Keith Barton spent a year in two Cincinnati classrooms, observing, discussing lessons with the teachers, and interviewing students. In his formal interviewing he showed pictures from different periods of American history to pairs of fourth and fifth graders and asked them to put the pictures in order, explaining their reasons as they did so.
He found that students envisaged change as something linear and “generally beneficial.” They tended to think of change as being spatially and temporally limited in scope and “conceived of history as involving a limited number of discrete events, rather than lengthy and extensive processes.” They “thought of change as having come about for logical reasons” and believed that people in the past decided to make changes because they realized, usually in the face of some particular event, that change would improve matters. Hence Jenny, a fourth-grade student, explained the end of witch trials like this:
When they accused like the mayor’s wife or somebody’s wife that they were a witch, and he said, “This has gone too far, we’ve killed enough innocent people, I want you to let everyone go, my wife is not a witch, and this has just gone too far,” 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.
SOURCES: Barton (1996), Lee and Ashby (2001).
the world, they’ve gone from bad to good—and the cars have gone from bad to good; everything has gotten better than before.8
The idea of progress is reinforced by the idea—a very natural one acquired in part, no doubt, from parents and grandparents—of a deficit past. “Milk used to come in bottles because they didn’t have cardboard.” It was delivered to people’s houses because “they didn’t have many stores back then.” Bicycles looked different because “they hadn’t come up with the ideas yet.”9
Patterns of change also provide a context for attributing significance in history. Significance can be attributed to changes within themes. A key idea for students is that the same change may have differing significance within different themes.10 The significance of change in food marketing, for ex-