History Resource Cupboard – lessons and resources for schools

History Resource Cupboard - lessons and resources for schools

Teaching Issues

Five top activities with pictures in the history classroom


We love to use images in our lessons – always have done. Ever since we could photocopy them from books, print them onto sheets of paper and put them in front of kids we have used them. There are hundreds of possibilities for using pictures. Here are our five top picture activities for the history classroom.

Since then we have realised the power of the picture and have created digital folders full of saved images ready to be used in our lessons.

Why do we love to use images? Simple – there are no words involved so everyone can access them. Also, helping youngsters to become visually literate is hugely important in a world dominated by advertising, TV news, and now a whole host of computer apps.

Decoding the message of paintings, cartoons, propaganda posters, and adverts is a great historical skill to develop – GCSE exams use images, but more importantly, using images makes our lessons inclusive, helps develop higher order thinking and it makes them more interesting.

One of the problems pupils have with pictures is that they simply don’t look closely enough at them. This means they find it more difficult to decode or to ask the right questions about them.

So, experience has taught us to ensure we spend enough time helping our classes to look closely at the images we use. We should let the picture breath – pay respect to it by spending enough time on it.

By doing this, the difficult thinking that follows is made so much easier. By understanding what is in the image, pupils often go on to automatically ask the right questions and make intelligent inferences. If we don’t get our students to look closely enough – developing this type of thinking is often missed.

Five top activities with pictures

In no particular order here are our 5 top picture activities to help pupils to look really closely – as with all teaching activities, variety is the spice of life here. If you constantly use the same technique, kids become bored.

It is also worth noting that these activities are not a means to an end – they help students look closely at images – the thinking often comes after this. Also like all individual tasks they should form part of a larger enquiry.

1. Back to back drawing – this is an old favourite. Quite simply get kids working in pairs, get one of them to face the back of the room and have one looking directly at your board.

The idea is that the pupil facing the back of the room is asked to draw the image that you project onto your board. To do this they have to rely on their partner who can see the image, to describe it to them. The describer has to use good precise language to explain the image – the drawer has to ask lots of good questions to clarify.

Years ago during an Ofsted inspection I used this technique with year 10 when looking at some Nationalist and Unionist propaganda postcards from the 1890s. Then they had to identify different inferences in the images to draw out views of the artist and the general arguments put forward by both sides. The inspector rated the lesson as outstanding and told me that the drawing activity was also excellent literacy work – due to discussions the pairs were having. I was dead cuffed as I thought this was just a fun activity!

2. Slow reveal – Another old favourite. Rather than just showing an image as a whole it is important to get your classes to look closely at the different aspects of the image and guess what the rest of it shows. We were doing this for years with overhead projectors – we would either cover up different parts of an image, or cut it out and place different sections down in the right order. Power point has made this so much easy.

All you do is put a image on a slide, then over the top of this place different plain boxes. Then you decide which box you want to disappear first, second etc and which part of the image you want to remain covered for longest. To make the boxes disappear you simply use the ‘custom animation’ tool and use ‘disappear’ then make each box disappear in the order you want. When showing this in class you can then stop after a few of the boxes have gone and ask the class what they think the rest of image shows? What do they think it is going on in the rest of the picture?

3. Picture relay / Picture from Memory – This idea for this fun activity originally came from the seminal book: Thinking Through History by Fisher et al published by Chris Kingston publishing isbn 1 899857 44 3.

The idea is simple – groups of three or four have one piece of paper a pencil and a rubber between them. In turn, for just ten seconds they have to come up to you and look at the image which you show them before they run back to their group and try to accurately reconstruct it on the paper. After between thirty seconds and a minute it is the next person’s turn. The groups need to talk to each other and converse with what they missed / what the next person should look for. I have always stressed that the pictures don’t have to be a perfect copy. I just want all of the aspects of the image to be accurate. When groups have all visited, show them the original, listen to the laughter, then start to decode your carefully chosen image.

4. Heads in pictures – I think I first read about this activity in the SHP bulletin in my first year of teaching. The idea is a cracker. When you class walks in, hand each of them a piece of paper the size of your thumb or finger nail. Their first task, when seated is to draw their partners head on this tiny piece of paper. Next they hand the head to the person who owns it. Then you give out the image that you want the children to describe, and get them to place their head somewhere in the picture. This means that they are now actually in the picture. You now get them to describe in detail what they can see, hear, smell and, depending on the image, feel. This works really well. The atmosphere in my lessons has often gone from lots of laughter when they receive their own head, to quiet hard work when they start describing the image.

5. Strolling around an image – An alternative to heads in pictures is to miss out the drawing, give them an image and tell them to go for a walk from a certain point in the image around the rest of it. They can either describe what they can see, hear and smell – or, if you have added in numbers to certain important points on the image they can work out what that particular aspect is and annotate it around the edge.

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