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Play the dating game

Primary pupils need to get a grip on chronology before they can appreciate history, writes Alan Hodkinson

Throughout my teaching of primary history I have been amazed by the number of asinine questions that children ask about the subject matter. For example, one child asked: "Sir, if Queen Cleopatra hadn't been bitten by the asp would she still be alive today?" Another enquired if I had been alive during the Roman invasion of Britain.

While these questions caused merriment - amongst my colleagues - they also suggest that despite seemingly comprehensive teaching these children still lacked a fundamental concept that is needed to appreciate history: they lacked an understanding of historical time.

Although I have "aged beyond my years", no doubt because of the stressful employment that is teaching, one would have thought these children should have realised the passage of time between the Ancient Egyptians, Romans and the present would have made it impossible for either Cleopatra to be still alive, or for myself to have been engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Caesar's legionaries.

Difficulties such as these are not uncommon among children of primary age.

In these cases, it would seem the teaching and learning of history in the national curriculum and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority schemes of work had been ineffective in the development of historical time.

I would contend that a comprehensive grasp of historical time is vital to the study of history. Without it, children will fail to understand how to sequence events, periods and people chronologically. Additionally, they will not understand duration and they will lack an appreciation of the manner in which time is measured. Put simply, they would be unable to understand or employ dating conventions.

Teaching history through dates was once a fashionable pursuit. In recent times, however, it has been argued that as dates are abstract in nature, primary-aged children will be unable to master their usage. Within the current teaching and learning of history, dates have seemingly been de-emphasised and have been replaced by phrases such as "a longvery long time ago". From my perspective, the substitution of dating conventions for subjective temporal phrases is problematic as it appears that these may be the cause of the temporal difficulties experienced by my pupils. It is my belief that if children are ever to fully appreciate history, the development of historical time has to become central to our teaching methodologies.

Currently, though, the national curriculum does not require history to be taught in a chronological fashion. I would contend that this willy-nilly teaching of historical knowledge inhibits the development of historical time concepts. The study units should be taught chronologically beginning with time present before moving to time past. This chronological teaching should be supported by the consistent employment of timelines. Furthermore, timelines should not be confined to the introductory lesson of a topic but rather should be employed within every lesson. Timelines must, though, be used in a lively, interactive manner if they are to develop children's time sense and should not merely exist as a dusty display.

The problem with this teaching approach, however, is that it reduces the time available for the teaching of knowledge and facts. Interestingly, my research findings suggest that actually spending less time teaching content by allowing more curriculum space for the development of temporal cognition, results in children remembering significantly more historical knowledge and facts.

The development of time skills should be seen to be important because it allows children to assimilate an organising structure for their knowledge.

A useful analogy is that if history is related to a cloakroom of knowledge and the people, periods and places are seen as the coats, then the coat pegs relate to the organising structure of time. Without this structure, the coats would become a confusing mess on the floor from which attempts to extract and examine individual items would be fraught with difficulties.

My research suggests that rather than emphasising dates we should consider them vital to historical study, and as it is evident that children can assimilate them they should be employed consistently within lessons.

I would, though, not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater by advocating a return to the heavily criticised traditional teaching method of memorising the dates of British kings and queens. Rather my opinion is that we perhaps need to freshen up the water a little by re-emphasising the teaching and learning of dating conventions and chronology within a curriculum that allows teachers to formulate creative and active primary history lessons.

Dr Alan Hodkinson is a senior lecturer at the School of Education, University College,Chester

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