Easy Ways to Teach Events that Occurred at the Same Time in History

Teaching history has its challenges. Something I struggled with in school in particular was the idea that events could occur in different places at the same time. For example, I had no idea that while the Black Death ravaged Europe, the Incas were flourishing in Peru; or that woolly mammoths existed while the pyramids were being constructed in Egypt. I can tell the problem is alive and well; when I link two simultaneous events in front of my students and watch as their faces twist into mind-blown perplexity. This is where a well-planned historical inquiry can work wonders!

Roadblocks with Teaching History

When students have trouble understanding that events occur in different places at the same time, this can cause some issues:

  • Students have trouble connecting the small fragments of history together to understand larger movements and historic themes
  • They don’t sufficiently develop a sense of historic era and cannot piece together events from the same time period
  • They’re unable to grasp the depth, consequences, or links between historical events in relation to one another
  • Students can’t see the interconnectedness of world events

These problems are made even more difficult by the way history is taught. Typically it is taught through textbooks presenting historical events as a chronological list. The trouble with teaching history in this way is that it provides students with very little outside context. Furthermore, it doesn’t allow them to explore the connections between events. For example, studying the Vietnam War is useless if it’s not taught in context of Cold War politics or colonialism.

Teaching History Through Historical Inquiry

The principles of inquiry learning link directly to historical concepts. Developing essential questions, finding information to uncover information, truths, and stories, and framing your findings in a meaningful and impactful way are all part of the process. Planning a fun and engaging history inquiry can encourage students to dive deeper. Making connections between history and a variety of subjects is crucial for establishing interconnectedness. For younger students, using artifacts to teach history is a great way to help them be active and hands-on.

Start with an Essential Question

Beginning with an essential question is a great first step. Look at your curriculum to find opportunities for linking key concepts, overarching themes, and learning objectives for students. Then, encourage students to develop broad questions that require them to examine different countries, themes, perspectives, and events to fully understand. Developing great questions will create a strong focus on the use of historical sources as evidence. For instance, is there a historical controversy students want to know more about? Are there any links between a specific person, issue, event, or development? Check out some examples of essential questions below, or download them here.

Other examples of great historical inquiry questions:

Contextualize the Questions

Once students have chosen their questions, creating a class timeline that students contribute to frequently can be a helpful visual. For instance, a double or triple layer timeline (like the one seen here) is a great way to show students the overlaps that exist throughout history.

First, timelines show students how historic events and eras overlap with one another. They help students understand events in relation to other events that occurred in other parts of the world. Second, they help students establish cause and effect relationships between events and to activate their prior knowledge. Finally, timelines allow students to categorize the events they already know about in a way that makes sense to them. All of this contributes to students’ continued understanding of long-range historical trends and chronology.

A simple way to construct a class timeline is to cut a long piece of butcher paper and pin it to a bulletin board. Every time students find something interesting or useful in their inquiry – drawings, notes, cut-outs, anything – they can stick it on the timeline. However, you might find that you need some poster-sized sheets of paper for anything that might not fit on the timeline, or for something students feel requires its own separate poster to understand.

Be sure that the timeline:

  • Is within reach for students – high enough that it won’t get damaged, but low enough for students to access it
  • Includes bold writing, images, and information so it can be seen from anywhere in the room and read clearly
  • Has clear labels, dates, and sections for easy viewing
  • Is created entirely by students

Other ways to contextualize history for students is to use media and technology. Lots of websites offer virtual exhibits, tours, and 3D images of historical displays, sites, and reenactments. These are all great ways of teaching history. Creating “year webs” is also a fun way to teach students about the different events that occurred during the same year in history:

Interpret and Analyze Information

This stage of teaching history is all about making connections between information. Students explore sources and compare features of objects and stories to find similarities. Help students to source and investigate a variety of sources; for example, documents, video footage, primary source documents, stories, photographs, and other personal artifacts. Continuing to ask questions and reflect on what they’re finding is important for students to do because it helps them better relate to the people and events they are investigating. Constant discussion and reflection:

  • Teaches students how to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant sources of information
  • Strengthens students’ use of historical skills by encouraging them to locate a variety of relevant sources that offer different points of view
  • Helps students speculate on possible explanations and make judgments about the information they find; (this is a key difference between research and inquiry)
  • Encourages students create stories and scenarios to help them make sense of the artifacts and objects they find
  • Helps students gain a tremendous amount of cultural knowledge and connectedness
  • Teaches students the key vocabulary associated with historical inquiry; for example, source, evidence, validity, claims, and evaluate
  • Provides opportunities for students to arrive at their own conclusions and to determine how to communicate their findings

Bringing it Altogether

By this point, some students will be eager to create a presentation and communicate their findings. Some students might be thinking “So what does this all mean? What does this have to do with me? How is all this relevant now?” Hopefully through the stages of inquiry, you have fewer students asking the latter questions, and more of them feeling encouraged and ready to share their ideas. Understanding historical significance as well as that event, person, or development’s prominence and consequences are the keys to linking past events to the present.

By the end of the inquiry process, students should have a better understanding of how their topic or question relates to broader themes and time periods within history. In addition, they should be able to explain how their person, event, or development affected other parts of the world, and the impact it had across societies over a period of time.

Try using Bloom’s Taxonomy as an assessment tool for historical inquiry:

During this stage, teachers need to provide opportunities for students to present their findings in a way that helps them communicate clearly and effectively. This can be done through:

  • Creating a timeline of their own
  • Presenting a video or powerpoint
  • Performing a skit or role-play
  • Using digital technologies
  • Writing an essay, speech, or report

Following this, it is important that students discuss, reflect, and respond to the work achieved by their peers. This is a natural part of the historical inquiry process and is arguably one of the most influential components to increasing student educational outcomes and raising engagement levels.

Final Thoughts on Teaching History

Teaching students about history doesn’t have to be done in a factual, linear way. Arguably, students learn more when they understand how different time periods and events are related to one another. Understanding that while one historical event was occurring, other events in different parts of the world were happening too is something students have trouble grasping. Engaging in a historical inquiry that explores events and people in relation to other historical events and people will help students make deeper critical connections. They will better understand simultaneous events in history and why we continue to study them.

Amazing Historical Inquiry Resources for Your Classroom:

  • When on Earth? (An illustrated hardcover book showing different historical events around the world)
  • Triple Layer Timeline (China-focused, but still a simple and effective visual)
  • A Child Through Time (An amazing look at history through children’s perspectives; I borrowed a copy through my local library!)

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