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Asking the 'Wrong' Questions?

Published on 13/01/14

Last term we studied the history of the industrial revolution with Year 9 (8th grade). This is a subject that's often, unfairly, viewed as a less compelling part of the curriculum. Yet it has kept us hooked.

We've been challenged by the profound political and economic changes that Britain underwent in becoming the most significant world power by 1900. This is no dry, abstract, history, however. As we've recreated the debates between Luddites, business owners and MPs in class role play we've more fully understood how technological change has transformed the British landscape, both physically and mentally.  What's it like to live in revolutionary times today? Strikingly 'normal', we all thought, and yet we've recognised how technology has shaped rapid change, both then and now.

ba3.JPGJane Humphries's recent work on child labour has helped to bring this history alive.  Her 2011 BBC series on the children who built Victorian Britain provided us with moving and shocking accounts of the exploitation which children endured in order for Britain to become 'great'. As Professor of History at All Souls' College, Oxford, Humphries's work has taken her to mills and workhouses, treading in the footsteps of little children whose lives were shaped around industry.  She has recreated the worlds of children such as Robert Blincoe and Sarah Carpenter, through contemporary letters, diaries and archival material.  The animations of these stories brought them to life in our lessons [BBC website link].

In teaching last term the greatest challenge to me has been the thoughts of Year 9 students themselves.  Having set my classes the task of writing an essay analysing the most important consequences of the industrial revolution, I'd offered a structure on well-worn themes: parliamentary change and the growth of trade unionism, changes to living and working conditions.  In initial discussion, however, the focus of their analysis was quite different.  Wasn't the greatest consequence of the industrial revolution it's environmental impact?

I haven't been sure how to approach this question. Is it reflecting a preoccupation of our own times, rather than reflecting the most significant consequence on people's lives in nineteenth-century Britain? Is it even a history question? Yet the more I've thought about it, the harder it seems to ignore. Surely some account does have to be taken of the impact of change on the environment, both in the short-term - how people shaped and perceived the rapid changes to their own landscape in the nineteenth century - and in the longer term - the vast impact the industrial revolution has had on the environment and pollution levels. There's simply nothing that I can find on this subject in school history textbooks that I've looked through.  As I've gazed at the iconic images of Mr Healey's Sheep (an extraordinary beast), past Arkwright and the Rocket, nowhere can I find a real engagement by authors with the changing nature of the environment and landscape. Will future generations look back on the school history of today and find it deeply short-sighted?

There's a bigger question here too. What do we do when we're prompted by students to engage with questions that don't fit comfortably into subject boundaries? Some might argue that we should pass them over to another department. Environmental impact? Well, that's Geography isn't it? But it strikes me that the dialogue to be had between these subjects is potentially far more interesting. At university level, interdisciplinary research is now standard fare, with centres of expertise being created as forums for sharing academic insights across different disciplines. The University of East Anglia, for instance, has pioneered the History of the Landscape, and their Landscape Group now draws together historical, geographical and scientific interests [www.landscape-group.co.uk]. Perhaps we need to think more creatively about the structures within schools to enable more meaningful collaborative work to take place, and to develop a more responsive model of the curriculum attuned to the questions of today.