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Who’s got the answer to the problem?
The story of the Industrial Revolution


This activity comes into the category of a possible classroom idea not into the ‘this is bound to work’ category (though I doubt there is such a thing). The purpose of the activity is to create an overview of the Industrial Revolution, identifying a range of key developments but also emphasising ingenuity and problem-solving as well as the problems that flowed from the massive changes of the IR. The activity is based around a chain of problem-solution-problem-solution with students having to identify who’s got the solution to the new problem. Hopefully this will create a more positive view of the IR – of the intelligence and humanity that led to the search for betterment and so will increase students’ respect for the people of the time.

It’s important to note that this activity takes a very wide view of the ‘The Industrial Revolution’. In the context of KS3 I’m using it to refer to the wide range of developments taking place between 1750 and 1900, including agricultural changes, urban expansion, developments in power, transport and leisure and the work of philanthropists and politicians to counter the worst effects of the changes. So it’s really about a period of history, not a narrow focus on sources of power, factories, coal, iron and steel.

Hopefully this single activity does provide an outline of the key events of the IR and you could then plunge into whatever depth follow-up you wish. For further discussion of teaching the IR at KS3 see the teaching issue.

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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:

  • For a WORD version of this activity [ click here ]
  • For the Character cards [ click here ]
  • For the Flow Chart [ click here ]
  • For an empty Flow Chart (for use with fewer characters) [ click here ]

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


This activity should help students develop:

a) an overview of the main areas of change between c.1750 and c.1900

b) an understanding that these developments arose out of contemporary problems and needs and demonstrate the great ingenuity and invention of people at the time.

c) an interest in investigating the Industrial Revolution further e.g. in the context of their locality.

Setting Up

The resources you will need are:

a) Characters cards – you need enough to match your choice of method. You also need to decide how many Character Cards (and developments) to include to match the concentration patterns of any particular class. The cards are provided as word docs so you can edit the text to suit your classes (see downloads above)

b) A flow chart or table for each student to complete (see downloads above)

c) You might want to think about using some props for additional memorability (turnip, toy train etc) – see below for a list of possible props for each character.

d) A PowerPoint sequence of pictures showing each breakthrough development would also be useful.

The Activity

This activity presents a series of problems – lack of winter feed for animals, what can we use railways for apart from industry – and the students’ task is to identify the person and the solution from the set of Character Cards. As you go through the sequence students can complete a table or flow chart identifying many of the major developments of 1750-1900.

1. Method

How you tackle the activity depends on your own sense of adventure and the nature of the class. You could

a) go for the adventurous approach and give each student a different character card and ask them to ‘act the role’. Then as you go through the sequence of problems the student playing Bakewell or Stephenson etc has to leap to his or her feet and explain their solution to the problem. To keep everybody focussed before or after their turn they would complete the table or flow chart as the activity moves forward.

b) a ‘safer’ route would be to split the class into groups and give each group a set of Character Cards. You’d still lead the way using the ‘script’ below but instead of ‘acting the role’ students would have to find the right card for each problem you identify before completing the table/flow-chart.

I’m sure there are other routes in between but these would seem to be the two basic approaches.

2. Working through the activity

As explained above, this activity works problem-solution-problem-solution etc . The script below provides an outline of how you might introduce each successive problem. As you’ll see, I’ve highlighted each problem and solution-provider but not included the details of the solution. They’re on the Character Cards.

Once you’ve introduced a problem you need a student to reveal the solution (if they’re in role) or someone to search amongst their group’s cards to find the answer. Then leave time for everyone to fill in their table/flow-chart or use a version of the chart on the board to stop the pace fading.

Variations – (see notes below) but it’s important to note here that pace is something that will have to be judged in the context of each class. You may want to split the activity in two – using it across two successive lessons – if that helps concentration and absorbing the idea and information. So here’s an outline of the ‘script’:

Script Outline

This is where we investigate the IR – discovering the people who created the IR and why each of them was so important. So let’s begin:

With the population growing in the 1700s there was need for food but the scrawny animals weren’t worth eating so

PROBLEM – how do get better fed, healthier, meatier, woollier animals? Has anyone got a solution?

