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How much history did the Industrial Revolution overturn?


This is an idea, not a fully-worked out activity – so proceed with caution.

As discussed elsewhere on the site [see the Teaching Issue] one of the problems KS3 students have with the Industrial Revolution is developing a sense of its significance. One aspect of its significance is how much history it overturned - by which I mean that within c.120 years the IR created a society that was mainly urban and based on manufacturing and industry, overturning many centuries of rural and agricultural life.

How can we help students gain a sense of the enormity and pace of this change, especially as this takes us into the area of understanding of duration of time? Duration (like other aspects of chronology) is an understanding that can’t just be learned but which develops slowly and erratically across each of our lifetimes. The most we can do at KS3 is, I think, create an introductory awareness of the lengths of time involved in both pre-industrial society and the pace of the IR itself.

So what follows is a set of ideas – if you try this I’d be interested in hearing how you adapted them into a precise activity and whether you felt it affected students’ understanding of the IR’s place in history.

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

Or, a WORD version can be downloaded [ click here ]

This activity is based on the ’Physical Map’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.

Ideas for an Activity

The core idea is based on physically demonstrating a comparison – between how many generations the IR took to happen compared with the number of generations during which Britain had remained a rural agricultural country. I’ll start with the numbers:

If one generation is approx. 30 years then the IR took 4 generations to develop from its beginnings c.1750 to its height c.1870. [You could argue with that periodization but worrying over that nuance seems irrelevant at KS3]

Compare those 4 generations with the following:

1066-1750 – 23 generations

400-1066 – 22 generations

Roman occupation – 12 generations

So that’s a total of 57 generations from the arrival of the Romans in 43AD to 1750 – quite a contrast with the 4 generations of the IR. But if you then add in a rough number for the number of generations from the development of farming in Britain somewhere c.5000BC (perhaps – depends which book you read!) that’s another 170 generations which leaves you with the mind-boggling thought that the 4 generations of 1750-1870 overthrew the way of life of the 227 generations that had preceded them.

So how might that translate into an activity?

The obvious mechanism is to use students to convey the difference – to bring out 4 students to represent the 4 generations of the IR, explaining what we mean by a generation while you do this.

Then ask the class how many more students need to stand up or come out to represent the length of time before the IR when people lived by farming? Maybe take a few suggestions/guesses. Then use 23 students to get back to 1066 – which will use up all your class! So a bit of ingenuity will be needed to portray the whole pattern – maybe abandon students and use some kind of sweets (Smarties? Or something healthier?) or a series of circles on a PowerPoint screen, building up the generations who spent their lives in farming, compared with the 4 generations it took to transform this society during the IR.

As above, this is fundamentally about an awareness of the comparative amounts of time. Having done this physical comparison what next? The question to explore is ‘what have you learned from this activity about why the IR was so important in our history?’ In many ways this is a vocabulary activity – what words would students use to explain the comparative lengths of time? Which of the suggested words create the best sense of the amount of time that was involved? Can they use the word ‘significance’ in their answer?

You’d need to think about how you explain a generation and whether some other period of time would mean more to students. The advantage of a generation is that it can be seen to be relevant to students and their parents and grandparents – in comparison a century is harder to equate to real lifetimes. You might also consider some props to represent the two kinds of society.

When would you try this? Definitely after you’ve covered the IR, creating a sense of what it involved because without that understanding of what the IR was the activity would be meaningless. So that’s the idea –don’t get lost in the detail and don’t turn it into a maths lesson. Just go for a sense of the two comparative lengths of time and just how much history was changed by the Industrial Revolution.

All feedback welcome!

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

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