Historical Thinking: Now ≠ Then or Time is of the Essence

TAH-CartoonRemember when you were little and school vacations seemed to last forever?  When the day before your birthday would never end? When the clock seemed to speed up on Sunday nights and bedtime always came too soon? As children, we understood time relative to what was going on in our lives.  Even as an adult, I find points in my life when time seems to crawl and others when it seems to fly by so fast that I am wishing for a few more hours in a day, a few more days in a week.

Our understanding of the concept of time is obviously central to how we learn and think about history.  How do children develop their understanding of the time as it relates to the past and history?  Many elementary teachers have told me that their students have no concept of time.  I think that children do have an understanding of time in reference to their own lives and their patterns of home, school, play, lunch, weekends, and so on.  I know with my own children that I often made reference to something familiar when they asked how long something would take, or how long I would be gone at the store.  “It will be as long as a “Sesame Street and a Barney,” for an hour and a half.  They knew how long those programs lasted and could understand that length of time.

When we study history however, the span of time is much longer – longer even than students have been alive.  Decades, centuries, eras, ages, periods, and so on are the labels we put on historical time that don’t match students’ everyday connection to time.  Often our historical labels of time do not even link to a conventional understanding of dates.  According to researcher Peter Lee, “Notoriously, a century in history is not necessarily a hundred years when used as an adjective (as in ‘eighteenth-century music’)…historians clump and partition segments of time not as bits of time but as events, processes, and states of affairs that appear to belong together from certain perspectives.”[i]  So, while students try to understand the past from their perspective of “everyday” time, historians are using an understanding of time that is linked to their knowledge of the history and the themes they have chosen to pay attention to.  Bit of a Catch-22 situation: to understand historical time, you have to understand history and to understand history, you have to understand historical time.  No wonder students, especially young children may get confused!  Up until students are high school (and sometimes even then) understanding of time in the historical sense can be problematic.

So what are ways we can help students develop ideas about historical time?  I think being aware that our students may not understand the span and sweep of historical time as we do is a major first step.  We must understand what preconceptions (and, perhaps, misconceptions) they have about historical time and make sure that we provide support for their thinking.  Some other ways we can help students, particularly in elementary grades, develop their ideas about historical time:

  • TimelineRepresent time through the use of sources.  We can provide students with visual representation of how things change over time.  Have students create a personal timeline with artifacts.  Create one of your own so that students can see that yours will be longer. There are also several online timeline tools that could be useful in creating personal and historical timelines.  The site also has links to video tutorials on how to use the timeline tools for those of us who are less technologically adept.
  • Use the language of time.  Key vocabulary such as before, after, next, last, first, year, decade, century, and period, needs to be explicitly and clearly taught.
  • Use story to explore concepts of time. Use fiction and nonfiction to show how authors show the passage of time with flashbacks or temporal ellipses (omission of periods of time).
  • Ask questions. Teachers can model asking questions of sources to get at concepts of time.  For example, How can we tell which of these objects might have been used a long time ago? Can we put these pictures or objects in order and explain our choice, with the oldest first and the most recent last? Which of these things might your grandparents have used? What does this tell us about when your grandparents were young? What are the newest/oldest things we can see here?
  • Relate time to mathematics. Help students see the connection between concepts of historical time and mathematic, such as clock reading, calendar skills and measurement.
  • Use the students’ environment.  Help students see evidence of change over time in the buildings and infrastructure that surround them.  You could also use photos of familiar places, then and now, such as the photos below of Clinton Square in Syracuse in 1904 and present day.  You can find a wealth of similar historical pictures at the Library of Congress site, Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920.

Image1  Image2
So, don’t let time pass you by. The time is ripe to consider taking it one day at a time to provide our students with the time they need to understand time.  All in good time!

Fanelli_Jen_WEBJenny


[i] Lee, Peter. “Putting Principles into Practice: Understanding History.” In How Students Learn: History in the Classroom. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2005. 42.

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