Change and Continuity – Pupils’ ideas

change sign‘and then, just like that, everybody just forgot, and they didn’t accuse people of witches anymore’

Jenny has turned a process of change into an event.  Someone important made a rational decision that everyone accepted forthwith.

So, I’m thinking about ‘change and continuity’ – one of the concepts from the National Curriculum*.  We’re re-thinking our ‘Stuarts’ scheme of work, and I think that this might be a nice opportunity for LHS students to consider some aspects of change and continuity – specifically the theme of ‘who ruled’.

I like to have a read before launching into something, though that has not been possible this time, we’re already well into planning the skeleton scheme of work.  I’ll use the reading to tune the lessons that emerge.  A good place to start seems to be ‘How students Learn History'(1), and the chapter by Peter Lee on ‘understanding history’ which deals with the ideas that pupils bring with them to the classroom about change and continuity.  As I read it strikes me how many links this concept seems to have with others.

It’s really interesting that students’ ideas are so interconnected with the world around them (and also perhaps so bleedin’ obvious!).  For pupils, according to Lee change equals events.  An when there’s no change, nothing is happening.

Lee uses the common place idea of ‘nothing happening’ to illustrate the difference between the way that students equate periods of seemingly un-eventful history with the bits of their lives when ‘nothing happens’.  Lee points out that historians are unlikely to agree that ‘nothing happens’ in historical time, and instead use ideas of continuity.

So, whilst pupils might think about periods of ‘nothing happening’ interspersed with events which are ‘changes’, historians think about states of affairs and change as part of a process or processes.  Lee convincingly argues that seeing change as an event and being unable to appreciate the notion of states of affairs means that pupils are restricted in their understanding of processes, which are in themselves often conflated into events (see the quote from a pupil at the start of the post for an example of this).

The idea of ‘theme’ is very important to Lee’s conception of change and continuity.  Pupils will be unable to appreciate change and continuity unless they’re able to think about direction and pace of change.  In order to be able to do this, a theme becomes necessary – otherwise the enormity of the past (whether recoverable or not!) becomes overwhelming.  Themes are therefore selections, and the choice of theme itself can be teleological (think “the rise of the west” and you’re perhaps in the right ball park).  In our attempt to understand the story of something we might, in fact be creating that story and ignoring the way that other stories crucially affect it.

Pupils seem to think that the direction of change is mostly positive, an idea related to the preconception that people in the past were intellectually (and perhaps morally) inferior to us.  I can vividly remember a year 7 explaining that we are evolving into better creatures, and that Tudor people weren’t as evolved).

Lee doesn’t mention this, but I would argue that once we talk about themes, direction and pace we’re into the realms of chronological understanding.  The concepts of causation and consequence are also inherently linked to that of change and continuity; pupils’ ideas of ascribing individual ideas and decisions to causation, inevitability and classification all therefore arise.

*A new UK Government took office on 11 May. As a result the content on this site may not reflect current Government policy. (nicked from the new Department of Education website!).

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