Social Studies

Before you begin the case study, please try the Interactive Visual Timeline by clicking on the image below. You should use your existing knowledge and the clue sheet as a guide to placing pictures in proper chronological order. Spending a few minutes plotting the images will help you think about the skill and knowledge involved in using this online timeline tool.

The Interactive Visual Timeline

  • What strategies and knowledge did you use to place the images on the timeline?
  • How might your approach differ from that of a third grade student?


Timelines are a very important pedagogical tool for social studies teachers.  A well-constructed timeline can help students organize discrete content into recognizable patterns. Timelines structure the past by both sequencing and situating events in relation to one another. Recognizing these kinds of temporal relationships is critical for students to build their understanding of the past.

In some ways, the concept of sequencing, or what we call chronology, is easy for students to grasp. The most important operation in a chronology occurs when events are placed in the correct order. When provided with visual clues, young children can be quite adept at placing items in correct order. Children as young as kindergarten can use clues related to technology and style of dress to determine a chronology.

Students often have more trouble when trying to match an event or person to a specific date or period or when trying to use cause and effect to order events. For example, students may know that a picture of a covered wagon depicts an event that occurred before an event depicted in a photo with an automobile. Young children may even be able to correctly sequence two different automobiles. Those same children will likely find it more difficult to describe the date or period when the technologies were used. Students may also have trouble understanding that one event caused or led to another.

Making connections between events helps students to weave together a more coherent narrative of the past, For example, if students know that Beethoven wrote his famous Fifth Symphony at the same time as Lewis and Clark’s exploration, they might have richer understanding of the differences between North America and Europe.

Timelines are a useful and tangible way to represent chronology and can help students to build sophistication with regard to the ordering of events. Perhaps more importantly, timelines can help students understand the distance between events or people in time and the commonalities between events that occur in the distant places.

In this chapter, Anna Isley describes her use of a timeline tool in her third grade classroom. The tool is designed to support students in their development of chronological thinking and reasoning. In the instructional activity featured in this chapter, Anna wanted to help her students understand the relationships between 14 “Famous Americans” in history.

The social studies standards in Anna’s state*  require the following of third graders:

    Contributions of Citizens Who Defended American Principles:
      3.11 The student will explain the importance of the basic principles that form the foundation of a republican form of government by identifying the contributions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez… (Virginia Department of Education, 2008)

In addition, Anna reviewed seven historical figures students had learned about in prior grades. On her state’s standardized test for third graders, they are expected to know all the Famous Americans introduced in grades K-3. Anna used this opportunity to integrate students’ prior learning with current learning, since many of the 14 historical figures had overlapping goals or were alive around the same time period.

At the end of the history unit on the contributions of these Famous Americans, Anna showed her students how to use an online timeline tool to help them place the historical figures in time in relation to each other and show chronological relationships among these people.  This type of knowledge lays the foundation for the type of temporal thinking emphasized by the National Council for the Social Studies (2010) as students “gain experience with sequencing to establish a sense of order and time, and begin to understand the historical concepts that give meaning to the events that they study” (Chapter 2—The Themes of Social Studies: Time, Continuity, and Change)**.

The National Standards for History (Nash, 1996) also emphasize this sort of temporal thinking. Specifically, these standards expect of students that they will, “interpret data presented in time lines and create time lines by designating appropriate equidistant intervals of time and recording events according to the temporal order in which they occurred” (Historical Thinking Standard 1, Standards for Grades K-4).***

What Do You Think?

In what ways might young children struggle with chronological relationships between people and the events in history?

What kinds of strategies might you use to help students place significant people and events in their appropriate historical context?

Meet the Teacher

  • Anna Isley
  • 3rd Grade Teacher
  • Burnley-Moran Elementary School

Currently, I am a third grade teacher at a school located in a small but culturally rich city surrounded by rural communities. Our school has nearly 400 students of whom nearly 40% receive free and reduced lunch.  About half of the students are Caucasian and the other half are African American. I have been teaching for seven years.

In teaching social studies, I use technology to help students understand the world in concrete ways. Examples of other technology tools we have used in this class include Google Earth to locate and see the ancient Greek ruins. I also have plans to use videoconferencing (Skype) to connect the students to another classroom in a different country. I believe it is critical for my students to build critical thinking and reasoning skills in addition to learning the facts. Also, I want them to be comfortable using different technologies, since using technology is an important 21st-century skill they will need.

My third-grade class includes a diverse group of students. They differ in terms of where they are developmentally, their academic performance, their ability to express themselves, and their physical capacity. This lesson does not hinge on perfect recall or performance; it allows students to make mistakes, use their own reasoning and judgment, and work collaboratively.

The Lesson

Often, students in the third grade who learn facts about important events and people have a hard time organizing their relative positions in time. My goal for the digital timeline lesson was to encourage students to use critical thinking and reasoning skills to determine the position of each historical figure on the span of time, understand how these historical figures are related to one another, and demonstrate and articulate their thinking.

