Creating the Big Picture of the Past.
I sometimes dream that in 30 years time, some adults surveyed in tabloid newspapers will know that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066.
They will know that the Romans invaded England before the Vikings and they will flippin’ well know where to place the Georgians, the Tudors and the Saxons on a timeline!
But with a history teaching community rightly obsessed with enquiry based teaching, will this ever happen? It hasn’t happened yet, not in my classroom. Let’s try and influence the future and teach the big sweep of time.
But how do we get kids to develop a mental map of the past, and develop sophisticated analytically thinkers? Especially when some schools 90 minutes of history a week, or less – the temptation to go from great mini enquiry to great mini enquiry and not look at the big sweep of time is often too great.
Big Picture of the Past
Let’s start by being clear in what we mean by a mental map of the past. Developing a historical consciousness.
I am not completely bothered that students know every single date and event of our rich and wonderful history. This would be good so long as they also developed into intelligent thinkers who understood how to inquire and form their own opinion, and understand how and why history has been constructed.
I definitely, however, want my students to know how we organise the past – into time periods, from at least the Romans to now. I also want them to be able to visualise what each time period looked like, what buildings looked like, what people looked like and understand why people in different time periods acted as they did.
Since I became a teacher (about 20 years ago) we haven’t been too good at developing this big picture, especially those who teach GCSE Modern World history. This has all changed with the introductions of new GCSEs from 2016.
We need to remember those kids who drop history at the end of KS3? They should also leave school with this big picture of the past in their heads, not just the lucky ones that do an SHP course.
What follows are a couple of thoughts, scribbled on the back of an envelope which constitute my ideas for helping to develop this big picture of the past in a Key Stage 3 curriculum. They are intended to act as a starting point to get you thinking. They are by no means the right answer or a robust plan – they are just a few bits and bobs that spring to mind.
Isn’t it a good idea to kick off each year with a big picture timeline activity? Tell your class that historians divide the past into different time periods. Give them the names of the different time periods on big cards and ask them to get these in order. Then give some more cards with the corresponding dates on and ensure that they match the time periods and dates, and get them in the right order.
Next, you could introduce some images of famous characters from each period – can they match these up. Next, introduce some buildings, then some images of people. Finally you could get the whole thing stuck on the wall (with blu-tack, so you can take it down and get ’em to do it again in a few weeks – ‘Oh look kids, the cleaners have taken down our timeline – we need to put it up again.’) And as you teach your particular unit, some of the images you use in the everyday teaching could be put up on the timeline so it grows. For a starting point which you can improve on, here is a free download.
It is no good in just doing the big picture overview once or twice. We need to keep re-visiting it! This second idea was inspired by tidying up my son’s room.
Like the child of any respected history teacher, he has a box set of Horrible Histories. The simple idea is that you give pairs 8 book covers from the series and get them to put them in the correct order. You can download the covers here for the first set. None of them have any dates on.
Do the Vile Victorians go before or after the Savage Saxons? Where do the Terrible Tudors go? When they think they have done it, introduce the more obtuse covers about the Incas – where do these go? Click here for the second.
To help out, give some clues on cards, and ask them to use the clues to begin to speculate whether M.r Deary chose the right names for the books. Vile Victorians? Are you sure?
Finally, they could turn all of this into their own big picture timeline. After all, nowhere in the Horrible Histories does such a timeline appear. To download a full version of this lesson, click here.
Frameworks are vital and each course or unit should be designed with them in mind. Going way back to 1991, Peter Lee gave us 5 criteria for designing a decent framework. These are good tips.
- It must be an overview and offer a coherent pattern.
- A framework must be capable of rapid presentation – I would say in one lesson.
- A framework should be thematic – so students can see the story that is unfolding.
- A framework must be a progressive structure which can be gradually elaborated and differentiated, gaining in thematic coherence – so you can add to it.
- A framework must be an open structure offering perspectives.
If you wanted an example of such a framework for the Cold War course you could look here.
The fourth idea
This is quite simple. Plan your course to re-visit the themes you have identified. Ian Dawson forced us to do this in the planning for the Making Sense of History series. And he was soo right.
By picking out a few themes that will be re-visited across the course, you are slowly developing the big picture.
When you get to teaching about people’s lives in the 1500s you can simply remind your class what they have already studied about people’s lives during the Middle Ages. ‘Remember when we looked at this Medieval village (show em the picture of the village again), what can you remember about how people lived? Well, we are now going to look at how ordinary folk lived in the 1500s. Is it the same?’
To take this approach you will need to do some careful planning and ensure that you have a few themes that you re-visit as you teach your course.
Departments should also think about exactly what content they want kids to know in each time period in each theme. So what do you want your kids to take away from your study of the Middle Ages about power? Ian talks about this in his article in Teaching History 130. What do you want them to know about ideas and beliefs? Have you planned for it? I hadn’t until Ian told me that ought to!
For loads more ideas on planning for the big picture, visit Ian’s site here. The more we think about how to do this well and in the curriculum time we have available to us, the better!
After all, in 2009 The Daily Telegraph reported, ‘University students ‘ignorant’ of most basic historical facts, study shows.’ This was based on the work of Cardiff University Economics Lecturer who surveyed his undergraduates.
Also, Sam Wineburg Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (cited in Jonathan Howson’s TH127 article) asks the reader to consider when this statement was written:
‘Surely a grade of 33 out of 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American History is not a record on which any High School can take pride.’
The answer? It comes from research in Texas in 1917! And, according to Wineburg, this ‘ignorance’ remained stable over the years despite the enormous changes in teaching and changes in the world and society in general.
So let us keep trying to think hard about improving chronological understanding! Maybe, one day we will have it cracked!?