Can a focus on historical change shift students’ thinking about the inevitability of poverty?

Michael Harcourt

I teach in a large, co-educational, urban high school in downtown Wellington, New Zealand. I am heavily involved in the history teaching community at local and national levels and recently co-edited a book on developing New Zealand students’ historical thinking. I am particularly interested in applying a geographic dimension to my history lessons. I am also very interested in indigenous ways of knowing the past and the implications of these for me as a descendent of Wellington’s first European settlers who arrived in 1840.

Teaching the history of poverty to my year 10 social studies class provided an excellent opportunity to introduce students to the concept of historical change. I thought this was important because I was afraid that without an historical perspective the global issue of extreme poverty could quickly become lodged in students’ minds as an inevitable and therefore insurmountable problem, beyond the power of humanity to constructively address.

To prepare the main task I selected 18 turning points in the history of poverty from a recent BBC documentary called Poor Us: An Animated History of Poverty. From these I made small cards with the date and a brief description of a significant moment. These cards spanned 30,000 years of human history. Before I started the activity I adapted some ideas from Dawson (2004) to make sure all students were familiar with the basic language of chronology. Students in New Zealand receive little formal education in historical thinking so I couldn’t assume that all would know the meaning of AD, BC, BCE, what a century and decade is, why Jesus is important to the western calendar and why an event in the 1800s is in the nineteenth century. Once this was clarified I asked students to cut out the little cards, read them and then lay them in chronological order. Borrowing from a presentation Christine Counsell recently delivered in New Zealand I gave students vocabulary lists that described the speed of change (such as gradual, supersonic, crawling) and the type of change (such as a mutation, transformation, or continuation). They had to look at their timelines and choose three words they felt accurately described the speed and type of changes they observed over time and explain why they made that decision. They also watched and discussed the documentary upon which the timeline was based. Students were then asked to write a 150 word statement describing how poverty has changed over time, incorporating their total of six change words into their text.

Counsell (2011) has established that students frequently interpret historical change as an event rather than a process. It was fascinating reading my class’ paragraphs with this in mind. Many had written articulate paragraphs but had not used any(!) of the change vocabulary I had given them, essentially just listing one event after the other. Others had tried to explain some of their changes, slipping into a focus on historical causation. Focussing on change as a process is, it seems, a much harder task than I had anticipated, even for the most able of students. I will ask students to respond to my feedback on their paragraphs and next time we do a similar activity I will ask them to use the vocabulary lists to describe changes in their own day or week, and from this move to the historical topic at hand.

There are many opportunities in an activity like this to have students consider other dimensions of historical change. For example, they could consider the extent to which changes in poverty have progressed or regressed and that the direction of change is dependent on one’s historical perspective. Had there been more time I might also have asked students to come up with names for different periods in the history of poverty or asked them to compare and discuss different timelines of poverty before asking students to build and justify their own.

Did the task make a difference to the class’ beliefs about the contingent nature of global poverty? A post-activity discussion revealed that it had indeed shifted some students’ thinking despite the relatively limited impact of the task on their understanding of historical change as a process. This shift suggests a more thorough analysis of the relationship between students’ ability to describe historical change and their assumptions about one of the world’s most pressing problems may well be worth the effort.


Dawson, I. (2004) ‘Time for Chronology? Ideas for developing chronological understanding’ in Teaching History, 117.

Counsell, C. (2011) ‘What do we want students to do with historical change and continuity?’ in Debates in History Teaching, Ian Davies (ed), Routledge: London and New York.