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Has Michael Gove found a simple solution to improve children’s chronological understanding?

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The publication of the new History curriculum in 2013 caused an outcry. One of the contested issues was the draft’s requirement for children to be taught History in sequential order. In this article, Laura Quinn examines whether there might be something in it.

two children reading a book about history

There is an attitude that a sense of time is a tricky concept for a young child to grasp. I have met many teachers who claim that children often “don’t know what happened yesterday let alone the distant past”, and often see little point in aiding children to build a chronological understanding within history lessons. Psychologists and researchers share this pessimistic view, believing children need to mature before an understanding can develop. Many people have concerns that children today simply don’t have a good enough understanding of chronology. These attitudes naturally beg the question of whether there is quality teaching of chronology in our schools.

Michael Gove certainly believes more should be done. His new history curriculum (and the gossip is he wrote the first draft himself) places a large significance on children’s chronological awareness, and emphasizes children gaining a ‘coherent, chronological narrative’ of our past.  Among the recent changes to the National Curriculum, the alterations to history caused the largest uproar. In contrast to the current curriculum, which it could be argued confusingly allows history topics to jump forwards or backwards in time, historical subjects will now be taught sequentially. There are researchers who believe that this approach could work, although maturity is an important factor to consider, they believe education and instruction plays a large role in children’s understanding of chronology.

Could this apparently simple approach aid children’s chronological understanding?

I recently conducted a research study in order to assess primary school children’s chronological skills within the current curriculum. As part of this investigation I observed year five children in two schools. Sequencing activities such as organizing historical eras spanning from the Ancient Egyptians to World War Two, were put in place in order to gain insight into chronological knowledge.

The study revealed interesting evidence regarding children’s understanding of chronology. Whilst ordering the eras children referred frequently to when they had studied certain periods. Children picked up the eras they recognized first and placed these, often saying “we did Tudors in year 4” or “we did Romans in year 3”, a pupil even recognized that they would be studying World War Two in year 6. The ability to remember when they studied certain periods suggests that Gove’s curriculum change to chronological order is positive, if children have this capability they could have a built-in timeline of periods in correct order in their minds.

Pupils seemed confused about the chronological order of many periods, suggesting that perhaps the current curriculum doesn’t go far enough in helping them to understand the past. In reviewing the chronological knowledge of children in both schools, I found potential issues in both. Whilst one school had consistency in placing the Egyptians correctly at the beginning of the timeline, Romans and Tudors were frequently placed together in the middle or near the end – one boy even believed the Romans and Tudors had a battle which justified this position. The middle placement of Romans was a common feature and when these findings were related to the order in which they had studied the periods it revealed that there may be confusion because Romans and Tudors were studied at a similar time and both periods were studied in the middle of their primary school lives. This findings were supported by my investigations at the second school. The Egyptians were commonly placed in the middle of the timeline, which may possibly be connected to the fact that it was studied in Year 4; only one group successfully placed them correctly.

My research, though very small-scale, seems to suggest that children could benefit in a setting with a chronological approach, something that supports Michael Gove’s view that the incoherency of topics means children do not have a connected narrative and periods are muddled in their minds. Gove’s seemingly simple solution to connect and link historical eras could be a benefit to many children.

However, the order of study is surely not the only answer. In my research, I discovered that attitudes towards chronology could also be an important issue affecting children’s understanding. In the schools I also undertook interviews with class teachers and heads of history; these revealed interesting views on chronology. It was commonly ranked as a low important skill than other historical concepts, suggesting perhaps children are not always taught topics with an overarching chronology in mind. Some teachers explained that children’s brains were not developed enough to deal with such complex concepts of time.

Their views may not be unfounded, as many children studied did not have a sophisticated understanding of chronology. The past appeared to be a term they understood as a whole, but vague terminology such as ‘long ago’ applied to the Ancient Egyptians as frequently as it did to World War Two. My research suggested that they had little understanding of the relative distance between eras and whether World War Two was significantly more recent than other periods. They made no mention of their own family generations that could have been involved in the war, the past appeared to be a rather muddled and separated entity from their lives and the present.

Although my research revealed many misconceptions and misunderstandings in chronology there were also examples of children with the ability to use dates and precise time language. A pupil suggested that the Egyptians were first on the timeline because they were from 2030 BC, another correctly said that the Tudor period began in 1485. Whilst this knowledge was a minority, it suggests that children do, potentially, possess significant abilities in chronology. Perhaps if all teachers had an optimistic view on children’s capabilities, and involved these concepts frequently in history, more children could use these terms with confidence and have a more precise understanding. High expectations are crucial in any subject; children need to be given a chance to show their understanding of chronology. Order of study can only go part of the way in aiding children’s understanding. Gove’s new emphasis on chronology could help to tackle these views, as it gives chronology a larger status and significance.

