The rigor of chronology: how knowing dates leads to higher order thinking

I had been mulling over a blog by Harry Fletcher-Wood for awhile. In it he described how one of his Key Stage 3 classes would spend time in the lesson matching events to dates to gain a chronological overview of 2000 years of history. Then I read Michael Fordham’s blogpost ‘Why should students learn dates?’ where he argued convincingly that being good at history required ‘a strong grip on dates and chronology’ and decided I needed to take this more seriously. I had largely left this up to the students to address with some guidance on using mnemonics to help remember them such as the Dominic System, but it was clear to me that this was not enough.

Another point that struck a chord with me was the statement that dates are the grammar of history (I think this is from Daisy Christodolou). That knowing them is as important as knowing the rules about using semi-colons, commas and structuring sentences. This idea also connected with another area I was exploring: the importance of schemas in helping us  absorb new things, like a web of knowledge that other associated or related knowledge can build onto. By knowing the key dates the students would establish a chronological framework, which would be their schema to catch associated knowledge as we delved more deeply into each of the events and issues. This also reminded me of a course I was on many years ago when Jamie Byrom talked about ‘gist before list’; in other words, giving the students the outline before going into depth.

As all these things started to converge in my mind I decided to give Harry’s idea a go. I decided to start with my Year 11 IGCSE class. The exam they sit requires them to put 5 events in chronological for each of the two parts they have to answer on Paper 1. Each question is worth 3 marks, adding up to 6 if they get them right and taking them more than half the way to another grade. Just for that reason it seemed worth giving it a go. However, dates were often very scarce in their extended written work and often a limited chronological awareness would diminish the quality of some of the stronger student’s essays. Additionally, I was hopeful it would have a significant impact on the written work of all students as in  Michael Fordham’s words ‘One cannot explain the causes or consequences of an event if one does not know if one thing happened before or after another’.

They were about halfway through the Superpower relations unit, when I introduced them to this set of events which they read over, cut up and attempted to put back together. I gave them 10 minutes to match the date with the event, which they didn’t quite manage to do, but were challenged to do it next time. At that point we moved onto the specific focus of the lesson. The next lesson we got them out again and this time everyone improved from the last lesson. I didn’t do this every lesson because I wanted to allow some forgetting to set in, which is something that is stressed in ‘Make it Stick’ and ‘How we Learn’. Roediger et al and Carey, drawing from research in cognitive science, explain that forgetting is the friend of remembering as when retrieval practice is spaced it allows some forgetting making for stronger long term retention. This seemed to pay dividends as the times in which they were able to complete the task dropped dramatically even when I allowed more than 10 days between attempts.

Additionally, and more importantly, specific and precise dates started to make an appearance in the extended written work of the class and the overall grasp of the chain of chronology was clearly improving. However, the thing that surprised me the most is the conversations they were having when they were completing the task – which, in some ways, took me by surprise. It wasn’t just recall, such as ‘this goes with’, it was language laden with connections and links revealing a developing and deepening chronological awareness. This is particularly useful for the Cold War as they need to have an accurate grasp of how it develops from 1945 onwards. So, the conversations were more rational and logical as students said things like ‘this can’t be that because Stalin hadn’t done this yet…’ ‘the Marshall plan can’t be  in 1949 because it was one of the reasons for the Berlin Crisis which is before then…’. In short, the level of discourse was of a much more intellectual level than I had expected.

The impact of the task is still yet to put to the test of the summer exams, but the signs are promising. Student discussion has reached more sophisticated levels as they are now making more connections that knowing the order of the key events has enabled them to do. Their confidence levels have risen as they now feel assured that at least 6 points are a ‘gimmee’ in the exam. I also introduced this task to my IB class with similar pleasing results, and in some ways more impact. For example, we study a unit on Russia from 1855-1924 which involves a lot of content, which can recede into the distance as we get closer to the death of Lenin. The chronology match up ensured that this didnt happen as they were periodically retrieving information about Tsar Alexander II, Alexander II and Nicholas II even when we had moved onto the Bolsheviks. It also highlighted to trends in Russian history, which they picked up on without any hints from myself, such as the fluctuating experiences of the peasants.

I do wonder what a visitor to my classroom would make of this task. Casual observance would leave the visitor with a superficial view of the task, something they may view as a low order activity and maybe even lacking in rigor. But, the more they do it, the deeper they embed the dates and events, the richer the conversations become as they start to connect and analyze. It goes to show that Bloom’s taxonomy is misleading: without a deep and rich array of knowledge ‘remembered’ analysis and evaluation is superficial at best.

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8 Responses to The rigor of chronology: how knowing dates leads to higher order thinking

  1. One for the ‘great post, and not just because I’m in it’ file. I enjoyed your discussion of how you identified two reasons for doing this – the first (easy marks) helping justify attempting the second (deeper understanding). Reading your reflections on how this has affected the quality of your students’ understanding is particularly interesting – you highlight just the kind of things which I was always missing before I began experimenting with this kind of chronology.

    The idea that dates are the grammar of history probably did come from Daisy Christodolou, who, in turn, got them from this interesting Dorothy L Sayers piece on education: http://www.gbt.org/text/sayers.html

    I presume you’re teaching classes lower down the school? How will you use this with them?

    • cnewman1974 says:

      Thanks for the comments, Harry. I only teach Year 10 and above now, and mostly Year 12, actually (Tok and History). However, I see great value in doing something like this in Key Stage 3, as well. What are you up to now?

  2. heatherfblog says:

    Amusingly I have been working on EXACTLY the same issue – same board, same topic! I was struck by how the questions focused on the ‘joins’ between events rather than the events themselves and that the students’ revision ended up focusing on events (despite our advice). I also began a few weeks ago with an events card sort with my yr 11 who have just begun revision. Like you, I became quickly convinced I was in the right track but I am going to try something else next week because it was soul destroying realising how unaware they were that for example, the Marshall Plan MUST come after Truman Doctrine cos of the ‘story’. I am going to write the events in boxes down the centre of a page and then I will ask the class the (admittedly awkwardly phrased) question, ‘How did the effects of x event cause y event’?
    Those ‘joining explanations’ will link the events running down the page. I will then return to ordinary card sorts putting events in order as a starter activity when I think the class now have more knowledge to remember the order of events because they ‘know the story.’ Therefore each time they then do the apparently simple task of putting events in order they are more likely to be relying on/activating a more complex set of explanations to do the task.
    Let’s share! I’m happy to email anything I make – do DM me your email address.

    • cnewman1974 says:

      Great to hear that you are also trying this simple activity and finding its ‘hidden’ benefits. Although you say it was soul destroying to find out they didn’t know MP came after TD you only knew this because the task revealed this. The more I think about it the more I think it is a really valuable retrieval practice activity. I now do it at the start of the unit to build an outline then at different periods during the unit and agin at the end. Each time they do it the conversations become more sophisticated showing and enforcing deeper understanding. Great to bring out old ones as well as a retrieval practice surprise!

      Would love to share and collaborate – Ive enjoyed reading many of your blogs – c.newman@wclschools.org

  3. Keith Miller says:

    Excellent post, I love the focus on building knowledge from the ground up, and recently finished both “Make it Stick” and “How we Learn”, they’re so pertinent to good teaching!

  4. Pingback: GCSE History Knowledge Organizers | Newman's blog

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