My students had studied the facts about what we refer to in our state standards as the Famous Americans and their contributions to history. In a related math lesson, the students learned how to determine the lifespan of each of the Famous Americans and plot their birth and death years on a number line. These previous lessons provided the context and background knowledge from which students could draw and extend for this lesson.

Knowledge and skill alone, however, do not help the students conceptualize passing of time, the sequence of events in history, and the resulting relative positions of people and events in history. Students need to use their knowledge and reasoning skills to make sense of how people and events fit together.

As I introduced the lesson, the students were seated in groups and given a laptop with the browser open. I knew these students were fairly comfortable with using laptops, so I didn’t need to teach any computer skills or competencies in order for them to participate in the lesson.

The browser had two tabs, one with the timeline and one with the clues sheet. I modeled how students could work with the tool and reason out their answers before getting them started on the group work.

Prior to the lesson, I had added 14 images of Famous Americans on the left side of the screen. On the right, was a timeline beginning just before 1600 CE and ending just past 2010. Each century was marked with the year and the mid-century was noted with a short line. The only other marker on the timeline was “Today” to indicate that the current year belongs on the timeline.

The challenge was for students to drag each image from the left side of the screen to a correct approximate position on the timeline. They were also to discuss with a partner their reasoning for putting these people on the timeline in a particular spot, using their knowledge of the ideas and values of these historical figures and their contributions to society and history.

At the end of the lesson, I asked students to share their strategies so they could learn about strategies their classmates used. I emphasized that placing the images precisely where they belonged was less important than using their background knowledge to reason where they would logically go.

What Do You Think?

What prerequisite content knowledge would your students need for this activity?

What are some of the possible issues that may occur with students working with computers in groups and how could a teacher attempt to minimize those issues in advance?


The Interactive Visual Timeline

The Interactive Visual Timeline Tool is in alpha phase.
It works in all current browsers on a Mac except for Google Chrome.
It works in all current browsers on a PC.

  • What strategies and knowledge did you use to place the images on the timeline?
  • How might your approach differ from that of a third grade student?

In this lesson, Anna chose to use an online timeline tool, the Interactive Visual Timeline, developed specifically for this video case. There are also a number of other Web-based timeline tools that you might also use that include additional features. For example, Timeliner XE® is a robust software-based tool. TimeToast and Dipity are nice Web-based alternatives.

The Interactive Visual Timeline enabled Anna to add photos of the historical figures she expected her third grade students to know. It provides a timeline that extends between 1600 CE and the present, with each century labeled and mid-centuries marked. Students drag the images to the place in time where they judge they belong.

The tool is web based and contains a minimal number of features, so it could be implemented without much scaffolding.

The lack of specificity in increments of the timeline is an important feature. It allows younger students to focus on relative placement and general understanding. Also, the lack of specific dates on the timeline and in the requirements of the assignment helps target critical thinking over a focus on specific dates.

Classroom in Action

Watch Video 1 to see how Anna prepared her students to effectively use the timeline tool. Try to identify techniques that reveal her technological pedagogical content knowledge in action.

TPACK commentary

In selecting the visual timeline tool, Anna focused on the pedagogical advantages of the approach. She highlighted the ability for students to easily manipulate the positioning of the different images on the timeline. She made special note of how easy it is for students to change the positioning – offering an easy way for students to experiment and try out new sequences. This focus on the pedagogical affordances or advantages of using a technology tool in the classroom is often the motivating factor for teachers to use a tool in their teaching.

In recognizing that she would need to model and clearly explain what the students would be doing with the timeline, Anna drew on her knowledge of effective teaching with technology. By highlighting the features of the timeline and the clue sheet and demonstrating how students should use the features, Anna provided students with a model for their work.

Anna told the students that they would not be placing people exactly on dates, but rather that they should focus on their relative positions based on what they knew and could infer from the images. She set clear expectations for the goals of the activity and what the students were expected to accomplish. By modeling how students could arrive at a solution before getting them started on the group work, Anna helped focus students on the content and cognitive task at hand, as opposed to focusing on the technology.

Anna identified a problem with her students’ understanding of chronology. Students were able to put things in order, but had a difficult time understanding differences in the amount of time between events and the concept of “long ago.”  This ability to predict common student challenges or misconceptions related to the content is an aspect of her pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). She brought in her technological knowledge of the timeline to extend her PCK thinking.

The timeline tool enabled students to place people on the timeline and visually depict the distance in time that existed between these individuals’ lives. These experiences were powerful enough to justify the use of this timeline tool. This sort of reasoning is central to TPACK, as teachers make decisions about whether to use technologies and how those technologies will support students’ learning.

As you watch Video 2, try to identify ways Anna used her questioning skills to elicit students’ reasoning for their timeline choices.

Videos 3 and 4 show additional examples of Anna working with student pairs on the timeliner. Note ways she uses questions and hints to guide student thinking.


What Do You Think?

Why do you think Anna opted for a less feature-rich timeline tool rather than a more sophisticated one? What do you see as advantages and disadvantages of this instructional decision?

