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Comparing Then and Now

This modelling the tools is incorporated into critical challenges at grade 4, however, it can be adapted for use at all grade levels.


Session One

Discuss earlier times.

  • During the study of a particular historical period or event, ask students if they would have wanted to live during this earlier time. Ask students about the advantages and disadvantages of living during this time. Mention that often adults talk about the good old days. Discuss what they might mean by this comment and explore reasons why they might think this; e.g., old days were simpler, safer and quieter, people ate more wholesome food. Using a transparency of Good Old Days, present the following statement:

Compared to today, the quality of life for young people my age was:

much better back then

a bit better back then

about the same as today

a bit worse back then

much worse
back then

Ask students informally (or, more formally, in writing) to complete the statement. (At the end of the lesson, students will be asked to provide a more formal answer.)

Develop criteria.

  • Discuss, as a class, the reasons for deciding whether or not the past was better than the present. Based on these reasons, generate a list of criteria for determining quality of life. The criteria might include happiness, personal safety, health, diet, shelter, education, individual freedom, wealth, leisure time and rights accorded. With younger students, you may want to reduce the number of areas of comparison and narrow the focus of each. For example, you may want to limit the topic of education to whether school was easier or harder or limit the topic of leisure time to whether toys were more or less fun.

Prepare for interviews.

  • Explain to students that it is important to find out more about the past before deciding whether or not life was better. Suggest that each student interview one or two adults who were school-aged 50 or more years ago; e.g., grandparents.

Generate questions.

  • Help students generate, for themselves, all the questions they will ask in their interview. Alternatively, distribute Interview Questions, which provides questions about various aspects of life, along with space for students to add their own questions. Encourage students to develop questions that focus on the aspect of the quality of life they find most interesting; e.g., amount of personal freedom. If necessary, suggest that students narrow the focus of their interview to one or more aspects. For directions on interviews comparing past and present toys and school experiences, see the Extension section below.

Edit questions.

  • Guide students to peer-edit each other's questions. Ask students to review the questions of one other student, using the following criteria or others identified by the class:
    • Clear — the question is easy to understand
    • provides useful information —the question deals with one of the criteria for deciding about quality of life
    • polite—the question will not offend or embarrass anyone.

Conduct interviews.

  • Instruct students to make careful notes on the answers to each question. For students who may have difficulty doing this, suggest that the interviews be done with a helper, such as another student or a parent, or that students record the interview and transcribe the answers afterwards. Remind students to listen carefully, refrain from interrupting and thank the person for the interview.

Compare information.

  • Invite students to compare the information they gathered in their interviews. The graphic organizer  Better or Worse? asks students to use this information to consider the ways in which the past may have been better than, similar to, or worse than the present. This activity may best be done in pairs, especially if each student interviewed only one adult.

Reconsider the past.

  • The tendency for most students will be to prefer their present conditions. Introduce two ideas to help students think more deeply when judging the past: look for less obvious side effects and try to see the past from the perspective of the people who lived in the time period.
    • Encourage students to consider not only the obvious advantages and disadvantages but also the less obvious consequences or side effects of the differences between then and now. For example, although greater access to cars has obvious advantages, it also has negative side effects, such as more pollution, greater danger of accidents and more expensive than public transportation. As a class, discuss the obvious consequences and less obvious side effects of one or two differences that students have found between then and now.
    • Encourage students to appreciate the experiences that people at the time might have had. This is sometimes referred to as historical empathy––to appreciate the contexts for those living at the time. For example, from a modern perspective, it seems hard to imagine life without television; however, before television existed, people did not miss it and used their leisure time in other ways. Identify other leisure activities people might have done by asking students what they do when there is no electricity, e.g., when camping or during an electrical storm. Suggest that people talked together, told stories, played music, made crafts, played outside, and played games, such as cards, checkers and board games. Encourage students, while adopting historical empathy, to infer possible side effects. For example, discuss some of the less obvious advantages of doing without television––people are likely to be more physically active, do things that are more satisfying, avoid conflict in the family about what to watch and know each other better. Throughout the activity, encourage students to put aside their initial reactions and try to reflect on life as it might have been in earlier times by looking for similar or parallel situations in their own lives.
  • Ask students to revisit their graphic organizer to include additional inferences as they consider less obvious side effects and historical empathy. Ask students to use a different (second) colour of pen or pencil to record these additional inferences.

Share ideas.

  • After students complete their comparison charts on the past and present, invite them to share their ideas with others. This may be done either in a whole class setting, by asking individual students to read their conclusions on a particular topic (e.g., shelter, diet), or in small groups where five or six students study each other's charts. Encourage students to add to their lists of the ways in which life was better or worse in earlier time.
  • Ask students to revisit their graphic organizer to include additional inferences as they consider less obvious side effects and historical empathy. Ask students to use a different (third) colour of pen or pencil to record these additional inferences.

Reflect on inferences and evidence.

  • Involve students in self-reflection on their work using the graphic organizer Better or Worse?
  • The checklist in Student Self-reflection: Better or Worse? can be used to guide students through their self-reflection. For each criterion, students select one element of quality of life where they feel they have demonstrated the criterion best and then provide reasons for their choice.

Introduce critical question.

  • Pose the critical question:
    How good were the good old days?

    Display Good Old Days or distribute as an activity sheet to each student.

Ask students to indicate their conclusion by providing an answer to the critical question. Each answer should be supported by completing one of the following possible tasks:

  • Write a letter or e-mail to the person interviewed.
  • Write a reflection for their family's scrapbook/journal.
  • Write a letter or e-mail to the president of the local historical society.
  • Prepare a podcast for the local historical society Web site.
  • Prepare an oral presentation for a public interest radio or TV spotlight.

Encourage students to study their completed graphic organizer Better or Worse? to help them identify the important advantages and disadvantages of life in the past.

  • When assigning the task, discuss the Rubric for Comparing Then and Now with students. Help the students understand and use the criteria when completing their task to ensure the following:
    • Information about past and present conditions is accurate.
    • Reasons support their conclusion– if students conclude that the past is wonderful, the reasons must be convincing.
    • Reasons recognize both negative and positive implications, especially those that may not be obvious to students who were not alive at the time.
    • Their explanation is sensitive to the possibility that people in the past may have viewed things differently than they are viewed in the present.
  • Involve students in setting criteria for an effective presentation. Because this challenge offers students a choice of formats for presenting their findings, the checklist for the criteria must be adapted to the chosen format. Use the Peer Coaching Feedback: Communicating Effectively in a Letter as a model of how a formative checklist can be specific to the selected format. This checklist can be modified for any of the presentation formats selected by the students.

Express conclusions.

  • Invite students to share completed task with the class. As an optional activity, ask students to revisit the assessment of comparative quality of life each made at the outset of the lesson. Invite students whose opinions have changed to indicate the nature and reasons for the change.
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Last updated: July 1, 2014 | (Revision History)
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