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Bringing history to life: Interactive historical timelines in the classroom

When studying history, memorizing a lengthy series of dates and events is boring at best. At worst, it’s an exercise in futility — some students won’t be able to memorize all the historical facts, and those who are able to probably won’t remember all that information once your class is over.

History is an important subject, of course. Understanding how we got to this moment in time and all the events and developments that led to the present is crucial. Students should be able to do a little memorizing here and there, but bringing the fascinating historical world to life will have a lasting impact on their appreciation for history.

One way to achieve this is through the use of interactive historical timelines. Imagine taking your basic, old timeline and bringing it to life with a range of options for displaying, organizing, and analyzing information in new and exciting ways. Let’s explore the whys, whens, and hows of interactive timelines.

Clocks and hourglass
Photo: Jordan Benton/Pexels

1. Why use interactive historical timelines?

At a basic level, timelines are great visual tools for displaying information. Seeing a chronological progression of events unfold before you can lead to a deeper understanding of history. Toss in an interactive component, and you not only have an excellent visual tool, but you also have a memorable, hands-on learning experience.

Interactive timelines can take many different forms (more on that later), and students can flex their creative, think-outside-the-box muscles to develop functional timelines. When made interactive, timelines become more than just a static medium for displaying chronological information — they’re fun, flexible, and memorable.

Creating interactive timelines also gives students the opportunity to practice their technological skills as they learn about history. Incorporating tech into classrooms is increasingly important, so this is another way to meet those important digital competencies.

Since there are many ways to display historical information, interactive timelines also force students to get creative and to use their critical thinking skills.

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Photo: The New York Public Library/Unsplash

2. When can classrooms use interactive historical timelines?

History class is perhaps the most obvious opportunity for using interactive timelines. Trace the events of a particular era, track the life span of a famous (or infamous) historical figure, plot a series of events that make up a larger event — you get the idea. The interactive aspect makes the process more enjoyable, as it allows students to incorporate graphics and other cool features.

These timelines compliment other subject areas as well. Think of a music class in which students outline the growth of a genre of music or study a famous musician’s career and life works. In science, students can investigate the journey of a disease, from its early identification to its eradication (or lack thereof). Perhaps your students could also research and present the contributions of a particular scientist over time. 

Timelines can illustrate a point or back up an argument, such as exploring various environmental problems over time and using those events as supporting evidence for a particular position. The options are truly endless!

Dinosaur in museum
Photo: Aditya Vyas/Unsplash

3. How to create historical timelines

The first steps in making interactive timelines are similar to those of traditional timelines.

Begin by guiding your students in narrowing down a specific topic that suits whatever subject you’re teaching, as well as the learning goals you hope your students will meet. You could provide a fixed set of options or give your students more freedom with their choices.

For example, if historical timelines are being used in English class, younger students could create a timeline related to the career of Dr. Seuss, outlining his most famous books and when they were written. Older students could choose a favorite author and track their history of work, with pop-up interactives highlighting shifts in the subject matter based on the author’s progression over time, or how one piece of writing builds upon prior ones.

Once a topic is set, students can perform research to collect their facts. Younger students will naturally need more guidance with this step than older students, but all age groups can benefit from a rundown of how to choose good sources.

When it’s time to create an interactive timeline, there are plenty of forms to choose from. The chosen form should make sense of the topic. Timelines may be horizontal, vertical, cyclical, illustrated, in map form, and so on. Discuss with your students which types of timelines work best for the subject area you’re teaching.

There are several fabulous (and free!) options online for creating interactive historical timelines. These programs allow your students to make interactive timelines in a step-by-step, user-friendly way. Add images, questions, fact bubbles, and other elements to spice things up! Add events easily after the fact, layer information in unique ways, and change the focus of the info based on where students’ research takes them. Here are some good options: 

Office Timeline

Pros: Integrates with PowerPoint and allows you to customize designs.

Free Timeline

Pros: Easy to use, requires no sign-up, and functions on a desktop or tablet.

SmartDraw

Pros: Download and online versions available, with automatic formatting.

boy standing inside museum
Photo: Michał Parzuchowski/Unsplash

Find what works best for your classroom setting

Do a quick Google search to find the best option that works for your classroom and the technology you have available to you — there are plenty out there, and they all offer cool features. Students will love the opportunity to creatively learn about and display information about topics that appeal to them.

Another great thing about historical interactive timelines is that they lend themselves perfectly to sharing and presenting. Your students can double-down on their learning by not only doing a deep dive into their chosen topic but also learning about other aspects of the subject matter, as chosen by their classmates. The interactive components will also keep students engaged in their learning — both with their own timelines and those of their peers.

Photo: Clem Onojeghuo / Unsplash

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