Give two examples of ways Anna supported the students’ articulations of their reasoning and idea construction?


TPACK commentary

Notice that Anna’s conversations with the students did not focus upon the tool, but rather their reasoning process in placing the images on the timeline. The tool helped to set up and facilitate deeper conversations about the content. In this way we see that the technology is a tool that supports the primary learning objective of students applying their chronological reasoning skills.

Anna didn’t merely sit at her desk while student groups were working. She walked around and observed students’ progress, stopping to interject questions when she thought students needed help with articulating their thinking. The timeline tool encouraged the students to collaborate on decisions about where to place their images of historical figures. Anna knew that the flexibility of this tool would support communication between students, since each can take turns moving an image easily along the timeline. When students disagreed, they could adjust the placement of image, defend their decision and then listen to other students’ responses.

In order to help students practice their chronological reasoning, Anna allowed students to work with historical figures that they had recently learned about in her class. She wanted to limit the amount of new learning so students could focus on the chronological thinking concepts supported by the tool.  Anna also had students work in groups so they could support one another in the activity. Video 3 is a great example of this kind of collaborating thinking. She tried to offset some of the potential complexities in navigating the tool by carefully instructing students about how to use the tool in their web browser.

The technology played a direct role in supporting students’ development of conceptual knowledge about ordering, time scales, and causation. During the debriefing, Anna drew on students’ experiences using the timeline tool to further expand their conceptual knowledge.

Student Work

As Anna walked around, she assessed students’ progress. At the end of the lesson she asked students to share their strategies. She chose to conclude the activity with a discussion of the strategies students used to arrive at their answers. Watch the videos of some of her concluding interactions with students.


What Do You Think?

Do you think Anna’s choice of assessment strategies in the lesson was effective? Why or why not? What might you do differently?

TPACK commentary

The technology Anna used for this lesson allowed her students to explore content in new ways. Specifically, the technology helped students manipulate historical information so they could understand temporal concepts such as before, after, and long ago. She also wanted to help students understand the temporal context of historical causation, in other words, how one thing causes or leads to another. Anna emphasized that the closer events or people were on the timeline, the more likely one had an effect on the other.

One major strength of this lesson is the clear focus of the lesson. Beginning with the modeling at the beginning of the lesson all the way through the debrief at the end, Anna focused on helping her students develop their reasoning skills. Her strong TPACK evident in the lesson allowed her to select appropriate pedagogical strategies matched with the timeline tool to help her students develop these key understandings.

Teacher Reflection

The timeline tool helped students apply the historical content they learned in the context of time. Up to now, they had learned pieces of information that, on their own, do not translate to practical understanding. For example, the mathematics activity of subtracting the year born from the year of death of the Famous Americans helped students learn to use a number line and plot points and duration. We know that the students will forget most of those dates. However, even after they forget the dates, I think these students will now be able to reason their way through understanding when one person’s important role in history was influenced by another person’s accomplishments, or if multiple people during an era all worked toward similar goals.

I didn’t experience many problems with students being off task while working with the timeline tool. I monitored them by periodically scanning the room. I was able to gain a basic understanding of which students needed the most support by simply glancing at computer screens and noting how many images were already placed. For students who quickly placed their photographs, I wanted them to be able to defend their choices and think creatively about how they could decide where historical figures should go relative to others and not merely memorize the years they were alive. For other students, I asked more basic questions to help them place some anchor people they could use as comparisons for the remainder of the photos. I asked, “Who was the first person we learned about?” or “Who was our first president?”

In terms of time, my students know that the goal is not always to have everything totally complete but rather to understand and to explain what they did complete. Those few who hadn’t placed every single photo did not stress about not having them all in place. Most students completed the task quite efficiently, though.

One way to alter the lesson if students were not as successful, would be to give the student partners time on their own and then bring everyone back and have a more whole-group discussion in which students could share strategies and thinking while we complete the time line together. I would definitely make an alteration in the lesson such as this if I saw that the majority of students were struggling to access the activity.

In the future I would include primary sources in addition to photographs with this lesson. For example, I might include a suffragist’s sign for women’s rights or a copy of the Declaration of Independence or a freedom song from the civil rights era. In this way, students would have to apply even more of their critical thinking skills. Not only would they need to synthesize information from a variety of lessons about the Famous Americans, but they would need to read and analyze primary source documents and infer where these would fit in based on context clues. Such sources would be new to students and could not be accessed and placed simply by memory alone. Likely, adding additional sources would increase the dialog and debate between student pairs as well.

What Do You Think?

If you were to use this tool in your classroom, how might you approach the process differently?  Why?


*History and Social Science Standards of Learning: Enhanced Scope and Sequence: Grade 3, Virginia Department of Education.

**National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: A Framework for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, 2010, National Council for the Social Studies.

***Nash, G. B. (1996.) National standards for history: Basic edition. Los Angeles, CA: National Center for History in the Schools.