Some Ideas about Teaching



Teaching Chronology

It is very easy to confuse children about time, and the standing joke is that children are 'now', mum is from, 'the olden days' and grandma was contemporary with Jesus and the dinosaurs.
i.e. their mental map of time is seriously concertina'd/ unrealistic.

One of the reasons that children have this inability to understand time, I am sure, is because time does not exist. Not only does it not exist as a concrete entity, I would claim that it does not 'exist' even as an abstract concept.

Since time clearly is an abstract concept, what on earth do I mean by that?

Time is unlike anything else, and to fair, no one understands it.


     When I was a Sunday School teacher and I was challenged by my pupils about foreknowledge and the end of the world, I always used to suggest that the pupils thought of time as a table top crawling with ants. Each ant can only see the bit of table it is standing upon, and is utterly unaware of what is in front or behind, but God, who is multi-dimensional, has the advantage of being able to see the whole table top at the same time.

     As a History teacher - and in apparent contradiction to what I have just said - I sometimes intrigue my pupils by talking about time as a knife edge. We are all sweeping along precariously balanced on a knife-edge of time. A tri-zillionth of a micro-mini-nano-second before us is the void of non-existence, and no-time-at-all behind us is the oblivion of ceasing-to-exist. And thus we hurtle through time on this knife-edge of 'now' at a terrifying speed - and what is amazing is that we all stay together!!! The advance of time is fixed, and we all advance at exactly the same speed. (If we did not, we would drift in and out of each other's perception as we slipped behind/ passed each other.)

And how do we 'get a handle' on the idea of time? I would argue that we never do. Even if you are Stephen Hawkins and as smart as an Armani suit, you cannot 'imagine' a million, a thousand, even a hundred years. This is because our notion of 'time' comes merely from our experience of it passing by.
(Heavens! There is another analogy of 'time' - as something that 'passes us by').

That, by the way, is why time seems to pass faster as you get older. When you are little, Christmas seems to take FOREVER to arrive. When you are my age, Christmas seems to rush up shortly after Easter. Why? Because when you are two, another year is HALF your life, but when you are 50, it is a mere 2% - no wonder it seems shorter for the 50-year-old.

Thus time is truly unimaginable, and any perception we think we have of it is an illusion which is continually changing, in fact, microsecond-by-microsecond as we age. The ONLY way we get an idea of time is through analogy (e.g. the model where the history of the earth is represented as a 24-hour clock and the 20th century is the last 10 seconds).

Thus the people who think they have a grasp of chronology are people who haven't thought deeply enough about it, and have usually simplified time to some linear concept (such as a timeline), and have assigned numbers (dates) to events in order to rank them in a list slightly more sophisticated than one-two-three.

And THAT is why I say that chronology is a function of factual knowledge, defined simply by the facts you happen to know. Once you have reduced time to a wall chart, all 'chronology' is is knowing where on the roll of wallpaper to stick the labels.

Which is why I always say that - faced with someone who tells you that children's 'knowledge of chronology' needs to improve, you ask them to place these important civilisations in chronological order - Han, Benin, Mayan, Asoka, Tartar - then you give the children 10 minutes with a Hutchinson encyclopaedia CD-rom, and see who gives the more correct answer.

Therefore I would not even try to teach 'chronology'.
The children's brains are incapable of truly 'understanding' time at any level beyond that of the age they are.
The best they can do is to imagine time as a wallchart with labels, which in its turn is just a function of whether they can remember numbers to go with the events.

Dates are merely showing off.
And people who want to teach chronology are like those people at conferences who hector you to wear a name badge.

Posted on: July 9 2006, 09:03 AM





To cite this article, use:   CLARE, JOHN D. (2006), 'Teaching Chronology',  at Greenfield History Site (





Today I received an email from

Dr. Alan Hodkinson

Principal Lecturer in Educational Research

Liverpool John Moores University

Primary Committee Member of the Historical Association


He writes:

Interested by your comment


Therefore I would not even try to teach 'chronology'.
The children's brains are incapable of truly 'understanding' time at any level beyond that of the age they are.
The best they can do is to imagine time as a wall chart with labels, which in its turn is just a function of whether they can remember numbers to go with the events.


I find this most perplexing as there are numerous studies including my own that actually would disagree with this statement. Its not just about wall charts and sticking things on. The latest research, using ICT denotes that teaching chronology skills, distancing, duration etc can lead to structural changes in the brain which enable children to deal with the difficult area of chronology. What is more studies relate that by teaching chronology in a systematic multi-sensory way, actually enables children to develop a cognitive schema that means they can order, sort, remember and retrieve  historical knowledge at more advanced levels than other children who have not experienced this teaching. These studies are also not scientific nonsense. For example, the study I was involved in related to one year's teaching in a classroom. This has led to a significant re-conceptualisation about out dated  notions of what child cannot do based upon the principles of maturation. 


Now I bow absolutely to Dr Hodkinson's comments, and hasten to add that my comments were based on nothing more than classroom experience with a large dose of prejudice!

It's always rather alarming when you meet someone who actually knows something about the subject!