SOLUTION – BAKEWELL (selective breeding)

Great idea but bigger animals need feeding well, especially across the winter. In the past many animals were slaughtered because there wasn’t enough food so …

PROBLEM – how do we feed farm animals across the winter


Another grand idea – farmers had many more such ideas, helping the population to grow but more people meant greater demand, for example for clothes using the extra wool from those big sheep.

PROBLEM – spinners and weavers in their homes couldn’t work fast enough to create the thread and cloth. What’s needed is an invention that helps them work faster.

SOLUTION – HARGREAVES (spinning jenny)

Hargreaves’ jenny made domestic production in homes much more effective but there’s a limit to how many workers can work in one house

PROBLEM – how to make production more efficient and create more cloth by having more people working in one place?


Arkwright wasn’t the only one working on mass production. Another

PROBLEM – was making enough good quality plates, cups, saucers, teacups for the growing population. We need a lot more pottery.

SOLUTION – WEDGWOOD (mass production)

So more and more things were being made in factories but

PROBLEM - how to get these goods round the country safely – Wedgwood’s plates are very breakable and roads are very poor.


And canals were a great success but

PROBLEM - Canals were still slow, moving at the pace of a walking horse. Factories depended on water power – which disappeared in a dry summer. If only there was more power available

SOLUTION – WATT (steam engines)

PROBLEM - Now Watt was a great scientist but not an entrepreneur, someone who could turn his invention into a business. What he needs is a business partner

SOLUTION – BOULTON (invests money in Watt’s engines

) So, let’s look back, growing population, more food being grown, mass production, new forms of energy, animals to move around but

PROBLEM – we need better, faster transport than canal barges


PROBLEM – trains have great potential but we need a few other things to make them work – we need bridges, cuttings, tracks that match. We need an engineer to solve all these problems.

SOLUTION – BRUNEL (everything engineering!)

Railways are a brilliant development thanks to Stephenson and Brunel –

PROBLEM - but what else can they be used for? Can they be used for anything other than industry and work?

SOLUTION - COOK (day trips and holidays)

So we’re now thinking about entertainment and enjoyment – and with more schools developing there’s a growing audience out there for good stories.

PROBLEM - Can anyone provide a good story?

SOLUTION - DICKENS So people could sit and read – if only they could see. One PROBLEM not yet solved was that of light – candles were still a major source of light

SOLUTION – FARADAY (beginnings of electricity)

So to sum up – the population’s still growing, people are working harder and harder but conditions in those factories are poor and people’s homes are often built far too quickly – standards of living are poor, especially in the hearts of the industrial towns.

One particular PROBLEM created by factory owners is very long working hours – 12 hours a day for example.


PROBLEM - So, shorter working hours – but there were some people who felt that it shouldn’t need lords to initiate legislation, ordinary people should have a say in government


Unfortunately the Chartist cause failed in the short-term but these political changes were introduced over the years.

But a more immediate PROBLEM still dogging many industrial towns was sickness and low life expectancy - there was no proof of the causes of disease

SOLUTION: - PASTEUR [germ theory] Of course, theories only take us so far – towns were full of sewage, filthy water, problems beyond the scope of any individual it seemed …

SOLUTION – BAZALGETTE [sewerage] So thanks to Bazalgette the streets were cleaner, the air fresher. Industrialization had changed Britain. Many working people had Saturday afternoons off work and a week’s holiday – but what could they go to see on their afternoons off?



END – at least of the sequence of problems and solutions.


1. What range of changes took place – try to sort out categories e.g. agriculture, power, transport, leisure etc

2. What impression of this period do you now have? How would you describe the people you’ve investigated?

3. Relate this to everyday life – how different were the lives of people in the 1860s and 1870s from their own families a hundred years earlier? What could people of the 1870s do that their grandparents could not?

