Secondary School Teaching Unit on The Industrial Revolution in Britain

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Secondary School Teaching Unit on The Industrial Revolution in Britain
Scott Malagold

Randolph High School

Randolph, NJ
2012 NEH Seminar for School Teachers
Historical Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain

  1. Introduction and Overview

  2. Unit Plan

    1. Unit Rationale

    2. Unit Plan Summary

    3. Alternate Unit Plans

  3. Relevancy

    1. Critical & Creative Thinking

    2. Historical Connections

    3. Interdisciplinary Connections

  4. Made to Stick

    1. Introduction & The Curse of Knowledge

    2. Simple

    3. Unexpected

    4. Concrete

    5. Credible

    6. Unexpected

    7. Stories

  5. Other Ideas

    1. Chances, Choices, Causes

    2. Top-Down v. Bottom-Up History

    3. Past, Present, & Future

    4. Tragedy, Comedy & Melodrama

  6. Conclusion

  7. Appendices

    1. Industrial Revolution Unit Plan (including project rubric and description)

    2. Wal-Mart Writing Assignment/ Extension Activity

    3. Modern Connections to the Industrial Revolution (with hyperlinks)

    4. 10 Sentence Summary of the Industrial Revolution

    5. Labor Union Negotiation Game (Lesson Plan and Materials)

  1. Introduction and Overview:

Teaching history is all about relevance. To put it bluntly it’s about trying to find legitimate and engaging answers to the eternal question, “Why do we have to learn this (blank)?” The Industrial Revolution is probably the easiest topic to make relevant to students. The modern connections are seemingly endless and include many issues of real interest to students including child labor, welfare and other forms of social security, global and national income inequality, and even the proper balance between freedom and equality. The Industrial Revolution is also one of the most studied topics in history (hence De Vries’ notion of a “thrice-squeezed orange”). Thus this unit can be used as an exemplar with which to highlight effective teaching methods, investigate alternative strategies for relevancy and engagement, test out various assessment methods, and provide a template for other topics. What follows below is an attempt to apply various pedagogical theories to the topic and see how well they are suited to this topic, and by extension, to other topics throughout history.

  1. Unit Plan

Unit Rationale:

No issue is more central or relevant to a history course than the debate over the proper role and size of government. This question provides a lens through which to view any topic and a constant link to modern-day social issues. By constantly referring to two or three overriding themes throughout the year the students have a few anchors which they can relate to their increasing knowledge of both history and current events. This topic is perhaps the single most important area of study for understanding the current global disparity between North and South, or between the West and “the Rest.” It is also probably the best topic from which to analyze the political spectrum and evaluate the proper roles of government. The question of the “social safety net” is one of the most important and fiercely debated issues in American politics today, and the study of the Industrial Revolution will help students grasp the nature of this debate.

Additionally, the Industrial Revolution is the most dramatic change to human society since the Neolithic Revolution and followed a similar pattern of increasing division of labor. It is also the time at which society becomes recognizable as “modern,” in terms of both the global economy and liberal democratic state. Finally, this unit gives students an appreciation of where the goods they buy come from and encourages them to be responsible consumers.

For a bibliography and many primary sources on the Industrial Revolution in Britain, see the Industrial Revolution website developed for the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminars for School Teachers by Gerard M. Koot, History Department, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth at: .

Unit Plan Summary:

This unit covers the drastic changes that took place in society between the years 1750 – 1900. The reasons for these changes will be investigated and debated, as will the reasons why these changes began in Britain. Students will compare and contrast factory life then and now and assess the success of society in dealing with the problems created by industrialization. Students will be made aware that the process of industrialization that began in England in the 1700’s is still unfolding in many parts of the world, and is still to reach many others (although in a modified form). Students will also compare and contrast life before and after the Industrial Revolution and assess whether the gains realized have been worth the costs. The unit will also focus on ethical and environmental issues raised by industrialization. A large part of the unit will be spent analyzing the emerging economic and social ideas and evaluating their success and legacy today. The unit project will be a live (or prerecorded) “Talk Show” where students will act as historical figures of the Industrial Revolution and express their views on the changes they witnessed during their lives, while also imagining what they would say about modern society. As an extension activity, students will view clips from the film Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and then analyze it from the perspective of one or more of the historical figures they have studied. (See Appendix A for an incomplete version of the UbD unit plan on the Industrial Revolution. See Appendix B for Wal-Marx writing assignment).

Alternative Unit Plans:

An alternative plan for this unit is to have small groups focus on only one of the major historical figures. The groups would spend roughly one week learning about the life and work of one major thinker from this time period and then present their findings to the class in any appropriate form such as a PowerPoint, a skit, an interview, a film, etc. These expert groups would then rotate with the other groups and assure that the rest of the class has a good grasp of their person’s major ideas (this could also including quizzing the rest of the class). Finally, the Wal-Mart movie would be shown and students can analyze it from the perspective of one or more of the famous figures studied. There are two options for completing this assignment (paper or other product such as an interview) and the teacher can pick one or let the students pick: either analyze any three issues from the movie from the perspective of one of the historical figures or analyze it from the perspectives of 3 or more historical figures.

