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Why did Everyday Life change so much after 1750?

(or Factors in the Big Story of Everyday Life)

In writing about the 2008 KS3 programme I’ve often stressed the importance of planning backwards i.e. first identifying what we hope students will take away from their KS3 history in terms of conceptual understandings, skills and ‘Big Stories’, the latter being the ability to tell, for example, the story of everyday life in Britain across a thousand years or more. It’s only through these Big Stories that students can get a sense of the relative significance of individual events such as the Black Death and the Industrial Revolution and also link past developments to today.

However the Big Stories aren’t the only ‘content’ that needs planning in terms of ‘take-aways’ (a much more student-friendly word than ‘objectives’). Planning also needs to encompass what we want students to ‘take away’ about an individual event. This activity explores this issue in the context of the Industrial Revolution and the vexed problem of separating the wood from the trees. There’s just so many trees – Watt, Arkwright, railways, coal, urban growth, electricity, Brunel, etc etc that it can be hard to decide what to put in and what to leave out and what exactly we want students to know and understand about the Industrial Revolution by the age of 14 – because they won’t remember all those trees and they won’t be able to create an over-arching pattern to events without our help.

So this activity is about helping students to see a pattern in what was happening – and to relate it to other parts of the story of everyday life across time. For anyone using SHP's recent KS3 series of books, this relates specifically to the Year 8 book Section 1 (especially pages 44-45) but for everyone else it’s a free-standing activity that doesn’t need that book.

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A formatted version of this activity should print from your browser (omitting this support section).

Or, a WORD version of this activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:

You need the factors and cards - which are provided in two different formats.

For the large–scale version – to do this activity kinaesthetically:

  • For the Factors [ click here ]. Note that the Factors are sized to give an A3 notice – but assume you’ve got an A4 printer and some sellotape!
  • For the Event Cards [ click here ].

For the table–top version - to do this activity as a card sort:

This activity is based on the ’Miscellaneous’ group – ‘Understanding Causation’; for more examples click here.

Context – what this activity does and doesn’t do

Coverage of the Industrial Revolution can happen at several levels:

The Big Story level – where students develop a sense of the overview of patterns of change and continuity across a long stretch of time. This is where students can develop an understanding of the long-term significance of the Industrial Revolution. This is NOT what this activity is about but you can find a linked Big Story activity on this site [ click here ]

The opposite is the Depth Study level – where students explore the impact of the Industrial Revolution in detail, perhaps on a single place, maybe comparing it with another part of the UK. This is very much the human impact level, ideally linked to places students know around them. Again this is NOT what this activity is about.

And there’s an in-between level which is finally where this activity comes in, exploring why life was changing and also introducing many of the most important developments. Is this just another causation activity? It certainly focuses on why everyday life was changing but, if we tackle this in the context of the Industrial Revolution alone, we can’t make comparisons and contrasts across time. This activity is therefore not just about why life was changing in the 1800s but making comparisons with the reasons for change and continuity at other stages of the Big Story of everyday life. To help this work the ‘causes’ are therefore identified as the kinds of factors familiar in GCSE Medicine through time – Government, War, Communications and so on.


This activity is therefore intended to help students:

a) identify the key factors creating change during the Industrial Revolution

b) make links across time, comparing and contrasting the impact of factors before and after 1750

c) develop their ability to use supporting detail to support generalizations

For those going onto GCSE to study Medicine through time this will also help them become familiar with the idea of ‘factors’.


This activity is described as a kinaesthetic sorting activity, organizing factor and event cards in a large open space. Attached are the following:

a) A set of A3 factor cards

b) A set of A4 event cards

c) A PowerPoint sequence of 6 slides.

However this could also be done as a table-top activity with the A3 and A4 cards reduced to a much smaller scale - so these smaller resources are also included above.

Setting Up

In the main part of the activity students distribute the events cards by placing them next to the related factor cards e.g. the card about governments passing laws to improve housing and sanitation goes with the ‘Government’ factor card. So the key organising elements are the factor cards. Place these in a line as follows:

Epidemic Diseases

Harvest Quality



Science and Technology

Travel and Communications

It’s important to place ‘Government’ and ‘Travel and Communications’ either side of ‘Science and Technology’ as some event cards are linked to more than one factor and students may wish to place those events cards between two factors cards.

The Activity

Stage 1 - Linking back to Everyday Life before 1750 and setting up a hypothesis

Students develop a greater sense of achievement if they can see how what they’ve done before links to a new topic and can use that earlier learning to begin thinking about what’s new. PowerPoint slides 1-4 recap what might have been learned previously (e.g. using the Big Story of Everyday Life activity) about changes and continuities in everyday life.

Slide 1 shows a graphical representation of the quality of life to 1500 – ask students a) to explain the big dip – the Black Death - and b) to explain which factors affected everyday life before 1500 (with or without giving them the factors to work from).

Slide 2 lets them see if they got the factors correct, showing the three factors that had the greatest effects – harvest quality, epidemic diseases and war. Now – how did the line develop between 1500 and 1750?

Slide 3 extends the graph to 1750 – there are big dips occasionally but no improvements – why? Which factors had the greatest effects?

Slide 4 again shows the impact of factors and that the same factors were having similar effects as before 1500. Next - how do you think the line developed after 1750 – the time we call the Industrial Revolution – did it go up, down or stay the same?

Slide 5 provides the graph extended to 1900 but why did it change, especially when it lifts in the later 1800s? Which factors do you think had the greatest effect? The same ones as before or different ones?

