The Octopus: Continuity and Change

Risa Gluskin

Risa Gluskin has been teaching at York Mills C.I. in Toronto for the past 13 years. She is Assistant Curriculum Leader of Canadian and World Studies. Her favourite courses are grade 11 World History covering everything from Paleolithic times to the Middle Ages in Europe, grade 12 World History, covering everything else from the Renaissance on, and Challenge and Change in Society, a social science course that studies fascinating issues through the lenses of psychology, sociology and anthropology. 


Imagery can be very powerful. I find it helpful to picture continuity and change as an octopus: how far forward in time do the arms of multiple factors or issues extend?


The Ontario history curriculum currently has strands for continuity and change. Out of these I tend to focus most on the expectations relating to factors that act as barriers to change and factors that encourage change. At the end of unit one my class and I created a giant list of factors that promote and impede change. To get on the list a term had to be a factor or force (such as Eurocentrism, or racism) rather than a person (such as Christopher Columbus) because I am trying to get students to delve more deeply into the forces that drive individuals to act.

As I moved out of the French Revolution topic, into Napoleon and then beyond into the Haitian Revolution, abolition of slavery in the British Empire and independence movements in South America, I was thinking about how to get students to use the octopus analogy. A worksheet seemed appropriate.

This was how I imagined the worksheet looking: a horizontal or vertical octopus’s arms would be labelled as ideas relating to social equality and ideas relating to political equality. The intent was that as we proceeded through the lessons on Napoleon, Haiti, slavery and South America, I would have students draw in how far forward they thought the ideas from the French Revolution extended. Every extension of an arm would have to be justified with an explanation.

To give credit where it is due, my tablemates and I at the Historical Thinking Summer Institute, Scott Pollack, Jan Haskings-Winner and Jasmine Wong, worked together on creating a draft of such a worksheet, minus the octopus analogy.  


As is probably apparent, I didn’t actually get around to doing the octopus exercise. I got bogged down in the content of the French Revolution and subsequent topics. In order to encourage myself to do this type of exercise I’d probably want to set up an octopus template for students to fill in throughout or toward the end of every unit. That way it would become habitual for both the teacher and students. For me, if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.


Teachers who want to use this type of exercise should feel free to change the octopus to whatever flora or fauna (or other) they are comfortable with and that helps students visualize the extent of continuity and change. They may even want to give students the option of choosing their own visual or analogy. Some teachers like to have their students graph changes. Working on large chart paper would be a practical way to adapt this type of graph or visual for younger students. For paper conservationists there’s always good old fashioned drawing on the board with coloured chalk.