History & geography curriculum decisions (Part 4)

Last year, in the first three parts of this series of posts, I described a variety of strategies that could be used by both class teachers and school leaders in order to increase the number of exposures to key concepts and vocabulary children experience. I’ve also explained how I would use cross-curricular links to strengthen children’s learning in my series of posts about specific topics.

I’ve recently been lucky enough to be invited to talk about primary geography and history with Neil Almond (@Mr_AlmondED), on Kieran Mackle’s (@Kieran_M_Ed) fantastic new podcast Thinking Deeply About Primary Education. The episodes will be part of the second season, which hasn’t yet been released, but you can find the first season here if you haven’t already (6) Thinking Deeply about Primary Mathematics – YouTube. During the course of our discussion on history, I realised that there’s another strategy I’ve used to develop cross-curricular links, which I omitted from my original list of strategies, and thought was worth adding.

An important aim of the history curriculum is developing a secure understanding of chronology. In KS1, children should know where the people and events they study fit within a chronological framework, and by the end of KS2, children should have developed a chronologically secure understanding of British, local and world history (although obviously not all of it, just the specific parts we are required to teach!). There has been a lot of discussion on Twitter about the best way of achieving this – is it through teaching history units in chronological order? What other strategies should we use to support chronological understanding? Stuart Tiffany (@Mr_S_Tiffany) has done lots of work on this recently if you’d like to look into it further. In this blog, I’m going to explore a few simple strategies that I’ve used to develop chronological understanding in my class, in addition to my normal history lessons, as a form of retrieval practice.

Put simply, what I did was use any spare few minutes, or a few minutes during a lesson, on the following activities:

  • Give the children a list of people or events, and ask them to put them in order (either telling their partner, writing on a whiteboard, or given a set of cards to order in small groups)
  • Given two people, events or time periods, ask which one came earlier or later
  • Answer ‘Did x come before or after y?’ questions (answered by whole class voting)
  • Given a date (of an event or a person’s birth or achievement), ask children to list other things that were happening at a similar time (usually generated through whole class discussion)
  • Include questions about order in individual retrieval tasks, done as a ‘do now’ at the start of a lesson (for chronology, usually by giving a set of events out of order in a table, and asking children to number them in the correct order)

This type of retrieval practice is useful for transferring what children have learnt into their long term memory after the initial point of teaching. I know that lots of teachers are using similar activities very effectively and it is part of the approach to teaching and learning at my school.

However, using these strategies with my class last academic year had an effect that I found so exciting, I didn’t believe the results I was getting and had to keep checking with slightly different activities to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.

Can you put the following events in chronological order?

  • CS Lewis’ birth
  • Publication of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
  • William Wordsworth first published ‘Daffodils’
  • Gustav Holst wrote ‘The Planets’
  • John Adams wrote ‘Short Ride In A Fast Machine’
  • Handel wrote ‘Messiah’
  • Walter de la Mare wrote ‘Someone’

The vast majority of my class were able to accurately do this, as well as fitting them in a chronological sequence including different events and periods of history they had previously learnt about. And on multiple occasions because as I said, I was initially so surprised they had remembered these events that I checked several times, leaving gaps of a couple of weeks each time.

Possibly I shouldn’t have been surprised, because we had studied all of the above in depth throughout the year (ranging from one lesson on some pieces of music, to a week on Messiah and the two poems, to a full term on The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe). During those units of learning, I had included a brief explanation of chronology, linking to people, events and periods the children already knew, and using one or two of the activities listed above. We had noted that there were overlaps in time between the lives of many of the people who created the works we were studying, and compared them with events in the lives of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole, who the children learnt about in Year 2. Although we had found these discussions interesting, they were just asides arising from my desire to be thorough in my explanation, and I had not deliberately planned to link them together, hence my delight when the children remembered what I had said months before.

I obviously underestimated the power of the children’s emotional responses to poetry, stories, music and art. Building on the introduction I’m sure we all do when introducing a new work of art to the class, by including a little more context of the time period and building on children’s prior knowledge of history, can be a really powerful way of enriching children’s chronological understanding, and helping them see history as a coherent narrative, rather than a series of people and events that exist in separate vacuums.

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