was recognised that rather than teaching in chronological order we should be teaching pupils how to understand chronology and that needed to be tackled daily at many levels in the classroom.
So you are probably thinking rather than tell us what we are not doing let us know what to do to get it right! A key element in the teaching of time is of course sequencing, however, this is where many teachers stop.  The standard classroom timeline of a few A4 sheets round the wall created by the teacher or even worse purchased from a website and rarely referred is doing little to develop pupils’ understanding.
Timelines should be an exciting and dynamic feature of the classroom. The teacher should provide only the framework of the timeline at the start of the topic. As the topic is studied, the timeline develops with pupils adding key dates and events as introduced in lessons. They can add their own illustrations of features of a period for example costume, homes, transport, food etc that will all contribute to developing a sense of period. It helps if the timeline doesn’t just cover the topic currently studied but also previous topics to enable pupils to compare and contrast features.
As well as sequencing, pupils need opportunities to develop an understanding of duration and interval so they appreciate how long a period lasts and also about the distance in between those areas studied. This means timelines need to be large.  This will enable pupils to make links and to gain an understanding of the big picture of history. For example they need to appreciate that while Britain was in the Neolithic period the Egyptian and other sophisticated cultures existed across the world.
Also, it is important for pupils to appreciate that not everything occurs in sequence but that events do overlap. To aid pupils understanding you may wish to have 3 parallel timelines while studying a topic one showing national, another international and the third local events. These will help pupils in identifying trends and patterns. The post 1066 study at Key Stage 2 is a key area for developing these important features and is one we will be looking at in our next blog.
Here is a sample timeline from Rising Stars Voyagers resources .
Some of the most exciting timelines seen have been those constructed outside the classroom in school halls, corridors or even outdoors. Take a look at the ones produced by Year 6 Farsley Farfield pupils in their playground here. This is one history lesson they won’t forget particularly with the added excitement of it being a windy day! The teacher found that as well as reinforcing the idea of civilizations existing alongside each other it also encouraged the children to think about whether civilizations had contact with each other?
Next steps for you in your planning for developing pupils’ understanding of chronology must be undertaking an audit to check existing provision. You need to consider where you are introducing skills and how these developed to ensure progression. Thought should be also be given to developing the use of increasingly complex time vocabulary. In addition check where the development of an understanding of duration, interval, sense of period and the big picture of history are included. However in all this activity it is vital not to forget that time should not be taught in isolation in your history lessons. It should always be embedded within the teaching of a topic. And don’t forget that vital tool The Timeline - it needs to be big, memorable and probably hardest of all for teachers to accept … a bit of a mess!

Bev Forrest is an Associate Principal Lecturer at Leeds Trinity University. She is a member of the Historical Association Primary Committee and of the editorial board for Primary History.
Stuart Tiffany is a year 5 class teacher and history subject leader at Farsley Farfield School in Leeds.


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