Historical Thinking: Change ≠ Progress or the More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

QuoteMy mother always had handy any number of aphorisms that she would lay on us kids as we were growing up.  Whatever the context, her repertoire of pithy pronouncements could be counted on to sum up the situation in a few words:

  • If you act as good as you look, you’ll be OK.”  Translation: “You look very nice, sweetheart.  Now behave yourself!  If you don’t, I’ll hear about it and it won’t be pretty.”
  • Every part strengthens a part.”  Translation: “Stop complaining and eat the liver. It’s good for you.  You should be grateful that we have good food to eat.  There are starving children in Africa.”
  • There’s no time like the present.”  Translation:  “Stop watching the Mickey Mouse Club/Lassie/the Ed Sullivan Show on television and get your homework done, NOW!  School is your responsibility and I expect you to take it seriously and do your best.”
  • Things will work out the way they’re meant to.”  Translation:  “There’s no use crying about things that we can’t control or change.  Whatever happens, whether we like the way things have turned out or not, we’ll deal with it and we’ll be fine.”
  • And, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Translation:  “Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s better.  When I was young, we didn’t have all of these electronic gadgets and we survived just fine.  Why do we need a computer?  I just don’t understand how it works.  It seems awfully complicated and time-consuming way to just write a letter.”

My Mom has experienced enormous changes in her 84-plus years.  She was born just before the Great Depression, was a teenager during World War II, was a stay-at-home Mom with 3 kids during the 50s, survived 3 teenagers in the 60s and saw us through college, marriage and starting our own families.  Her perspective on change is different than mine and certainly different from the young students we teach.  Her experience of the world is one of both enormous changes and sustained continuity.  She learned how to write using a nib pen and inkwell and is now, reluctantly, using the computer to write emails.

How do our students understand the idea of change and continuity in history?  From their moment-to-moment perspective, students understand that change occurs when “something” happens.  “Nothing” is happening and then there is an event, and things change.  The event is the change.  Peter Lee thinks that students are likely to see change in history as a single event or a list of events that are discrete and intentional and, therefore, are either good or stupid.[1].  For our students, the idea of change as gradual or unintentional doesn’t make sense.  Historians, however, understand that change often has no singular defining moment or any intention behind it.  Students see change through history as something linear and mostly beneficial.  They think that, as things change everything gets better.  “Now” is better than “then”.  Historians understand that change doesn’t happen in straight line and that progress in some areas or for some groups is often accompanied by regression in other areas or for other groups (just think about Westward Expansion and the effect on Native Americans.)  At any point in history there was always something going on. There was never “nothing” happening.  Sometimes change happened very quickly, at other times more gradually or often imperceptibly, visible only to those of us looking back with 20/20 hindsight.  Some change was beneficial, some change was not.

Once students begin to see that history is not just a list of events but a very messy, complex mix of change, continuity, improvement and degeneration they will a have a very different sense of the past.  We want students to be able to explain how some things continue and others change in any given period of history and that our evaluation of progress and decline vary depending upon our purposes and our perspectives.  So how do we teach work with our students about change and continuity?

  • This site has a list of possible student activities and some great guiding questions.  (The site is Canadian, so the examples would need to be revised!)
  • This teacher demonstrates the ideas of change and continuity using the history of the bicycle, including a complete Prezi and other resources.
  • Here are examples from an article that shows the use of analytical timelines and a “swingometer” to help students understand the idea that change and progress are neither linear nor absolute.  (The article is British, so, again, the examples would need to be revised!)

A timeline to encourage the sorting of information into different categories or themes.[2]

A timeline to encourage the sorting of information into different categories or themes.[3]
A ‘swingometer’ to visually record examples of progress, regress and continuity.[4]

Our students need to know that history isn’t just a list of things that happened that have made lives universally better.  History is wonderfully messy and full of contradictions and competing point of view.  How will you talk about change and continuity with your students?  As Mom would say, “You’re never too old to learn.”


[1] [1] Lee, Peter. “Putting Principles into Practice: Understanding History.” In How Students Learn: History in the Classroom. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2005. 44.
[2] Barnes, Steven. “Revealing the big picture: patterns, shapes and images at Key Stage 3.” Teaching History (The Historical Association), no. 107 (June 2002): 9
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid

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