Thinking about Continuity and Change Through Then and Now Photographs

James Miles

James Miles teaches Social Studies, I.B. History, and Social Justice 12 at West Vancouver Secondary School, where he has taught for six years. He recently completed his MA in Social Studies Education at UBC. He is interested in incorporating local history, historical photographs, and other primary sources into his classroom.

This year I sought to engage my Grade 10 students in some local history using one of my own fascinations: historical photographs. Over the past few years I have become addicted to scrolling through local archives and excellent blogs like Past Tense Vancouver and Changing Vancouver.  I thought I’d try to connect my interest in historical photographs to teaching about the concept of Continuity and Change. 

A mini-project

After some thought, I planned several lessons on local history that involved using then and now images to encourage students to ‘see’ where change has occurred and where continuities remain. After showing examples to my students, I had them delve into the online catalogue of our local municipal archives to find a historical photograph that interested them. (I have found that over the past few years most municipalities have begun to digitize their visual records, allowing the public much more access.) The guidelines I offered my students were to find an image that revealed something about the community in the past that could be compared and contrasted with the current municipality, such as: methods of transportation, economic activity, clothing and dress, and cultural, social, and sporting activities.  I also suggested going back at least 50 years, so that there would likely be more evidence of change. 

After finding an image, students went out into the community (armed with their smart phones) to find the setting of the original historical photograph and then take a new photograph documenting how that place appears now. The students then uploaded their images and placed them side by side the historical photograph. Using both images as evidence, students then wrote an analysis examining ways in which the community has changed or stayed the same over time. 

Examples included a student who compared a historical photograph of the West Vancouver Ferry service, which operated across Burrard Inlet to Vancouver (1909-1945), with a current image of the Lions Gate Bridge. These images led to a discussion on how transportation and infrastructure have changed and impacted the community. Another student looked at how a shingle mill (ca. 1919) used to exist on the current grounds of our school’s campus, and that quite interestingly a small part of its’ foundation still remains, leading the student into a discussion on the disappearance of resource industries in the community.

The Critical Question

After further discussing the Continuity and Change concept with my students I introduced a critical question to be answered: During the passing of time between the two photographs, has there been progress or decline?

Students had to answer this question, taking into account economic change, social and cultural change, and environmental change. I found using these categories helpful for guiding students in identifying continuity and change. For example, students were able to recognize, using the photographs, that the economy appears to have developed for the better with evidence of wealth, yet today there are far more cars and far less trees than there was in the older photograph, potentially suggesting environmental decline. 

Looking back on the lesson 

While there are limits to this activity, I found it offered my students a chance to see a new side of their community while also providing an entry point into the Continuity and Change concept. Also, through the project I also managed to slyly introduce students to using primary documents in online archives instead of the standard Google image search.

The students commented that they enjoyed getting to discover their local history and be actively involved in its’ interpretation through their own photography. My main goal, which was to introduce students to the concept of Continuity and Change appears to have been a success. Now I set to work on helping them apply the beginnings of their conceptual understanding to broader areas of history, which I fear will be much more complicated.