A second alternative way to cover this topic is to categorize the changes that took place in different areas of society during this time. This unit plan would still cover the idea of the political spectrum (then and now) but would be focused more on the revolutionary restructuring of all aspects of society during this time, rather than simply focusing on the political spectrum in and of itself. For this unit students would be broken up into groups from the outset of the unit and given a few questions to answer at the end of the unit. Students can self-select their groups based on interest or the teacher can assign groups. The overarching question that each group would need to answer (through some sort of product or presentation at the end of the unit) would be, “How and why did industrialization change that part of society?” Another useful question would be, “How did people react to and adjust to these changes?” Finally, this unit plan should also include a way to tie this time period to the present, through a question such as, “What can we learn about society today from this time period?” and/ or, “How similar or different are changes currently taking place in society?” The possible groups/ areas of society for this option include but are not limited to: art and literature, family life, economics/ regulation, social security/ poor relief, purchasing/ consumption patterns, demographics/ urbanization, environmental impact, gender roles, political life, labor relations, science and technology, class/ national consciousness.

  1. Relevancy Suggestions and Content Connections

Critical/ Creative Thinking: The Holy Grail of Social Studies

Critical thinking is the ability to think creatively and apply what one has learned about one topic to another situation. The “Holy Grail” of critical thinking is analyzing real-world, unpredictable situations using knowledge gleaned from the study of academic content. The Industrial Revolution unit supplies an ever-increasing overabundance of opportunities for this kind of thought.

The mantelpiece of this unit is to imagine what the historical figures would say were they to rise from the dead. Below is a list of possible questions that can be posed to students as they role-play one of the historical figures they have studied. Ideally, several suggestions should be given to get the students thinking, incentives should be offered for finding their own connections, and several should be “saved” so that students must think on their feet (from another’s shoes) during their presentations.

What would they (Marx, Malthus, Dickens) say about? (See Appendix C for a categorized and hyperlinked, but less complete, version of these questions).

China? Wal-Mart? Walton family? Billionaire’s pledge? Minimum wage? Public schools? Charter schools? School vouchers? Union busting in Wisconsin? Food aid to Africa? Eurozone debt crisis? Stimulus bill? Romney or Obama? SOPA/OWS? Income gap? Bush tax cuts? 1 in 7 Americans on food stamps? Corn subsidies? Wal-Mart subsidies? Sugarcane tariffs? AT&T T-Mobile merger being blocked? Obama-care?

Historical Connections:

Another useful thing about this topic, and one that was made abundantly clear throughout the summer seminar, is the way in which it relates to literally every other major historical topic as well as providing limitless opportunities for interdisciplinary learning. The more ways in which a student can engage with the more material, the more likely they are to understand and remember it. Below are some suggestions for connections to other topics in history and other subjects of study.

Plague: According to Robert Allen, the Plague is where the story of the Industrial Revolution begins, and is also key to explaining why it began it Britain. First, the Plague reduced the population, thus increasing opportunities for wealth accumulation among those left behind, while also destroying the feudal system that tied serfs to the land. It was also a start of a long trend of urbanization that was especially marked in London. Allen also argues that British sheep benefited from so much land reverting to pasture, and that a better diet led to longer wool which made the British textile industry possible. Allen also demonstrates that England’s population recovered much slower than in Europe, which led to the high English wages that he sees as the key to explaining why the Industrial Revolution first happened in Britain. Of course, this theory neglects to address why the plague started in the first place – the “global” trade between East and West that brought the plague into Europe via Italian merchants.

Reformation: Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is one of the greatest works of ideological history, but has also been called into question by modern (mostly economic) historians. Nonetheless, textbooks still emphasize Methodism and the Protestant work ethic as contributing to England’s success during this time, and most modern historians have acknowledged the role of dissenters in advancing early forms of business and industry, as they were locked out of many other areas of society.

Renaissance: The rise of early forms of banking can provide a link as well as a contrast to the development of the banking and insurance during the Industrial Revolution. There is also a comparison to be made between the ways in which science was funded during these two time periods. Another useful point of comparison is Thomas More’s vision of utopia with that of the social utopians of the 19th century. Of course, the Renaissance is often linked to the Scientific Revolution (and contemporaneous with the “Age of Exploration”, and the connections of that topic to the industrial revolution are explored directly below.

