Ms. B's fifth grade class was discussing what they knew about Malcolm X prior to reading a biography of the civil rights activist--part of an on-going study of the '60s. One student asked,
"Did he know Abraham Lincoln, JFK, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?"
Quickly, the teacher sketched parallel time lines on the board, indicating that while the lives of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X overlapped, Abraham Lincoln had died long before any of the others were born.
The students gazed with interest at the impromptu time lines until one student raised his hand,
"Yes, but did Malcolm X know Abraham Lincoln?"
Questions that Reveal
To the teachers present, the time lines clearly indicated the possible relationships among the biographies in question. To several students this was not obvious at all. For our group of informal teacher-researchers, this episode raised several questions. In what ways do students understand--and misunderstand--time lines? How are time lines used and taught in textbooks and history-related materials? What potential do time lines offer for helping students make sense of history?
Time lines abound in social studies and other textbooks, in biographies, and occasionally in juvenile historical fiction. Adult authors assume that time lines clarify information and events and help students develop accurate chronology and even a sense of cause and effect. But do they? Our work as teacher researchers indicates that there are often gaps between what adults assume students know and understand and how students actually make sense of, and assimilate, information.
As teachers and teacher educators, we have long believed that quality teaching demands an in-depth knowledge of student thinking, development, and learning. To be most effective in our teaching, we must plan instruction and select resources that meet students at their point of need. Teachers must be consistently aware of how students perceive information. As practitioners, we look for broad trends as well as individual idiosyncrasies in student understanding.
After observing the student responses described above in one fifth-grade classroom, we wondered if these responses were unique to this particular group of students or if they represented broader patterns of thinking among fifth- and sixth-grade students. Therefore, we designed some simple activities allowing us, as practitioner-researchers, to gather information about student conceptions and misconceptions regarding time lines. Our activities, which included student reading of time lines, interviews, and construction of time lines, were implemented in four middle grade classrooms representing the varied socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds that comprise our community.
Understanding Student Thinking
In four fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms, we asked students to read and respond to questions about a simple time line summarizing the career of baseball legend Sammy Sosa (adapted from a DRA booklet) (1) and a complex time line illustrating the cultural and political events of an era (The History of Us). (2) We also asked them to create time lines that merged personal information with world events that had a clear beginning and end (discrete in time) as well as events that are ongoing. We conducted whole-class discussions and lessons, as well as small group interviews, to help us understand what and how students think.
With a few exceptions, we found that fifth and sixth grade students understood the chronology of time lines. They read left to right along the horizontal or top to bottom on the vertical axis and did not have difficulty identifying what happened first, next, before or after. Beyond these basics, however, their understanding was often incomplete or confused due to
* limited background knowledge about events and people depicted, and
* a lack of knowledge of certain graphic conventions used in time lines (see example, page 16). …