What makes a key moment? Helping students evaluate historical significance in the Napoleonic Wars.

The French Revolution was a chaotic time, in which Napoleon Bonaparte managed to rise in the French army from an artillery officer all the way up to general. In 1799 he orchestrated a coup and took over control of France. In 1804 crowned himself Emperor of France. Source: Crowning Himself Emperor of France, Published by Thomas Tegg, 1814, London, Bibliothèque nationale de France via Europeana

This article is the seventh of an ongoing series from EUROCLIO and Europeana providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series on labs.historiana.eu.

A recent survey of European teachers showed high demand for additional resources for teaching Napoleon and his times in secondary classrooms. Given the depth and breadth of this topic, this demand is very understandable. For students as well, sifting through the Napoleonic period can be a daunting process. Fortunately, this provides an excellent opportunity to develop students’ skills in evaluating historical significance to reach conclusions about what is important and why.

The Historiana site presents a new source collection that provides a chronological overview of the key moments of the Napoleonic Wars. The accompanying eLearning Activity, which can be easily adapted to your class needs, gives students the opportunity to develop skills in determining historical significance and writing like a historian.

What’s so significant about historical significance?

At the centre of an understanding of history education as a ‘disciplinary’ endeavour (that is, an education which aims to develop skills and understanding that reflect the reality of the discipline of history) is an effort to support students to think and work like historians. The issue of historical significance, what is and is not important from a historical perspective, is pivotal to historians’ work and influences many aspects of historical research and writing. Exploring historical significance can allow students to investigate and question what has been deemed historically significant by previous generations of historians and to reach their own (justified) conclusions about what should be considered historically significant. This area of historical thinking also allows students to gain a deeper understanding of the way in which historical writing is necessarily selective, representing ‘key’ information deemed significant by the historian and leaving out other information as a result.

Painting depicting the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, commonly agreed as a key moment in the Napoleonic Wars. Source: The Battle of Trafalgar 21 October 1805, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1822-24, Royal Museums Greenwich via Europeana

Students encountering the Napoleonic Wars, for example, lack the time and resources to investigate every facet of this complicated string of diplomatic and military confrontations. They are thus provided with collections of ‘key moments’ (as in the case of the Historiana source collection) to gain an overview. This presents a great opportunity for them to consider deeply what exactly constitutes a ‘key moment’.

The Historical Thinking Project provides helpful guiding questions to assist students in assessing the significance of historical events:

Profundity: How were people affected by the event?

Quantity: How many people’s lives were affected?

Durability: How long lasting were the changes?

Revealing: How does this event shed light on enduring or emerging issues in history or our contemporary life?

Big Picture: What larger story or argument might this event be a part of?

How might we teach historical significance and the Napoleonic Wars?

The eLearning Activity on the Historiana website presents one method of developing student understanding of both historical significance and the Napoleonic Wars. Students are given a ‘real world’ task, designed to increase engagement and relevance. They have been asked to help a historian writing a textbook aimed at their peers. In order to prepare their section on the Napoleonic Wars, students must:

  • Arrange the events of the Napoleonic Wars in chronological order.
  • Decide on which events they consider to be more or less historically significant using the guiding questions provided by the Historical Thinking Project.
  • Plan and write a concise textbook-style explanation of the key moments in the Napoleonic Wars according to their assessment of significant events.
  • Compare their submission with a classmate to consider the similarities and differences in what information was included and how.

This activity can be easily edited and adapted to suit your classroom context or even applied to a different historical period by building your own online task in Historiana’s eLearning Activity Builder.

Students drag and drop sources into chronological order and then resize the images according to how significant or not they are considered to be.


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyondand the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.


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