A sense of period is something that you as a history teacher probably have in bucket loads. It’s the skill of looking at a painting and being able to pinpoint which century it’s from, reading a text and being able to think about the time it was written and contextualise it, knowing the difference between the 19th century and the 20th century. We all have this as we are all trained historians and it’s a crucial skill. It aids chronological understanding, helps us to empathise and to evaluate interpretations, to name but a few of its benefits. Yet I doubt it is a skill that your students have yet developed or that you explicitly teach that often.
What is sense of period and why should you care about teaching it?
The model below (Fig.1.) defines a ‘sense of period’ and it’s benefits. The yellow inner circle is the ‘stuff’ you might know if you have a good sense of period. The blue outer circle are the historical concepts that you will be able to explain better if you have a more developed sense of period. Taught well and a student’s developed sense of period will improve their historical understanding. Taught badly and students will be inclined to make stereotypes and generalizations.
This is very consciously a circular model. Although some of the yellow ‘knowledge’ elements may appear to be more accessible than others, for example the visual identity of a period might appear more accessible than the values of a period, this is not necessarily the case, and all of these elements can be differentiated to a higher or lower ability student. Equally each individual ‘knowledge’ element does not link with an individual blue ‘concept’ element. Used carefully and any of the knowledge elements will lead to a benefit if planned carefully into a historical enquiry.
Apart from this primary benefit, a sense of period is going to become an increasingly important skill in the following years of curriculum change. All GCSE History courses from 2016 will now have a compulsory breadth unit (similar to the current history of medicine units) and A-level courses must cover a 200 year span. Chronological understanding will be a must in this brave new world and a sense of period will aid this.
What do you as a teacher need to teach a sense of period?
1. Secure subject knowledge
It sounds obvious but you need to have a secure sense of period yourself. As with everything in history knowledge of a given period is infinite. As a teacher you need a clear plan of what you want your students to know from this limitless list.
2. Immerse yourself in the period
To teach sense of period well you need to find rich source material (more on this later). The only way to do this effectively is to immerse yourself in the period you want to teach. Read books. Scour websites. Visit museums.
3. Build the sense of period into your historical enquiry
A sense of period on it’s own is just knowing more stuff. It’s power and importance is where it is explicitly built as part of a historical enquiry. For example having a sense of the Middle Ages is fine on it’s own, but using this contextual knowledge to explain why individuals made specific decisions is taking historical understanding to a higher level.
How do you teach sense of period?
The key to teaching sense of period well is using rich source material. If you are trying to teach what it means to be an Ancient Greek through a single image that image has to be a cracker. Like the skilled DJ who digs through the crates of old 45s in a charity shop you need to become historical crate diggers, scouring the internet and books for that perfect source material. The right chosen source will reveal everything about a period of history and make an engaging and memorable learning experience.
Here are a few examples of how to use different sources. Many of them are simply starters or short activities as this doesn’t have to take a long time.
Example 1: Mystery Objects
Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum in his fantastic History of the World in a 100 Objects said that “With objects…we have to add…a considerable leap of imagination, returning the artefact to its former life, engaging with as generously, as poetically, as we can in the hope of winning the insights it may deliver” – and he’s right.
Chosen carefully, one single object can teach us about a period. On the right is the Antikythera Mechanism. I use this to introduce my Year 10s to the Ancient Greeks. I don’t tell them what it is but they guess. After a while I reveal that it is an ancient computer that accurately predicts solar eclipses, a very complex calculation. This reveals not only that the Greeks are geniuses but also shows they are interested in working out the world around them in a scientific manner. But as one student told me this year it also shows they hold great reverence for the celestial bodies showing a supernatural belief. In 5 minutes the students can develop an, albeit basic, sense of period but one that allows them greater understanding of the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas like Asclepions and the natural work of Hippocrates.
A full list of examples of objects to teach different periods is provided here. The list isn’t complete though so please do let me know if you can think of further examples.
Example 2: Images
Students like making inferences from images. It makes them feel like ‘real’ historians suggesting what individual parts of a painting, cartoon or a photo might tell us. Find the right source and students can be guided toward making inferences that will allow them to develop a sense of period independently. This can be done with individual pictures if you can find one that is rich enough. For example the Samuel Colman painting of St James Fair in Bristol in 1824 shows all the highs and (very explicit) lows of the early 19th century.
But it can also be done with multiple images. Using a large pack of images students can then be encouraged to find the exceptions to the general trend, for example which image stands out from the rest.
With visual images, whether you are using single images or multiple ones, local examples will improve the outcome. Firstly students find them easier to engage with and secondly their in built contextual knowledge of the area will mean a more developed analysis can take place, especially important when looking at change or continuity between periods.
A full list of examples of images to teach different periods is provided here. The list isn’t complete though so please do let me know if you can think of further examples.
Example 3: Using individual stories
I strongly believe that individuals can encompass the essence of a period. Take the Lunar Men of Birmingham from the late 18th century. These men not only began the Industrial Revolution and hence showed the changing nature of the economy but their religious and political views also reveal the key elements of that society from their fight for the abolition of slavery to their response to the French Revolution that ultimately brought about their end. Teaching the narratives of key individuals will allow your students to develop a sense of period sub consciously in a way very different from the previous two examples.
These are certainly not the only individuals to encompass an age. Here’s a few more examples.
- A full list of examples of individuals to teach different periods is provided here. The list isn’t complete though so please do let me know if you can think of further examples.
