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Teaching Chronology

As you may or may not know, I’m quite nerdy about timelines! This is the third piece on chronology that I’ve produced so do take a look at the others because they cover different ground to this one. Displaying a timeline in your classroom would seem to have some obvious benefits such as exposing children to the big picture of history; then setting out the narrative of what is to be taught for the internal narratives. However, children aren’t going to understand and embrace the complexity and nuance of historical narratives without explicit teaching. An analogy I often use when working with teachers is can you imagine counting in 3’s once and saying, “we’ve done it once so you’ve got it!” That would be the dream wouldn’t it.

I wrote about the role chronology plays in the curriculum in my previous blogs on Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 so shan’t be going over that again here more than a summary. First, chronology is a key concept within the NC2014 in part because of Ofsted’s report History for All, 2011. Second, it is described extensively across each key stage. Please make sure you’re aware of that and consider the role your teaching plays in its continued development.   

After getting to a stage where I was happy with how timelines looked, my focus has shifted more toward how we can teach chronology explicitly to ensure children can see the timeline as more than just a sequence of events they were going to be taught about. Willingham’s point that ‘memory is the residue of thought’[i] comes front and centre. Children need to think about the meaning… the implications… the importance of what they are taught – our role as a teacher is not just to scaffold the construction of timelines but rather to ensure that we are the narrator to the historical narrative. Can you imagine a story without a narrator? No, me either…

I broke this down in my May 2022 HA conference talk in Bristol. This is just a summary to provoke thought processes and pose questions for teachers to consider within their own classroom settings. Before diving in any further, it’s important to consider the following points for your own school:

  1. What do the children already know in a chronological sense?
  2. Do they have the mathematical underpinning needed to access the timeline you wish to use?
  3. Is this an overview of a long arc of time or depth study?
  4. Are we focusing in on any aspects in particular (military, political etc)?

All of those points help to focus attention on how the timeline will be constructed and then narrated. Considering them carefully before starting makes the implementation simpler. In Oliver Lovell’s book on CLT in action, he writes ‘working memory is the bottleneck of our thinking’[ii] and the implication for teaching timeline is not to overload it. From this I created some principles which I adhere to:

  1. Visual simplicity
    The logic here is that the simpler an activity or model is to navigate, the easier it is for the children to successfully construct and more importantly, navigate the timeline. The more complex it is as a visual, the harder this becomes. Tom Sherrington’s piece on a model for learning has influenced my thinking on this including the excellent images by Oliver Caviglioli.

  2. Mathematically underpinned
    Chronology is mathematically underpinned in so many regards and therefore we can make our timelines more precise with a mathematical scale. This is key to unlocking the fact that timelines do not depict a complete linear sequence. Rather, they contain selected parts of that period we are choosing to focus on. The scale highlights the varied intervals between events which form part of the teaching sequence when we narrate the timeline post-construction. Children can struggle with the place value knowledge needed to understand what 1666 refers to for the Great Fire of London in Year 1/2 or the fact that there is almost a century between Julius Caesar’s invasions of Britain and the successful conquest by Claudius. The teacher constructing an accurate timeline allows children to identify the varied intervals because the physical gap between them varies.

    This is also key when describing timelines using chronological language: a decade is ten years, a century is a hundred years, etc. A quick reminder, there is no year 0 in history – 1BC to AD1!

  3. Both types are used consistently alongside maps
    I use the terms overall and internal narratives to describe the different types of timeline. They were included in my previous blogs on chronology so do look at the differences.

  4. Key concepts are stressed and built on
    Over time, I have refined the names of the chronological concepts I embed through my teaching and resources. They are not listed in the curriculum but allow me to explicitly teach what is happening or being depicted. Chronology is more complex than an arbitrary sequence. By considering scales, intervals and duration, concurrence and interactions between groups, the richness of history is easier to put across. I produced short YouTube videos on these which can be found here.

  5. Narrate, interpret and link after it’s constructed
    First, we build the timeline and then we make use of it. As mentioned in Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, ‘present new material in small steps with student practice after each step.’ [iii] This is important as constructing a timeline is a multi-step process as I suggest in the previous paragraph. I have multiple groups producing timelines in chronology lessons; they have clear instructions to guide what they are doing. In addition, while constructing timelines, I provide a completed example as a model and scaffold to provide a greater chance of success (they are free to check it as they please or I can guide them to use it if I identify it would be beneficial).

    Narration and linking, this is key! If you construct a timeline but don’t use it for any great reason… have you actually done any history? Possibly, but it’s more likely the children have practised their ordering of 2, 3 and 4-digit numbers.

    When teaching chronology, narration and linking is what should be prioritised if time is limited. Understanding the narrative of what is to be learned adds meaning and purpose to the timeline. Willingham’s observation that I used before is why this is key. Mary Myatt talks about using stories and high-quality texts in the curriculum[iv]. I agree wholeheartedly as they add richness to the knowledge contained within the timeline. However, let’s use the language of story and narrative to make the children ‘bothered’ about the curriculum as Hywell Roberts would say.

    There are several ways this can be done effectively. Susan Townsend of Roehampton University showcased several at the HA conference I mentioned, that captured my interest based on how we can interact with timelines. I am not doing them justice but the example below gives a flavour. Use a human timeline where everyone holds a picture of something pertinent. The teacher can say step forward if your picture shows… power, culture, religion, etc. so simple and so clever. Making connections across periods of history is both powerful and specified as part of the KS2 curriculum – using a purposeful timeline supports this!


Please don’t see this as a complete guide on how to teach chronology – it’s more than this blog could ever provide. Hopefully it’s started your own thinking on how you can refine your chronology teaching to add clarity of thought and purpose.

Once you have that, think about what’s next. First, make sure there is a timeline displayed throughout the topic that you can refer to and add depth to. If possible, have maps to highlight the interdisciplinary links between history and geography – where AND when did these things happen? How did the geography play a role in events and developments… it invariably did and still does in events today.

Don’t presume children will read the information on timelines unless you explicitly direct them to it. Many teachers don’t when I deliver CPD as specific instructions matter. That’s why small steps under direct instruction is my go to approach – it is efficient and supports success.

What interests me now is how timelines look across schools and the varied ways in which teachers use them! Drop me an email or message about how you use them because I’d genuinely love to know.

[i] Daniel T. Willingham – Why Don’t Students Like School PP60-62

[ii] Oliver Lovell – Sweller’s cognitive load theory in action P19