Notes & Variations

1. There obviously isn’t complete agreement on the top sixteen inventions of the period – you may want to vary the list. Other possibilities include music, perhaps linked to Charles Halle and foundation of Halle orchestra. Music was a popular domestic entertainment and some period music playing during the activity might help the atmosphere.

You could also include a local hero – e.g. in a Leeds school it might be John Barran, the Leeds industrialist who bought Roundhay Park for the city, emphasising changing lifestyle not just the industrial side.

2. The balance of men and women is tricky, representing the dominance of men in public society but underplaying the influence of women. I’ve included a woman Chartist in recognition of the significance of women in the Chartist movement. Elizabeth Gaskell, the novelist, and Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer, are two other possibilities – extra cards for them are at the end of the Character Cards.

3. As noted above, you’ll need to decide how many of these people/developments to include to fit into lessons and concentration spans. Splitting this across two lessons to allow consolidation of the first half is another possibility.

List of Possible Props


stuffed sheep




photo of spinning jenny


photo of factory


china plate


boat and spade




monopoly money


photo - train


tall black hat






light bulbs


Charter scroll


photo of clock (10 hours Act)


flask, medicine book


loo rolls


cricket bat



User Feedback

From Rachel Jones

I first used the activity about a week after you presented it at the conference, and simply went through the script you sent and changed a few things (I took out all the stuff about applauding Brunel's hat and things like that).  Then, went on the internet and found a load of images to laminate instead of using actual props

Then, it was a case of literally cutting the scripts into individual parts to hand to the pupils when it was their turn.

For the start, I used the mini cereal boxes and one big box to represent the lord of the manor (see Why was the harvest so important).  It was very much how you did it if I remember rightly!

Then, onto the main activity, the main thing that went "wrong" with the first go was that I didn't trust the pupils to bring back their pieces of paper/scripts if I gave them to them to take home and learn and so what happened was that as each one came up to the front, they saw their script for the first time and weren't sure how to say or pronounce something.  I can't remember, but I might not even have told they who they were going to be, so they might not even have had chance to do any independent research on their character.  It was a bit messy. 

The second time I did it (a couple of months ago), we had a brief introductory lesson on it (doing the cereal box / population part - see Why was the harvest so important).  I then put their names on the board with a particular character's name next to them.  The historical characters weren't in order, but they could see the names.  They were then told that their character would link in with one of the others somehow and would follow on from and lead onto another one.  As all pupils now have email addresses, I then emailed them their individual scripts so that they could read them in advance and know what was coming.  At the same time, I had the scripts laminated and stuck onto the back of the appropriate image so the pupil would hold up their picture, and read off the back.  Pupils were told that they had an email from me and they had to check it and let me know if there were any problems.

On the day, Robert Bakewell started off and then it was up to the pupils to work out if they were next or not (and why!).  I did the narrator part to help try to link them together, but the major thing was that as we went along, each person could say why they followed on from the person before and how they linked into the next person.  There was quite a lot of overlap of reasons, but the message stuck.  After every 5 pupils or so we would stop and review from Robert Bakewell and push the links before carrying on with the next batch. 

We only have 35 minute lessons so this had to take place over a few sessions, but it clearly stuck as for the next few weeks, there were loads of references to all the different characters in their written work which would never have been there before. 

I now have a little "Fat Sheep..." file in the cupboard with the whole lot in there.  Laminates, scripts etc.  The PowerPoint is saved on the network and ready to go.  It's a really good 2/3 week project for them and I doubt I'll ever get bored of seeing a pupil jump up and shout "that's me!" when they see a picture of a turnip.

See also the discussion on ‘What would we like students to remember about the Industrial Revolution?’ [ on this website here ].


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

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Setting Up

The Activity

Script Outline


Notes & Variations

Possible Props

User Feedback