It certainly appears that the current curriculum does not go far enough in aiding children’s understanding of chronology. Although my research is extremely small scale it does suggest that Michael Gove has discovered a simple solution for the future understanding, if the topics are in order their understanding could naturally become more ordered. There are many lessons to be learnt from history, even if chronology isn’t the most important one, history should be taught in an accessible fashion for children to understand, and our expectations of their abilities should never be low. We can only wait and see what the affects of the change will be.

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4 Responses to Has Michael Gove found a simple solution to improve children’s chronological understanding?

  1. Catherine Carden
    Catherine Carden Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 10:55 #

    I enjoyed reading this. I am not a historian and did find myself nodding at the complexities of learning bits of history out of sequence, based on my own school experience.
    One thing to consider though with a chronologically based curriculum is surely depth.
    Surely Tudors, WW2 etc need to be re-visited at a later stage of child development to enable children to gain a deep understanding of this era/event? If learned chrocologically there may be a danger that children know the chronology at the detriment of having detailed knowledge and understanding around the early historical events studies in year 1!

  2. Laura Quinn Saturday, 14 June 2014 at 21:13 #

    Thank you Catherine,
    I do agree that a chronologically set curriculum does have it’s difficulties as well. However, I also found the same issue of under developed understanding during my own schooling. I know I have a detailed knowledge of periods I studied in late secondary school, college and university whilst periods I studied at primary level are very vague or forgotten. It is a tricky thing to escape as there is so much history and not enough time to cover it at school. I hope, as a teacher, that I will inspire children to revisit the early stages of history taught at primary level at a later age so that their understanding can develop further – and also inspire children to go on and study history that, though important, isn’t covered in the curriculum.

  3. Mary Woolley Monday, 23 June 2014 at 21:16 #

    Laura, it’s so good to see a blog about history education on here and even more exciting that it comes from an early years practitioner! My son starts reception in September and I very much hope he has a teacher who is as thoughtful as you about history education (and education in general). As a history education tutor, I agree with many of your points. Going back to the headline of the blog, part of the problem is that some people see chronology as simple. Chronological understanding, as you make clear, is so much more than what came when. It is so exciting that 5-year-olds can begin to put different historical eras accurately on a timeline and use the terms ‘before’ and ‘after’ appropriately. Please share this with any secondary practitioners you meet so that they can challenge their pupils beyond simple timelines and, perhaps, into parallel timelines – beginning to understand what was happening in England when the Ancient Egyptians were at the height of their civilisation.

    I agree with Catherine too that different historical periods desperately need to be revisited. I don’t want my son to leave school with the understanding of castles and the Norman Conquest that he gained in Year 1. However, we also need to make sure that revisiting doesn’t simply mean repeating. There are too many exciting and crucial historical topics out there to repeat the Tudors three times in the very limited time given to history education. What this National Curriculum does provide, at secondary level at least, is the encouragement to revisit substantive terms such as ’empire’ or ‘conquest’ or ‘war’ or ‘revolution’ several times over the course of a child’s schooling and therefore help them build up deeper understanding of what these terms might mean. Teaching in this way might well help pupils make links across time and therefore build up the ‘big picture’ of the past to which we all aspire.

    And finally, I can’t leave a comment on chronological understanding without mentioning ‘sense of period.’ By that I mean that when I say Tudor, you have an image of Tudor England – whether it be Queen Elizabeth or dissolved monasteries or destitute poverty. It is probably quite a complex image. What image do your pupils have? How can you help them with this? Primary school is a fantastic time for building up a sense of period across lots of different eras and this is the type of history teaching that often stays with pupils.

    Having taught in the secondary sector I can see pros and cons of both chronological and thematic teaching, but I got most excited when my pupils built up enough of a sense of period to start making links across time (and even space!) This probably happened for most of them during GCSE development studies. I am in total awe of what you are aspiring to at KS1!

    • Laura Quinn Thursday, 3 July 2014 at 18:07 #

      Thank you Mary. I really enjoyed reading your comment, I certainly agree with many of the points you have raised.
      Even though I teach younger children I love allowing my passion for history to enter the classroom. It can be so beneficial for many areas of their learning too and I enjoy seeing how much it influences their engagement. When they get excited about a period or event in history it can really benefit their writing development, they become immersed in the past and love learning more. I hope that there are lots of teachers out there that feel this way so that children go on to secondary school and beyond enjoying history.
      I do agree that some see chronology as simply ordering events on a timeline. It is important that teachers understand there is so much more to it. From the very beginnings, learning the vocabulary ‘before’ and ‘after’ and learning how to sequence, but also progressing on to understanding similarities and differences between periods and gaining an understanding of parallel timelines – realising that there is so much more than arranging the ‘main’ historical periods on a timeline.
      I agree that with this there needs to be an understanding and sense of period. Primary school is such a fantastic time to build up the foundations of a sense of period, lessons can be visual and multi sensory to allow children to create their own image of past times. Primary school is such a vital time to create a love and understanding of history and there is lots of potential for the foundations of chronology to be built in an exciting and vibrant way.