Teaching History in the Primary School

Teaching the Key Skills: Chronology

Time

In one sense time and life are the same things. Life is change and time is the way change is measured and recorded. No change, no time. When there is a lot of change we say time goes quickly; when there is very little we say time drags. Sometimes we try to make change happen in order to make time go faster. This is the source of much misbehaviour in class. On the other hand too much change makes us panic because we can't anticipate the outcome.This is especially true when several changes happen at the same time. Then we talk of the need to take 'time out', to concentrate on one thing at a time.

All this tells us that life as we record it (in the form of dates etc) isn't the same as time as we experience it. For a start we don't remember events in sequence. This would be counter-productive as in some situations it would take too long to 'wind the tape back'! In fact the mind seems to record experience in layers, rather like laying down tracks. In the course of time some tracks will be overlaid by others (whether they're ever lost entirely is a matter of debate), whilst others will become the equivalent of a main highway, a motorway of the mind, a permanent feature of our mental landscape.

As soon as we are old enough, we begin to construct some sort of narrative out of our experiences. This is a creative process: we frequently 'tamper' with our personal histories, emphasising some elements, missing out others. To show what I mean, divide a page into two columns. On the left write down all the qualities you'd like to think you possess. On the right list all the faults you fear you're prey to. It's very likely that the right hand column will contain some old-fashioned 'deadly' sins like arrogance or sloth. These are sins because they involve loss of self-control. Loss of self-control undermines trust between people and generates conflict, so 'normal' people tend to steer their lives towards the left-hand column, trying hard to forget the times when they fail...

Time can therefore have different meanings and it needs to be taught in different ways. I distinguish three forms of time:

  • historical time: my map of the past, including dates, periods, dynasties etc.
  • clock time: the mechanism by which I ensure I'm where I'm supposed to be when I'm supposed to be there. Some people would call this 'real' time and it's almost always concerned with events to come rather than events in the past. Its modern precision has come about largely as a reflection of our increasingly complex and hectic lives.To be imprecise about time is now almost a heresy.
  • experiential time: memories linked by context, recalled as in a story.

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Teaching time

Historical time is traditionally taught through time-lines but there are a number of problems associated with this method. It suggests that history can be neatly divided (eg the Middle Ages, or the Victorians) and it can over-emphasise the importance of events, making change hard to explain. Timelines also tend to over-emphasise the history of particular parts of the world and can make it hard for children to make links between events in different countries.

Some ways of making timelines work better:

  • Make family trees to show how generations and periods overlap.
  • Make individual lifelines of living or historic people.
  • Make visual timelines which chart changes in fashion, transport or houses.
  • Compare old photos of a familiar place with its appearance today.

Clock time: teaching children how to tell the time is largely a question of maths, although the mechanics of measuring time make a good link with technology (sundials and water-clocks are examples of historic devices that can be made in the classroom). Children can be helped to be more aware of the passing of time by keeping diaries, by making a daily record of the weather or by logging changes in their environment (eg a new building). Festivals (eg Christmas) and anniversaries provide a focus for much creative work and are often the way in which children first encounter the world of time beyond their immediate experience.

Experiential time - making sense of our own lives and that of others - is the most natural form of time and is best approached through stories: fables to begin with, then fiction set in the past, then 'real lives'. Stories enable us to experience the thrills without the spills and are fundamental to learning and remembering, but they only work if they follow certain rules. You can help children to understand these rules better by asking them to turn a story into a strip cartoon or by making it into a play or a sequence of movements. Your aim will be to show how even 'magical' stories have to be linked to a coherent set of circumstances so that what happens is believable.

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Understanding the calendar

Keeping track of time over longer periods requires a calendar. Both the sun and moon have cycles which they repeat - years and months - so time was divided into those units. Trouble is they're not exactly aligned: 29½ days in a lunar month; 365¼ in a solar year. If you adhered strictly to the lunar cycle and started a new month every time there was a new moon your calendar would quickly lose its connection with the seasons: midsummer would eventually become mid-winter.

This did happen to the Egyptians, so that the first day of their calendar year only coincided with the first day of the solar year once every thousand years or so. The Romans partly solved the problem by adding in an extra February from time to time. Then Julius Caesar invented a new calendar ignoring the moon altogether. So now seven months have 31 days, four have 30, and one has 28, except every four years when it has 29. By 1582 even this calendar was ten days behind the sun, so Pope Gregory XIII decided to abolish the ten days and put in an extra leap year at the end of every century except when the date could be divided by 400. (Protestant countries objected to the pope making decisions of this kind so England didn't catch up until 1752, by which time eleven days had to abolished).

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'Once upon a time'

As Sellars & Yeatman ('1066 and All That') proved a long time ago, we can teach good history without including a single date. Instead we can usually construct our narratives in mythological time - 'once upon a time', or 'many years ago' - just as the Aborigines still do. Nor should we feel ashamed of 'never never' land. Quite often it provides a setting for the depiction of qualities like loyalty, betrayal, fear, stamina, love, courage which it is important to confront in an ideal form rather than in the messy, compromised and uncertain context of everyday life.

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