Based on his keynote address to the 2006 PSHE and citizenship conference, Dr Christopher Williams discusses the importance of change.

An obvious but neglected point unifying PSHE and citizenship education is that things change, and a crucial new understanding of the recent decade is that we are trying to address these changes and challenges with a stone age body and its stone age brain. Evolutionary science now provides evidence showing that our basic physique and mind are designed for surviving as a hunter-gather 30,000 years ago, not in our hi-tech, globalising world.

What has changed during the last 50 years?

Despite the doom and gloom in the media, there are many positive examples of social change. For instance:

  • Relationships between race groups have improved. No politician would nowadays try a ‘rivers of blood’ speech. In Germany one in six marriages now takes place between people of different ethnic groups. Change started through civil protest in America. (
  • Attitudes towards people with learning disabilities have moved from fear and suspicion, to inclusion and support.
    In the 1970s, pictures showing ‘mental patients’ sitting in their own excrement in hospitals shocked America, and parents formed groups such as MENCAP. Now ‘self-advocacy’ is a major force (
  • It is now accepted that smoking is harmful and that tobacco companies can be accountable for causing death. Scientists provided the evidence, and organisations such as ASH promoted public awareness (
  • We have moved from selfish ‘charity begins at home’ to an ethic that we should provide aid to less developed countries. Development education has built a new global understanding of ‘distant others’ (
  • The European Union has made war in Europe unthinkable – the first time for 500 years. Peace is the primary aim of European integration, not economics (

However, young people need to understand how fragile progress is and that change can be regressive too.

What might change in the next 50 years?

It is hard to consider the future without appearing as a fortune teller. But we can plan, if not predict, in relation to issues such as these:

  • There is a trend away from voting, towards ‘direct democratic accountability’ (Williams, 2006) – radio/TV phone-ins, texting, netizenship, and podcasting are providing more effective ways to hold politicians to account.
  • The influence of China will increase, and Western power may decease. This is shown by economists, but it will happen in other areas such as cultural influence, language and moral authority.
  • Traditional wars may decrease, but ‘global feuding’ could continue. Retribution may become the main cause of conflict – especially regarding the religious family of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
  • Environmental change, especially global warming, will increase causing unpredictable and devastating changes. Understanding the ‘creeping disasters’ that we do not perceive easily is crucial (Lovelock, 2006).

How does our stone age brain respond to change?

An understanding of the fact that the human body and brain have not changed for 30,000 years can underpin teaching about issues such as:

Obesity – Fat, sugar, and salt were scarce but vital nutrients in the stone age world. We are programmed to gorge on these foods, but now they are too readily available, so we overeat. Junk food manufacturers exploit this weakness.

Environmental threats – Our risk perception is stone age. We can sense the danger of fire, but not of cancer-causing UV radiation resulting from ozone depletion, because UV was not a threat 30,000 years ago. We must learn to perceive the ‘invisible risks’ through our intelligence and understanding of science.

Following leaders was a stone age survival skill, but now uncritical following can lead to being exploited – by drugs dealers, unethical companies, gang leaders, and bad politicians.

But we also have one very useful evolutionary skill – an inbuilt ‘cheater detector’, which was crucial for survival in pre-historic societies (Pinker, 1997). So showing children how threats to their wellbeing are often based on deceit can be very effective in educating for change. By using the three questions above, teachers can frame discussions about many relevant topics, and the learning aims are simple (see below).

Educating for change

Young people need to understand:

  • that things have changed, and will change… but some stay the same
  • how to keep what’s good and change what’s bad
  • what causes change
  • that change is often unpredictable and uncertain
  • that many things have changed for the better
  • that positive change must be maintained because it’s fragile
  • that you can’t predict the future, but you can plan for it
  • that the significant thing that has not changed is our Stone Age brain, and that’s a problem.

Further information

Lovelock, J (2006) The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back –  and How We Can Still Save Humanity. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Pinker, S (1997) How the Mind Works. New York: Allen Lane.
Williams, C (2006) Leadership Accountability in a Globalising World. London: PalgraveMacmillan

Dr Christopher Williams is lecturer in international education at the Centre for International Education and Research, University of Birmingham.

This article first appeared in – June 2006