When beginning a new topic, it is tempting to simply plunge into providing students with a question for investigation and then focusing on the relevant parts of the story through associated source material. However, by shortcutting directly to analysis, there is a danger that students fail to get the ‘Big Picture’ that comes from standing back and looking at the period from a fresh angle of open curiosity.

A good way of providing this ‘Big Picture’ is to provide each student with a different image from a collection shared between the class (paintings, cartoons, photographs of buildings/artefacts/individuals) and challenge them to interpret their meaning. Then, working in groups and then as a class, the students decide upon the best ways of categorising the images. Finally, each student conducts independent research to produce a panel of information to put alongside their own image before putting them all up to create an impressive classroom display.

Case Study: The Victorians

As a prelude to our detailed studies into such topics as the Industrial Revolution, the abolition of the slave and the Whitechapel murders, I decided to provide students with a “Big Picture” activity to familiarise them with Victorian Britain. A range of Victorian paintings, photographs and advertisements were placed around the room in advance of the lesson. The students then had a few minutes to wander around the room in silence looking at the images and thinking about which of these they would like to research further. Next, with the students standing around the edges of the room, I used the random name picker at ClassTools.net to select one student, who sat down at the chair in front of her favoured image. I then repeated this process until all students were seated alongside one image. All the students were then asked to consider what title they would give to the image, how they would describe it to someone else, and what deductions they could draw from it. These findings were exchanged in small groups, with other members of the team encouraged to offer further ideas to note down so that each student ended up with plenty of thoughts. For good measure I then jigsawed the groups to get a further round of discussion.

At this stage, students stood around the edges of the classroom to form something approaching a circle so that they could all see everyone else’s images. I then explained that the next challenge was to decide upon the most obvious categories to organise these images into. I stipulated that no less than three and no more than five images could be included in each category. Beyond that, it was simply up to each student to try to spot how their image might have something in common with at least one of the others. Each student then took it in turns to briefly explain the title they had chosen to give their image, what it depicted and what they deduced from it. Thereafter the class was left to its own devices to form appropriate huddles in places around the classroom representing different categories. Once this process appeared complete, each team discussed what their images had in common and therefore what title they would give to their ‘section’ of the gallery exhibition we were working towards (“work”, “leisure”, “children” being popular choices).

The final stage of the exhibition task was for each student to research their image further and complete a writing frame to summarise their key findings, as per this example:

They then collaborate on a major display piece covering one wall of the classroom. This in turn fed into a comprehensive debate on the subject of “Was Victorian Life Good or Bad?” which is outlined in more detail on the ActiveHistory website (https://www.activehistory.co.uk/Miscellaneous/menus/Year_9/victorian_painting/).

Taking it further: converting a timeline into pictures

The activity with older students on the theme of the Victorians led me to consider how a similar approach could be adopted for other periods and topics which were not so obviously visual in nature. The concept I formulated was to provide younger students with an overarching timeline of events entitled “The Medieval World” covering a wide range of themes and countries between 1000-1450. Each student chose one event (rather than one image as in the previous exericse) to research further and to locate one image associated with it. Once these were printed off, then the process could proceed in the same way as the other exercise – although the themes were rather different (“War”, “Religion”, “Rebellions”, “Inventions”, “Voyages”, for example).


Russel Tarr, The Victorians: A study through paintings – ActiveHistory (Available at: https://www.activehistory.co.uk/Miscellaneous/menus/Year_9/victorian_painting/, Last accessed 11th December 2017)

Russel Tarr, Year 7 History Revision – ActiveHistory (Available at: https://www.activehistory.co.uk/Miscellaneous/menus/Year_7/year_7_history_revision.htm, Last accessed 11th December 2017)