The last slide is, of course, setting up an enquiry and asking students to create a hypothesis – they may only be guessing but doing so creates the prospect of, in due course, finding out that they were right but now being able to identify evidence to support their hypothesis. So this isn’t just linking back to the Big Story of Everyday Life but linking to how we study the past through enquiry. You could create this hypothesis by asking students to place a set of A3 factor cards in a hierarchy or ‘diamond nine’ pattern.

Warning - Don’t show slide 6 - yet

[Note – the line on the graph is a huge generalization but for this activity that’s OK. One role of a depth study on this topic is the challenge the generalization, showing diverse experiences of the same event].

Stage 2 – Sorting out the factors – testing the hypothesis

Now for the active bit!

a) Distribute the 19 events cards around the class – you could give out one to a student but better is for them to work in groups with 2 or 3 cards per group. This helps create discussion and slows down the action, letting patterns emerge slowly.

b) Explain the task – choose one card and do it yourself e.g. pick the James Watt card, read it out and ask students which factor it links to – then place it by that factor. [you could also demonstrate that some cards link to more than one factor – depending on how tricky you want to make this.]

c) Ask each group to place one card by the factor it links to – depending on the class you can ask them to read out the cards in turn and explain their choice. Look out for cards that could be linked to more than one factor and maybe place them between factors.

Which factor seems to be winning? Does this support the hypothesis from slide 5?

d) Now ask groups to place the other cards with their factors and examine the final pattern – it should show that the factors dominant before 1750 were still influential but much less so while other factors are playing a much greater and now a positive part.

e) Return to slide 5 and students’ hypothesis – if they used another set of cards or drew the hierarchy on your board they should be able to see immediately how close their hypothesis was and maybe what’s different.

Stage 3 Consolidation and follow-up

a) Use Slide 6 to summarise what’s been done in the activity above. You could give students a print out copy of slide 5 and ask them to create their own annotated version for 1750-1900 using the pattern created in the activity.

b) While the organising activity in stage 2 is good for overview (i.e. seeing the impact of the factors) it doesn’t do more than touch on the individual events and developments on the ‘events’ cards and students don’t see all of them. If you wish students to spend more time on these details, getting a stronger sense of the changes that took place then you could use the cards as provided on the A4 sheets for cutting up and using on table-tops. In the first instance it’s the same activity, organizing the cards by factors but this time each pair or group of students has all the cards – can they repeat the distribution pattern? (You’ll need to decide whether to clear up the original pattern or leave it in view.)

This could be followed up by tasks involving more or less writing. You could set students to

i) draw a plan of the final pattern of factor and events cards – summarising each event card with a heading of up to 3 words e.g. ‘Watt – steam engines’.

ii) undertake a piece of extended writing explaining why and how life changed so much after 1750. After all, they’ve already planned it – the factors cards provide a paragraph structure and the events cards provide details that could go into the paragraphs. [If they’re doing this at home give them the two A4 sheets of events cards as an aide memoire of what to include – but also set a challenge – e.g. you want two things included that aren’t in the pack of events cards or you want students to show how the factors are inter-linked or …..]

c) Into your depth study – assuming you are investigating the impact of the Industrial Revolution in your locality or in one place the activity above provides a valuable backdrop. From what they have learned, how would students expect people in town or village xxx to be affected by the Industrial Revolution? Does their investigation uphold or challenge the generalization on slide 5 about the quality of everyday life after 1750 – how would they redraw that graph?


• For some really worthwhile ideas on generalisation see Teaching History 135, June 2009 – Cunning Plan: Let’s play ‘TOO SIMPLE!’ aka ‘the generalisation game’ by Christine Counsell and ‘Were industrial towns ‘death-traps’? Year 9 learn to question generalisations and their preconceptions about the ‘boring’ 19th century’ by Kimberley Anthony. Available at to HA members

• For a range of suggested ways of integrating depth and outline on the theme of everyday life [ click here ]

d) And what happened next, after 1900? You have now created a launch pad for investigation after 1900 – how does the line develop? Which factors had the greatest impact after 1900 – the same as between 1750 and 1900?

Notes & Further Thoughts

a) The cards provided may not be your choice of events – look at them carefully and add to them if necessary.

b) One reservation about this activity is that it’s impersonal so it’s worth considering introducing the Industrial Revolution through a short, more human activity before starting the sequence above. Recently, after a surprising amount of effort, I traced my one side of my father’s family back to the 1790s – what I found out from census material only reveals places of birth, jobs, ages of death but it’s enough to build a picture of a family living through the Industrial Revolution, moving around the country – real names create a strong sense of real people, especially if they’re linked to the teacher in front of the class. Just the bare outline creates the chance to ask questions – how do you think Tom and his family moved from Lambeth to Liverpool? What do you think their houses were like? Etc. So, if you have any information about your own family maybe that would be a good place to start – if not focus on other individuals and then go into the big picture.


1. Are students building up a big picture of everyday life, showing the ability to make links and contrasts across time? What could be done to improve this?

2. Do the events cards or factors cards need rewording or increasing in number to bring in other content?

3. Has this activity helped develop or cement students’ understanding of enquiry or of causation or other concepts?

4. What do you expect students to ‘take away’ at 14 in terms of knowledge and understanding about the Industrial Revolution? Is this analysis by ‘factor’ a helpful and effective way of looking at why life was changing in this period?

5) This activity introduces students to a lot of ‘trees’ – individuals, discoveries, developments. You’d be still going months later if you tried each one in any detail. But is this level of coverage sufficient for your students?

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Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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Setting Up

The Activity

Notes & Variations