History Education For All: Teaching A Culturally Responsive Narrative of the Industrial Revolution

Much of my work at The Herstorian involves reviewing history lessons and other curriculum materials to help publishers think critically about how they present the past to young people. As I make clear in my manifesto, the goal of The Herstorian is to embed culturally responsive education, or CRE, into the history curriculum. That means thinking carefully about how we present people from the past and, more importantly, who we represent. And it also means that we create education that truly reflects the diverse backgrounds of the young people in our classrooms.

The Industrial Revolution is a much under-appreciated topic when it comes to culturally responsive history education. Why? Because there is a tendency to focus exclusively on the big, sweeping trends of the era. Think back to your days at school, was it all Spinning Jennies and factory reform? I’m not saying they’re not important, but when we start from a top-down position, we write ordinary people out of the picture. What’s the problem with that, I hear you ask? Well, there are two, really: for a start, it’s not historically authentic because it systematically denies the existence of most of the population, and, secondly, it is not relevant and meaningful to young people because it does not respond to their social and cultural backgrounds and experiences. And if knowledge is not relevant and meaningful, the chances of actually learning it are massively reduced. (I’ll be writing more about learning and CRE in an upcoming post).

So what can we do about this, and how can we use the Industrial Revolution as an opportunity to really reflect diversity - both past and present?

Here are a couple of ideas:

  1. Make clear to students the relationship between the Industrial Revolution in Britain and African American slavery. This relationship is massively under-represented in British classrooms. Yes, Britain abolished slavery in 1833, but cotton that was picked by African America slaves continued to fuel our economy. For more on this, I recommend looking at David Olusoga’s work, especially his book, Black and British.

  2. Make the subject relevant to students by highlighting how the past set precedents for the present in terms of occupational patterns. Today, women dominate low-paid, low-skill jobs and earn less than men, despite equal pay legislation. It’s no coincidence that women’s working experiences were no different in the Industrial Revolution, as my new book, Hidden Dangers of the Victorian Workplace, illustrates. Similarly, studies show that British women from a global majority background are heavily concentrated in low-paying jobs that are more likely to be temporary. We see the same occupational stories in the 19th century.

These are just a few suggestions that I’ve been playing around with recently - and I’ll be exploring these ideas (and many more) in my free, upcoming lockdown lecture - 20 Things Your History Teacher Never Taught You About the Industrial Revolution.

More details of this event are coming soon, so make sure you've signed up to the newsletter. If not, here it is:

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