Making Sense of BC and AD
The problems of understanding BC, AD and centuries – is 1560 in the fifteenth or sixteenth century? – frequently plague pupils and teachers. Like so many other aspects of history, many pupils understand these ideas much more readily and effectively if you can transform these concepts from ethereal words or written exercises into something more concrete, involving physical representation of centuries etc.
This activity can be used at KS2 or KS3. It’s a simple idea, using your pupils to build up a physical timeline, and it can be repeated quickly and easily, which is vital for consolidating the ideas. Doing something like this once gets most students started along the path to understanding but repetition is vital to reinforce the ideas. All through KS3, for example, don’t forget to keep asking ‘which century was 1851?’ – this isn’t just for the first month of KS3.
This activity is designed to develop students’ understanding of:
- the meaning of the abbreviations BC and AD
- how centuries e.g. ‘the second century’ relate to numbered years.
- why BC years go backwards numerically.
1. Equipment –you need some large pieces of paper for students to hold and write on.
2. Create a large empty space in which you will develop the timeline and put up large notices saying BC and AD either side of the centre point.
1. Begin with just five pupils in the timeline, two on the BC side and 3 on the AD side. Leave a sizeable gap between the 2 BC students and the three AD students. Each of the 5 students represents a century and holds a large sheet of paper. The top half of the paper shows the years of a century e.g. 1-99, 100-199, 200-299 but the bottom half of the sheet is blank.
2. Begin by focusing on the gap in the middle of the timeline which divides BC and AD – who goes into that gap? The answer you’re looking for is Jesus – and here you can deploy baby Jesus from a Christmas crib or your child’s favourite doll. Beware religious sensibilities but ham this up as much as possible – bring in toy shepherds and lowing cattle if possible – it has to be memorable! Leave the baby Jesus there in the middle throughout the activity.
3. Ask what BC and AD mean – work with the baby Jesus to underline the answers.
4. Now turn to the pupils in the timeline – explain that each person is a century (you’ll need to develop questions e.g. how long is that? When did our century begin and when will it end?). Now turn to the first pupil/century AD – and ask ‘which century are you, Anno Domini?’ The answer should be clear – he or she is first in the row and you can add a large 1 to the sheet of paper below the dates.
5. Repeat with pupil/century 2 – which century are you? The second – here you can act confused to mimic the confusion that is often in pupils’ minds – are you sure? How can you be the second century when the dates on your sheet are 100-199? Go back and count from the baby Jesus – first century, second century. Write a large 2 on the sheet below 100-199.
6. Repeat as often as you wish to get across the apparent discrepancy – the 4th century AD being 300-399 etc. After you’ve done enough, bring out some more pupils and make a longer line, maybe enough to get up to date. Standing in their line they need to say their century number, counting on from the original group. Once each knows that he/she is the 9th, 14th or 19th century, get them to write that number on their own sheet – then ask them to add their dates. If stages 1-4 have worked, then they will get this right –if not, you’ve diagnosed who has the problems and you can return to this later.
7. That may be enough for one session but next time repeat quickly and then start work on the BC section in the same way. This will need more time and care but can be tackled in the same sequence of activities.
The key is regular reinforcement of the ideas. At KS3 this aspect of chronological understanding is often covered at the beginning of Year 7 but can be then put to one side. However many pupils will need to revisit the concept, especially understanding BC and also the fact the e.g. 1170 was the twelfth century etc etc. Opportunities to reinforce these ideas should be taken regularly in years 8 and 9.
Notes & Variations
A range of other ideas can be built onto this core activity, such as:
- build in alternative dating systems – start another parallel time line for the Islamic calendar or other calendars e.g. the Roman calendar.
- relate centuries to peoples and periods – which of you students standing in the timeline as centuries were Roman, which Tudor – this begins to bring out the difference in duration between Roman Britain and Tudor England.
- how many centuries were there between e.g. the Romans and the Tudors, the Tudors and the Victorians?
- use the timeline to help you sequence four mixed up BC and AD dates.
- What impact did using this physical activity have on specific misunderstandings that happen year after year?
- What’s the best way of students’ recording or consolidating what they have learned?
- How will you follow up and consolidate this activity? e.g. how frequently do you need to return to the key points?
- Are there any other aspects of chronological understanding that could be tackled by physical activities?