Exploration/ Colonization: Much as been said about the connection between industry and empire, (especially by Hobsbawm). While the exact nature of Britain’s early “empire” can be debated and debunked, it is clear that Britain’s success in colonizing the world and establishing trade dominance gave it both the supplies of raw materials and markets for finished goods that added fuel to the fire of industrialization. Of course, slavery played a large part in making this intercontinental trade profitable. Moreover, while the idea that profits from the slave trade funded the industrial revolution in Britain has been disproven, the sugar plantation can be seen as the first prototype for the factory system as it contained a series of processes taking place in one location and carried out by a series or workers who each were responsible for one stage of the processing1. This is also an opportunity to explore the differences between mercantilism and capitalism.

Scientific Revolution: The links between the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution are explored in detail in Allen’s work. He addresses the argument of whether the Newtonian mindset actually influenced the development of industrial technology in England, although he eventually concludes that it was only because these developments were profitable in England that explains why they were first invented there. Allen does, however, acknowledge the direct link between 17th century experimentation with 18th century technological developments, especially regarding ideas such as atmospheric weight and pressure and the laws of motion, which were applied to machines during the Industrial Revolution.

Enlightenment: Again it is Allen who investigates the links between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, as he analyzes Mokyr’s notion of the “Industrial Enlightenment.” While Allen is ultimately pessimistic about the links between Enlightenment thought and the Industrial Revolution, it is clear that there are at least some linkages, whether through scientific societies (such as the Lunar Society of Birmingham) or direct mentoring experiences (such as Watt’s potential link with Enlightenment thinkers at the University of Glasgow).

Nationalism: The rise of nationalism can be traced back to the rise of class consciousness and then national class consciousness during the Industrial Revolution. The rise of nationalism also dashed Marx’s hopes for an international working class consciousness.

Imperialism and WWI: The steam engine and the Maxim gun helped spread the tidal wave of the European imperialism that swept across Africa and the world in the latter part of the 19th century. The technologies of the Industrial Revolution opened up new horizons of conquest and led to the European competition for dominance, which is often seen as one of the main causes of the outbreak of World War I.
Interdisciplinary Connections:

Below is a brief list of possible interdisciplinary connections. The scientific and artistic/ literary connections seem to have the most potential in he schools.


  • Physics:

    • Steam power (latent heat)

    • Water wheels

    • Trains/ boats

  • Biology:

    • Peppered moth evolution

    • Health/ height link (diet),

    • Medicine (cotton dust, darkness, sewage, water supply)

    • Farming/ breeding techniques

  • Geology:

    • Britain’s geology

    • Coal and iron together

  • Chemistry:

    • Nitrogen fixation and crop rotation

    • Sulfur impurities in coal v. coke

    • Difference between iron and steel


  • Supply v. demand (which played a greater role)

  • Machines capital) v. labor (water frame, efficiency)

  • Mercantilism v. capitalism

  • Luxury goods and industrious/ consumer revolution

  • Protectionism v. globalization (tariffs v. free trade)

  • Progressive income tax (v. flat tax or consumption taxes)

  • Colonialism and slavery

  • Capitalism v. Communism

Art & Literature: Romantics, Dickens, Bronte, Wordsworth, Byron, paintings, H.G. Wells’ Time Machine

Math: demographics, productivity calculations (any of Allen’s formulas)

Law: factory acts, patent protections (Facebook v. spinning jenny)

Philosophy: utilitarianism, utopianism, political philosophy, identity formation, class consciousness

  1. Made to Stick: SUCCESS Checklist:

The ideas below are all taken directly from Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, a book that all teachers should read. It has advice for anyone who needs to get a message across to an audience and make that message stick and is based on the concept of “sticky-ness” from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. It draws on research in psychology and educational theory and other disciplines. The authors put forth a template for sticky ideas which is based on a Velcro model of the mind; they analogize the brain to the loops in Velcro – the more “hooks” you can get in those loops, the more likely an idea is to stick. According to the book a sticky idea should be as many of the following things as possible; Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, contain a Story. The “villain” of the book is something named the “Curse of Knowledge.” This is what happens when one becomes such an expert in a field that they simply cannot imagine what it was like to not have this knowledge, and therefore struggle to communicate effectively with audiences that do not have this knowledge. The way to avoid this curse is to simplify ideas, which is the first principle addressed below.
Simple: Find the Core (simplifying without dumbing down)

The first principle of sticky ideas is that they are simple. This poses a unique challenge to teachers who face the task of pairing down without dumbing down. The advice here is to “find the core” which means stripping away the non-essential elements and making difficult choices about what to emphasize or even mention. The authors note that the best way to get a core message across is through a generative metaphor, and claim that the holy grail of simplicity is the proverb. With this in mind we can analogize the Industrial Revolution to the Neolithic Revolution: just as the adoption of farming led to a division of labor and changes to the basic structure of human society, so did the industrial revolution (and they are probably equally important to the story of human civilization and progress). The other way to use this principle is through the use of anchors and scaffold. The authors note that simple plus simple can equal complex if there are enough layers. This gives teachers an opportunity to add layers of information as needed by the class or even individuals who may be ready and eager for a more nuanced explanation.

