“Why didn't the Spanish Armada check that thing that tells you the weather?” and other thoughts on teaching chronology

“Why didn't the Spanish Armada check that thing that tells you the weather?” and other thoughts on teaching chronology

When I first drafted this post, the title was my hook – what an amazing question!  With questioning, I discovered the Year 8 students was asking about television weather forecasts rather than shipborne radar; either way, the weakness in her chronological understanding is clear.

Then, only last week, one of my Year 7’s pulled out an equally brilliant nautical example to an external presenter:

“You know that ship on the Thames?”
Presenter: “HMS Belfast?”
“Is that anything to do with Henry VIII?”

It has certainly aged better than the Mary Rose

It has certainly aged better than the Mary Rose

Both examples highlight:

The problem of poor chronological understanding

It’s one of the easiest problems to notice and diagnose because the results of its expression are so incongruous they are immediately noticeable; a poor evaluation of the significance of Einstein is simply less bizarre to hear.  Additionally however, this problem cuts to the heart of curriculum design in history (English, and perhaps the arts more generally).

Another example: last term, my colleagues in the English Department were teaching Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry; as a historian and someone who has been forced to explain to students in the past that Martin Luther King did not emancipate the black slaves of Britain, this seemed a good opportunity to study slavery, emancipation and racism in America.  I wanted to provide a context and demonstrate the realities which underlie the book’s plot, to develop students’ historical understanding and reinforce their sense of history’s importance.

To understand the Logan family’s situation in the 1930s I had to begin earlier and look at life under slavery and slaves’ responses.  Thus it was that I found myself using the song Wade in the Water.

Who’s that young girl dressed in red?
Wade in the water;
Must be the children that Moses led,
God’s gonna trouble the water.

Wade in the water;
Wade in the water, children,
Wade, in the water;
God’s gonna trouble the water.

Who’s that young girl dressed in white?
Wade in the water;
Must be the children of the Israelite,
Oh, God’s gonna trouble the water.

Ridiculous as this may sound, it was only this time that I that grasping the song required an appreciation of the metaphorical link between the slavery and freedom of the Israelites and of African-Americans.

How can I design a curriculum which promotes chronological understanding?

I clearly hadn’t planned this well enough*, but, in terms of lessons, my thinking has tended to see me simply work backwards, from the end in mind: in this case, understanding the context of Roll of Thunder, leaves me back with the Israelites a couple of thousand years ago.

Could I do it better?  I get to design the Key Stage 3curriculum now.  Is there an easier way?  Reading Daniel Willingham, on working memory, and Joe Kiby, on sequencing the curriculum, have caused me to rethink this.  Joe Kirby has argued for an entirely chronological approach to the English Key Stage 3 curriculum and given some fairly convincing arguments for the structure he proposes.  Willingham’s promotion of the importance of taking account of working memory has helped me to consider more closely the extent to which I ensure students can focus on the key points of the lesson, unencumbered by missing prerequisite knowledge.

So, how can I design a curriculum which develops chronological understanding and is sequenced in such a way that students have the appropriate prerequisite knowledge at each stage?  I have three criteria:

1) I want to minimise the extent to which I’m having to teach prerequisite knowledge in the wrong order.  (In other words, if I’m teaching the English Civil War and Parliament, it would be helpful to understand some of the existing qualifications on the monarch’s power, such as those of Magna Carta).

2) I want my students to gain a deep chronological understanding.  Knowledge of names, dates and battles is sometimes useful in itself (I’ve written about the problems of the calls for more of this kind of knowledge previously).  More importantly, however, I want students to gain a broader kind of knowledge, a sense of period.  I don’t just want my students to know when Charles I was executed, I want them to be able to link his execution with the growth of Absolute power in France, for example.  Students should be able to see that an event makes sense because of the other events around it – and indeed, those long before and after.

3) I want students to be able to return to key ideas, people, events and periods and review them, to see them with fresh eyes and in light of their understanding of later events.  I’ll return to this below.

Should history be taught in order?

A good deal has been made of solving students’ weak chronological understanding by teaching events in strict order.  Joe Kirby suggests one merit of his (chronological) design for an English curriculum is that “Its chronology is sequential, which will leave students will [sic] a memorable framework in their minds for understanding any the cultural achievements of the past they may come across.”  Historical luminaries and pundits, have spoken in favour of this approach too, such as Simon Jenkins and Niall Ferguson, who called for a “mandatory chronological framework.”  This approach reached its apogee with the first draft of the new history curriculum, which mandated a strict order of events to be taught from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 3, such that secondary schools need never have troubled themselves with the Tudors again, nor primary schools with the Victorians.

