Historical Thinking Skills: Chronological Thinking

This is my favorite history thinking skill because the curriculum possibilities are so great. Reading sources, art, geography – you can work on this skill with so many different mediums. The real question is then: why are students so bad at it?

1.Teachers assume students will catch on 

Historians and teachers tend to think that people can put dates in order. This is a very simple skill that we mistakenly think is intuitive. It is not. Students need to learn how to put things in order.

Chronology isn’t just about putting dates in order. When you ask students to put centuries in order they can until you then ask them what dates correspond to the centuries. Have both BC and AD dates or centuries and you have started a truly difficult task for students.



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At its core, chronology is a math skill and with math as the curriculum king of elementary schools, it is astounding that school and teachers are resistant to the idea of combining history and math. If you want to add in “real-world” math problems then why not embrace this concept? Students begin to think about dates and numbers as more than just dates and numbers. They are interactive. They are changeable. They can be manipulated.

Chronological thinking includes other concepts like looking for patterns (math skill), data interpretation (math skill), and timeline construction and readability (math skill). Combining math and history can also yield some really awesome word problems. This idea of using history to enhance math skills which will in turn help students be better at chronology history skills can be used at all age levels.

Start by simply introducing dates, especially dates from before your students were alive and dates that will happen in the future. (If this is appealing check out Chronology and Centuries in my TpT store.) This may also be an effective method for middle school students or underachieving high school students. They may never have been asked to work with dates. As students become more proficient, add more dates, or centuries. Add in events and have students begin putting events or achievements in chronological order.

Practice, practice, practice. It is the only way they will get good at it.

Chronology for Elementary Students K - 2Centuries for Elementary Students

2. Time as a man-made concept is mind-blowing

Maybe it wasn’t for you but I didn’t have a single student that wasn’t blown away when they realized that dates meant nothing.

“We just made it up?”

Yes. We made it up. The calendar we currently use was created by Pope Gregory XIII and is based on the life and death of Jesus who by the way was not actually born in year 1. Historical research and analysis put his birth somewhere around 30 BC although the year specifically is debated.

Some historians would say, “Yes, because year 1 is 1 AD, after death,” but when most people think he was born in year 1, this shift in thinking is monumental to many, if not most. Other people are not swayed by the religious element of Jesus’ birth and death but more so that we had other calendars that were used like the Julian calendar.

When it is pointed out that the Chinese have their own calendar or the Jewish calendar is still in use, students are intrigued and baffled. Chronology takes on a whole new meaning for them which is a great opportunity to take a day or two to explore chronology but teachers don’t. Our time is precious (even though we just established it is all made up – smile, that was a little joke) and we continue to assume that students know or could intuitively figure out chronology.


3. Students are TERRIBLE with visual chronology

Ever shown a picture to your class and asked students to place it in history? Like, put a time period to it? Unless they know the picture, they can’t. This needs to change.

To start, pick roughly ten images from different time periods. Show them to your students and walk them through each image to see what they can see. Help them with visuals that will help them date the images. If students are able to look at a picture and immediately say, “Middle Ages,” or “Enlightenment,” or “Tany Dynasty,” students are building chronology skills.

When they are able to put visuals into the big time periods you can begin to get more specific. An image isn’t just from the first half of the 20th century but it is the 1930’s. It is pre-WWI. And this is what history skills are all about – being able to analyze and interpret what you are looking at and apply it to something else.


When we focus on why chronology is important for just history studies, historians use chronology to explain why things happen. The cause of WWII isn’t just the rise of Hitler, it has everything to do with the conditions around Hitler that allowed him to manipulate his way to power. The hatred of the Jews didn’t just arise in the 1920s but instead has a long chronological history in Europe. The balance of power shifted in 1850s that gave rise to Germany itself and it challenged the old-world power structures. But that didn’t happen overnight. This is all chronology.

It also helps us look at our current time and be able to discuss issues. At first, humans had to fight hand-to-hand combat but the further away you are from your enemy the more likely it is you survive. So humans invented slingshots. But again, get further away and you have a better chance of surviving so the bow and arrow were invented followed by the more powerful crossbow. Gunpowder was utilized to create guns. That chronology yielded a lot of history, a lot of achievement, and you can have a lot of discussion about inventions and advancements and the possible moral dilemmas.

However, you decide to focus on chronology is fine but you need to focus on chronology. You didn’t just learn it – you were taught it even if you don’t realize it. Do your students a favor and focus a few lessons throughout the year on chronology skills. It is fun, it can be lively, and your students will build skills that will enhance other subjects.


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