When finding the core there is a false choice between accessibility and accuracy: the point is lost if either is lacking as all the accuracy in the world is useless if it cannot guide behavior or inform predictions. Another way to simplify the Industrial Revolution is to make the claim (which can then be debated) that it marks the beginning of modern society, with the foundations being laid for modern economics, modern conceptions of the roles of government, and an interconnected global economy.

Another suggestion for simplicity is to use the Industrial Revolution rap song from Students can view this at the beginning and end of the unit and be asked to explain a few of the lines from the song after they are more familiar with the concepts. Finally, any textbook chapter can be distilled to 10 sentences or less, and students should always be given such a summary at the start of each unit (higher level classes or students can be asked to create their own after they have read the whole chapter). (See Appendix D for a rough draft of a 10 sentence summary of the Industrial Revolution. Students could be asked to write a paragraph on some or all sentences as the unit progresses).

Unexpected: Gap Theory of Learning

One of the best ways to engage students is to open gaps in their knowledge. The authors analogize the need to fill these gaps to the need to scratch and itch or to relieve pain; it is irresistible. Too often teachers close these gaps without first ever opening them. The key is to either violate an existing schema or to open up some sort of mystery. A great analogy is the nightly news teasers such as, “Which household product could kill your family? Tune in at 10 to find out!” While not quite as dramatic, these types of riddles can stimulate previously unheard-of levels of student interest. Below are a few possibilities for the Industrial Revolution. This method also highlights the need for pre-assessment in order to determine where the students have existing gaps that can be tapped. Possible “teasers” for the Industrial Revolution unit:

  • What is the #1 manufacturing country in the world? (USA v. China)

  • How could the minimum wage a bad thing? (Adam Smith v. 30 days)

  • Why did the peppered moth change its color? (industrial melanism)

Concrete: Make it Understandable (Visual and Visceral)

The advice here is to ground ideas in sensory reality. Failing that, context must be given so that ideas are grounded in reality and numbers are not abstract. This emphasizes the need for pictures and videos rather than plain text or lecture. The authors advise teachers to make learning “visual and visceral.” Below is a brief list of ways to make the topic of the Industrial Revolution concrete, visual, and visceral.

  • Field trips/ videos of processes such as spinning, weaving, mining, waterwheels, steam engines, etc.

  • Photos: Jacob Riise, How the Other Half Lives or Lewis Hine’s work

  • Video: Behind the Swoosh, Blood, Sweat and T Shirts, Wal-Mart, 30 Days

  • Tragedy of Commons Goldfish Game

  • Labor Union Negotiation Game (See Appendix E)

Credible: Authorities and Anti-Authorities

Showing an idea to be credible involves letting the students see for themselves, and emphasizes the need for primary source analysis. Vivid details add credibility while often also adding to the concreteness of the idea. Honesty and trustworthiness matter more than status and thus “anti-authorities” can be even better sources than traditionally “important” figures. Statistics can help credibility but must always be used for comparison and never in isolation. Possible credible sources are noted below.

  • Engels, Manchester

  • Young, Enclosures

  • Life expectancy charts and comparisons

Emotional: Make a Connection

Here the authors note the power of “shock value” while also pointing out that analytical thinking can hinder the emotional connections that will hook students. Another important point made here is that feelings are generally what inspire actions, an idea that has great importance if we are to get students engaged to the point of social activism or civic action. As always with teaching history, students connect much better to one person than to the masses. A good way to make things emotional is to simply substitute the word “you” for “people.” Thus, instead of the question, “how do you think people felt sending their young children to work in mines?” the question should be posed as, “how would you feel sending your young child to work in a mine?” Below are several examples that could help students make emotional connections to the Industrial Revolution.

  • Wal-Mart movie families

  • Lewis Hine/ Jacob Riise Photos (creative writing prompts)

  • Blood, Sweat and T Shirts, Behind the Swoosh

  • Triangle Factory Fire reports, eyewitness accounts of factory or mine life

  • Imaginative writing prompts: “how would you feel?” or “how does it make you feel?” questions.

Stories: Make it Personal

The lesson here is to let the story do the “heavy lifting.” Stories, “put knowledge into a framework that is more lifelike and truer to everyday experience.” Stories, “can inspire, uplift, motivate, and energize people” while also helping people see new possibilities. Stories can also help to limit skepticism as well as to, “engage the inner voice in problem solving.” Below is a list of possible stories from the Industrial Revolution that could be useful in helping students forge a personal connection to the content.

  • “Michael”: rewrite ending

  • Hard Times: book review/ movie poster or book cover

  • Poor law reform or factory act passage

  • Letters from factory workers, apprentices

  • Triangle Fire

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