Using this approach, for my earlier dilemma, I should have taught the Israelites in Year 7 and waited until Year 9 to teach Roll of Thunder.  Except, by that time both the book and the Israelites would have been fairly distant memories and the merits of the opportunity would have been lost.  Relying on a purely chronological, narrative approach fails a number of tests.

Firstly, there’s the problem of retention and comprehension.  Teaching things in order doesn’t mean it stays with students, or in that order – it’s a long time since last Thursday, never mind since Year 7.  These problems would have become insurmountable if I’d been relying on what students’ Year 3 teacher taught them six years later.  There are certainly ways as teachers we can do more to ensure retention of learning across years – but it’s worth raising as an issue.

A greater problem is the problem of what’s left untaught and unsaid.  Should my Year 8 student have known television wasn’t invented?  I was teaching her under a chronological curriculum – Romans in Year 7 to World War II in Year 9.  We had reached the Tudors.  If I hadn’t specifically told her, it relied on her own knowledge to know that television and satellites weren’t invented.  This may sound ridiculously obvious, but these kinds of knowledge are things you accumulate gradually – many adults, for example, are surprised to learn that medieval people didn’t believe the world was flat.  So, even if I am trying to employ a chronological framework, I may find yourself darting back and forth to ensure it actually makes sense.  For younger students, this may be quite a job: why should a student assume there has not always been antibiotics.  Or mobile phones?

Thirdly, this approach overlooks the way in which returning to the study of periods, individuals or ideas helps improve our understanding of them.  This is partly a case of understanding the discipline of history better – knowing what things we are looking for and seeking to do.  It’s partly a case that our understanding becomes richer over time.  It’s also true that the significance of events sometimes emerges generations later: we’d have forgotten Margaret Tudor’s marriage to James IV of Scotland in 1503 if it hadn’t been for the accession of her great-grandson, James VI, to the English throne as James I a century later.

In sum, teaching a strictly chronological narrative risks obscuring the narrative and doing little to ensure understanding of the chronology too.

The emperor’s new clothes and the need for mannequins

Thanks for staying with me.  I’ve sought to suggest that the clothes of argument that teaching in order  are imperial in their majesty; it’s a simplistic but superficially appealing solution to a complicated problem, much like the argument that schools are failing to teach particular bits of history sufficiently.

So, what are the alternatives?

At my former school we switched from a chronological to a thematic curriculum.  (And then back again).  The idea was that pursuing themes through history (like empire, warfare, slavery) would build an understanding of those topics and would ensure chronological knowledge by the repeated visits to each period (Roman slavery, the Roman Empire, Roman government…)  To me, a thematic curriculum is far more engaging and meaningful, because it approaches interesting questions across time, such as: how and why have people been enslaved and how have they responded?  However, the chronological grasp this promises proved illusory – there was no clarity there as to the links within a society (Roman warfare, government and slavery, for example).

The chronological framework I would like resembles a mannequin.  Without a mannequin, our patches of historical knowledge are a shapeless and meaningless heap upon the floor.  However, a mannequin alone, names and dates, needs to be clothed in a well-tailored outfit to be meaningful: depth studies of events, individuals and problems which flesh out the tailor’s dummy…


In martial arts, apparently, you return to the most basic skills at advanced levels, but you are expected to deal with them very differently.

Each year of my Key Stage 3 programme include as chronological study, the second unit of work in each year.  It is designed to provide an outline of the whole of history, a framing knowledge of what happened when.  It is deliberately repeated, with different accents each year, to review the previous year’s learning while adding to it.  At the moment (I’ve changed it since last year), Year 7 will study ‘When was the best time to live?’ looking primarily at social history in each major time period (supplemented by a study of the local area).  Year 8 will consider ‘When was Britain great?’ looking at major moments of political history.  For Year 9 I would like to look at changes in the interpretation of Julius Caesar through history – but that’s not finalised (I have no Year 9s yet).

Onto this mannequin a range of courses are stitched.  Some are development studies: the History of Maths looks at the mathematical achievements and highlights of the same societies – but adds the Babylonians and Islamic Middle Ages and skips the Romans.  Whereas other courses are depth studies – such as the Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry unit described above and another on World War I, linked to students’ reading of Private Peaceful. 

So much for my compromise solution.  It leads back to the old call in history for overview with depth.  The process for getting here was interesting though.  I’d welcome others’ thoughts on this and how they reconcile these aims.

* In my defence, (1): I had been teaching the Year 8 student involved for perhaps five weeks, and this was in my first term teaching.  My new Year 7 is – well, new.

*In my defence, (2): In my old school when I used this song in lessons, we linked up with music when teaching this song, and the focus was more upon the ‘hidden meanings’ of the song, namely advice as to how to avoid tracking dogs. Hence I had never fully focussed on the metaphorical links.