Using Historiana to build a sense of what the world was like c.1900

As history teachers we want our students to care about the people and events they learn about from the past. We want them to make a connection and to be interested with a world that is different from their own. If our students care about what they are learning about in history they are more likely to remember it because it interests them. More importantly, they are more likely to be curious and to think more about what it means to be human. History is, after all, one of the humanities subject, which aim to educate young citizens about society and culture. 

In order to help students to care about and connect with people in the events in the past we need to help them to imagine the past periods and people they are studying. To imagine what the past looked like, what people thought back then, what they hoped and feared, how their world worked… That way, the dates and events and factors and names and complex concepts that are part of history lessons can become more that inert ‘facts’ that need to be learnt, and can be thought about, discussed and evaluated. Our students can think historically, rather than just learn about the past. 

I have recently been wanting to help students to get a sense of the world was like as the 20th century began. I remembered that there was something on Historiana in the World War One unit that could be useful. With a few clicks into the unit I found two really useful PowerPoints to download – full of images. Here they are:

I decided to print off the two PowerPoints with a slide per A4 sheet. I then used a whole wall to create a world map of the images. That is, I posted simple names of the continents on the wall and then I stuck each slide in the place it linked to on my map. (I had to make Europe larger than it actually is, but that was useful.) Apologies, I forgot to take a photo of this, and so you will have to imagine one wall of the room covered in A4 printed PowerPoint slides with images from the US over to the left and from Shanghai over to the right. I created a gallery in the classroom and it did not take much time. 

I then put students into pairs and gave them fifteen minutes to use the gallery to ‘tell a story of…’ using the source material as evidence. That is, each pair took one theme: ‘Use the gallery to tell an early 20th century story of…

  • Change for women
  • Trade and transport connections
  • Living in cities
  • Leisure time
  • Science and industry
  • Working life
  • European power
  • Seapower
  • European rivalry
  • Migration
  • Ideology

After fifteen minutes each pair then spoke for a few minutes about ‘their’ story. While we listened, I wrote key words and phrases that emerged onto the board to support the final part of the session. That is, they had the words and phrases on the board to use for reference in the discussion. 

In the final session I led a discussion among the students by posing the following questions:

  • Who were the powerful in the early 20th century? 

The discussion drew out the power of Europe and the USA, the power of ruling families, the power of very wealthy industrialists etc.

  • How much does this seem to have been a changing world?

The conclusion was reached that there was a lot of movement and technological change. But that the way places were ruled and the way of life for many people still had a lot in common with previous times. 

  • How connected were people at this time?

This led to interesting ideas about how much people would or would not know about their own world at the time. Also about how this connectedness compared to the further past and to now. 

  • What gaps are there that this evidence does not reveal?

I wanted to make students explicitly aware that this was a collection of material and so the perspective we could form of the early 20th century was partial. 

I am hoping that as students go on to study the early 20th century, they will find that they can imagine the world in which the events they learn about were happening; for example, the 1911 Revolution in China and the outbreak of conflict in 1914. I am hoping that they now have an understanding of power, change and connectedness that will help them to make historical sense of what they are learning. They certainly seem to be engaged and interested in this past world and its past people.

How would you use this sort of material to help your students to understand the past historically?