If you are studying a more modern period of history why not bring in some oral history. Each of our students knows an individual who will be able to tell them loads about a different period of history – their grandparents. We’ve done this as part of a unit looking at the most significant change in the 1960s and as a result the students most definitely gained a sense of period that in turn led to improved explanation where they used this contextual knowledge.
Example 4: Food
Certain foods definitely sum up a period. The prawn cocktail is synonymous with the 1970s. But this isn’t the only example. I’ve recently found out about Woolston Pie, an austerity recipe from WW2 that brilliantly sums up the struggle that society faced. Or what about the Cornish Pasty – a product of the Industrial Revolution.
I saw food being used to teach sense of period brilliantly by a primary teacher. He put a bowl of Greek salad on each desk. Students were encouraged to pick it apart and list the ingredients, eating it if they were brave enough. Once they’d done that they had to make inferences about the Greeks, e.g. the feta cheese shows they had basic farming techniques. Great stuff and memorable.
A full list of examples of individuals to teach different foods is provided here. The list isn’t complete though so please do let me know if you can think of further examples.
Example 5: Contemporary voices
Another method to really capture the essence of a period is to find examples of writing that are contemporary to that period. The easiest way to do this is with contemporary fiction. What better way to teach about the essence of the Victorians than reading a bit of Dickens. I’m not talking about reading a whole book (although this could work well as a term long home learning) but rather a choice excerpt.
The last few years I’ve done this with Year 10 by getting them to read a bit of Beowulf to teach about the essence of the Anglo Saxon period. They love it. I choose a bit about preparing for the fight, having a feast, praying and then fighting Grendel. One note of caution though is that this method is not as accessible for lower ability students as often the contemporary language is difficult to read.
A full list of examples of contemporary voices to teach different periods is provided here. The list isn’t complete though so please do let me know if you can think of further examples.
As an alternative to this another way to bring contemporary voice into the classroom is by using music. Lyrics and melody also tell a story in a very similar way to fiction and can be used inter changeably. Neil Bates has done a lot of work on using music and is compiling a list of songs to teach different periods.
As an additional alternative Russel Tarr has a list of films that represent each period of history on his site – see point 7 – Active History – although not strictly contemporary voices they will serve the same purpose.
Consolidating sense of period
Once you’ve taught the students a sense of period you must also build in time to consolidate it. This is fundamental to develop chronological understanding. Below are three examples to do this.
Example 1: Word pictures
This is not my idea. It’s one I’ve borrowed from Ian Dawson, who adapted it from Dale Banham, who borrowed it from David Kynaston’s book ‘Austerity Britain 1945-51’.
It’s an easy idea. Sum up a period in less than 150 words. It doesn’t have to be a fancy piece of descriptive writing, but an accumulation of words and short phrases that sum up all the key features of that period. I’ve got my Year 10s to do this for each of the periods we have studied in their Medicine through Time course. Here’s an example about the Egyptians.
Real civilisations, not like prehistoric man. The Nile River at the heart of it all. Pyramids and pharaohs, a hierarchy to show who’s on top and who’s not. The sphinx and mummies wrapped in cloth. Medicine is advancing, but still caused by spirits and gods and supernatural forces, apparently. Organs preserved in canopic jars. Things being written down for the first time with hieroglyphics, passed on to the next generation and the one after that. Knowledge isn’t lost. They knew where the organs were (some of them, at least) but not what they did. Egyptian doctors said that ‘channels’ in the body carried blood, air water around. Just like the Nile. Your channels get blocked, you get ill. Apparently. Simple yet often effective surgery. Sort-of ‘hospitals’, with baths and a place to give thanks to the Gods. Not too bad for 3000 BC.
It doesn’t take long to do this and the students like it and find it surprisingly challenging.
Example 2: Virtual museums
This is in essence a reverse of the ‘Mystery Objects’ idea from above. Tell students that they will be curators of their own museum and that their museum will be focused on a single period of time. As the curator they must then pick objects and artefacts to go into the museum. Limit the number of artefacts to make it harder and that’s it. This sounds simple but the process of choosing and justifying is really difficult. You can get them to present this in a number of ways. You could take in physical museum models, this could be done as a poster or I’ve found it’s really easy to get them to do it as a website using GoogleSites or any of the other free sites.
Here’s an example of Prehistoric Museum one of my students created:
If you are doing a breadth study, like Medicine through Time, you can get them to build a different room for each time period they study and as the year progresses the museum gets bigger and bigger.
Example 3: Active timelines
Timelines are an important method to develop chronological understanding. But simply listing dates and events along a line is a passive exercise and if you really want to develop chronology and consolidate sense of period this process must become active.
One method I’ve used successfully with A-level students is to ban them from using text. They can only make timelines using pictures. This simple change makes them think. First they have to decide which events are the most important as pictures will limit the space allowed and second they have to decide which picture best represents that event. Through this they have to think a little bit more than writing and thus should engage with it a little more. After this you also have a brilliant resource to unpick, looking at what themes emerge in the pictures, which periods are changing or staying the same. You get the idea. Here’s an example:
Ian Dawson – What time does the tune start? From thinking about ‘sense of period’ to modelling history at Key Stage 3 (Teaching History 135, June 2009)
Dan Smith – Period, place and mental space: using historical scholarship to develop Year 7 pupils’ sense of period (Teaching History 154, April 2014)