The Importance of Chronology

Written by Dan

Last updated

It’s often said that the victors write history. But, if we don’t understand chronology – the order of events – then we can’t even begin to understand history. That’s why it’s so important to teach chronology in schools.

Without a basic understanding of chronology, students will be disadvantaged when learning about historical events and analyzing primary sources .

In this article, we’ll discuss the importance of teaching chronology in schools and provide some tips for how teachers can help students learn this essential skill.

A significant component of a school history education should be to give students an understanding of time and chronology. If we want them to make sense of history, they need to know how past events are referenced regarding when they took place.

Even those who have studied secondary-level history for at least six years may still lack elementary comprehension of certain aspects concerning time.

Related: For more, check out our article on What Has To be Taught In The History National Curriculum here.

The Importance of Chronology

Forgotten and neglected

At the start of the National Curriculum for history, reaching Level 10 in all subjects was possible without knowing which century you were living in or what AD and BC meant.

Time was neglected as an element of historical study but this lack was eventually addressed through textbook changes.

Some head history teachers suggest that the primary reasons for these deficiencies are an assumption coverage at primary school, taking understanding for granted, and/or it was not part of the original Attainment Targets.

However, it would be best if you didn’t assume all your students understand time and chronology basics clearly.

The revised versions of the NC for history have brought time back to being a central concern, with chronology now an integral part of the most recent version.

This was introduced in September 2014 with one of its stated aims: pupils should “Know and understand the history of these islands as a coherent, chronological narrative.”

Different Views

One advantage of the NC curriculum is that all pupils have some instruction in history at KS1/2.

However, as they differ in ability and come from different feeder schools, it would be surprising if they all had a similar depth or breadth of understanding about when they arrived at secondary school.

The history teacher’s job is to understand what students already know before teaching a topic or concept in question.

How time is approached may differ in primary schools; some have learned through family trees and timelines, while others have started with ancient history and worked their way up.

Some students already clearly understand dating systems and the basic framework of history. In contrast, others may not have even mastered the lowest level of attainment in this area.

The activity below (see ‘A diagnostic exercise’) focuses on one aspect of children’s understanding of time: the mechanics of time, dating systems and conventions, basic time vocabulary, and how time works.

While this is important, there are other aspects of time that children need to understand.

Chronology is essential to understand the order of historical events and how they are related. A sense of chronology gives children a mental framework for understanding historical significance and coherence.

Historians have recently focused on studying specific historical themes or events rather than a linear progression from the Roman period to the present day.

As a result, many students lack an understanding of how history has unfolded or how long different historical periods lasted.

Since the GCSE exam asks questions that focus on analyzing sources, it’s possible to get full marks without knowing historical facts, such as who was on what side and who won.

Ordering events

A coherent explanation or analysis of a historical event, such as the outbreak of WWI or the campaigns of 1066, requires youngsters to know not just of deep time – distant pasts, including prehistory and the stone age – but also an understanding of the precise order in which events happened.

The term ‘prehistory’ refers to the period before history was documented.

Students need to understand that historians use records as evidence from the past to figure out what occurred during specific events.

As a teacher, you play an essential role in helping students develop a sense of chronology and historical awareness.

Timelines can be advantageous for pupils in classrooms and within their exercise books.

Exercises that ask students to put events in order, using either card, groups work, blackboards or educational technology – provide opportunities for kids to think through the exact sequence of happenings, needing them to use both inference skills along with historical knowledge.

Although there is a potential downside to this type of activity (arbitrary lists of unrelated historical events), if done correctly it can be very beneficial.

Ian Dawson’s Thinking History website offers several active-learning approaches to help students understand chronology. These overview activities are well thought out and eminently practicable.

A form of self-reflection

A diagnostic test on children’s understanding of certain aspects of time, which could be administered to year 7, can be found here.

If the students have not already taken a similar test, administer the test to a group of students and analyze their responses. The test should only take 5-15 minutes.

This test gauges pupils’ understanding of dating systems, ability to understand and manipulate centuries, and familiarity with some time-related vocabulary.

To fill any gaps in their understanding of time, perform the following activity with your pupils:

If the pupils have already done a similar test, check how they performed and what areas they struggled with.

When the pupils have completed the test, analyze their responses to look for gaps in their grasp of basic time concepts.

Teaching students about chronology is essential for them to understand how historical events are related and their historical significance.

Teachers can help pupils develop a sense of order regarding historical events using activities such as timelines and diagnostic tests.

Additionally, these activities encourage self-reflection and the critical thinking needed to gain a firmer grasp of chronology.

Ultimately, teaching chronology in schools gives students the essential skills needed to understand history and its place in it.


What activities can help to teach chronology?

Many activities can help to teach chronology, such as using timelines, cards, groups work, blackboards or educational technology. Ian Dawson’s Thinking History website also offers several active-learning approaches to help students understand the chronology.

What is the importance of teaching chronology in schools?

Chronology is an important skill to teach in schools because it helps students develop their understanding of historical events and how they fit together. This understanding is essential for analyzing sources, constructing explanations or arguments about different events and having a holistic view of history.

Additionally, chronology can help to foster self-reflection among students, as well as the development of inference skills. Ultimately, teaching chronology in schools allows students to better understand the past.

What is chronology?

Chronology is the science of arranging events or dates in the temporal order. It involves understanding the sequence and timing of different historical events and how they fit together. Chronology helps students to understand how people, places, ideas and events are connected in history. The understanding chronology also allows students to develop a better sense of perspective when studying history.

What does chronology look like in primary school teaching?

Chronology in primary school teaching looks like the use of timelines, cards, group work and educational technology. Additionally, teachers can administer diagnostic tests to gauge children’s understanding of certain aspects of time, such as dating systems, centuries and time-related vocabulary. This will help to identify any gaps in their knowledge so that they can be further addressed.

How do you teach chronology in EYFS?

In EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage), chronology can be taught through activities such as telling stories about the past, creating timelines and discussing time-related vocabulary. Additionally, teachers can use educational technology to help bring chronology alive for EYFS pupils and make it more interactive. Overall, it is important to ensure that any activity used is engaging and accessible for the pupils

What are some other activities that can be used to teach chronology?

Other activities that can be used to teach chronology include playing board games, creating a timeline of the lives of famous people, using manipulatives such as coins or beads to represent different periods, and taking class trips to historical sites.

Additionally, teachers can use visual aids such as maps or images to help students understand the concept of chronology. These activities will help to engage pupils and make learning chronology more enjoyable

About The Author

I'm Dan Higgins, one of the faces behind The Teaching Couple. With 15 years in the education sector and a decade as a teacher, I've witnessed the highs and lows of school life. Over the years, my passion for supporting fellow teachers and making school more bearable has grown. The Teaching Couple is my platform to share strategies, tips, and insights from my journey. Together, we can shape a better school experience for all.

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