“Is it a mystery game?” Pupils’ feedback on the online interactive

Over the past month I have visited two local schools, Addingham and Springbank, to test our online interactive with Year 4 and Year 6 classes. “Is it a mystery game?” I was asked by one pupil as I was in the process of setting it up on the computers prior to the session. I replied that it was an educational game, which possibly didn’t quite imply the excitement they were anticipating, but nevertheless the responses to the resource have been very positive and encouraging, from pupils and teachers alike.

The Library at Cragside.
The Library at Cragside – a popular room to start in.

Over the different sessions I experimented with a few different ways of using the interactive in the classroom. In each case I began by leading the interactive from the front of the class, starting with Cragside and asking the pupils which rooms they wanted to explore (interestingly, in each session they wanted to start with the Library). In each room I opened the hotspot image and asked them the question before playing the associated video. I also wanted to see how the pupils used the interactive on their own, so depending on the session I then let them go through either the second and third or just the third house on their own. Unfortunately, at Addingham we noticed that when a whole class was trying to use the resource at once this slowed things down, and there were problems loading the videos. It also led in some cases to pupils, when left to their own devices, clicking through to the video content without being able to see the pictures of the rooms or the associated questions which the videos then answered.

Before my visit to Springbank, therefore, we implemented a fix aimed at addressing this, which was successful in that it slowed down the loading of the content in order to ensure that it would be visible before the video content would be played. With Springbank pupils, after going through the first house together, I asked a group of eight of them to work on the interactive at the back of the class, independently of the rest. They worked as three pairs at three computers, and two single pupils with a computer each – all had headphones for the videos. Meanwhile, I chose two volunteers from the rest of the class to lead the pupils through the next house, getting the class consensus on which rooms to visit, asking the hotspot questions and playing the videos. This worked very well and demonstrated how the interactive can be employed in the classroom as a peer-led learning exercise.

A sunflower-inspired wall-light from the Drawing Room at Standen.
A sunflower-inspired wall-light from the Drawing Room at Standen.

The pupils working on their own or in pairs at the back were able to use the interactive without the problems of the videos not loading properly, as we had previously seen at Addingham. The main feedback I received from this ‘focus group’ of pupils was that they wanted there to be more content: more rooms to explore, and more to see in each room. Unfortunately we’ve been limited by time and money on this project, so we stuck to four rooms for each of the three houses, with one hotspot and video in each, but I see this as a very positive response indicating that they were interested in and engaging constructively with the content.

The interactive provides a good catalyst to start discussions about a range of topics, from Victorian class and gender divides – and the contrasts and similarities with the present day – to the use of renewable energy through discussions of hydroelectricity at Cragside, to our own attitudes towards new, cutting edge technologies, to the questions and thought processes involved in designing and making everyday items. For example, Year 4 at Springbank picked up in particular on how posh Mr Grey, the butler at Cragside, sounded. “He’s like a robot!” they happily told me. This provided a perfect opportunity to discuss why it was appropriate that Mr Grey, working as he did for Lord Armstrong, conducted himself in a certain manner.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrJNY4TsMbE]


The quiz at the end of the interactive also provided an opportunity for the pupils to think about their knowledge of electrical topics covered in the KS2 curriculum. There are six multiple choice questions, each one relating to a circuit component with which the KS2 curriculum requires pupils to be familiar: wire, batteries, switches, lightbulbs, buzzers and motors. The questions draw on materials covered in the video content from the three houses, touching on scientific, historical and design aspects of the use of domestic electricity. In all cases I led this as an activity from the front of the class, asking questions, getting the pupils’ answers, and moving through the quiz. In the feedback, this was the aspect of the interactive which the Year 4 pupils said they found to be the most challenging, but as we want the resource to be useful for Year 6 as well I don’t think this is a problem; they did very well regardless.

A still from one of the videos in the interactive: Bertha the maid explains the electrical call system at Lotherton Hall.
A still from one of the videos in the interactive: Bertha the maid explains the electrical call system at Lotherton Hall.

The feedback from pupils indicates that the interactive encouraged them to think about how people used electricity in the past, and what different opinions they had. To evaluate each session I asked the pupils to write down, on different coloured post-it notes: one thing they had learnt, one thing they found difficult, and what they wanted to learn next. The answers demonstrated an encouraging level of understanding and enthusiasm. A common response to the first question – what they felt they had learnt – was hydroelectricity, and also the period that people first starting using electricity in the home, including the fact that not many people had electricity at this time. The interactive thus effectively introduces pupils to the idea of hydroelectricity, and also helps them to historicise the development of electrical technologies. Other key points which pupils picked up on were that early electricity was not always reliable, and that maids were often scared of electricity.

There were a few warning signs here, though, and potential misunderstandings will be highlighted in our teachers’ resource to accompany the interactive. For example, a lot of pupils found the explanation of the cloisonné lamp at Cragside tricky, and whilst this is a useful tool for discussing several topics – for example conductors and insulators, how mercury is an unusual metal, and electrical safety – it is important to be careful in order to avoid some of the misconceptions which are evident from the feedback, for example that mercury was used to power lamps, or that the method of the electrification of Cragside’s cloisonné lamps was common at the time. Teachers may wish to use the animation of the cloisonné lamp we have produced for Cragside alongside the interactive to help explain this.

Regarding what they wanted to know next, pupils had a wide range of suggestions, from how electricity was used on the Titanic to the uses of electricity in sport. Common questions were how electricity is generated, who the first person to use or discover it was, and aspects of social history, for example asking about the lives of children and servants, and what adults did in their spare time. Some asked some very insightful questions, such as why people needed electricity when they had candles, and what electricity is going to be like in the future. These responses indicate that the interactive serves to fuel interest in Victorian history, and also in how electricity works and the ways in which it is used in our everyday lives. Teachers can therefore use our interactive as a starting point for such discussions, and then go on to explore some of these other science or history topics in more depth.

The interactive is now live, and can be viewed here.

Back to school: field-testing our KS2 digital interactive

On Monday 30 November Abigail Harrison-Moore and I will be joining a year 6 class (age 10-11) for a lesson to teach them about our work and test our educational materials. This is the age group at which we are aiming our online digital interactive, and as one of their science topics this year is electricity, this will give us an opportunity to integrate elements of history and art and design into their learning.

The design of our interactive focuses around floor plans of each of our three partner houses. At the beginning of the interactive, pupils will see a screen with pictures of each house, and will be prompted to move through the sections (levels) of the interactive which correspond to each of the houses in the order in which the houses were electrified (Cragside first, then Standen, as one of the first houses in the country to be built with electricity from the beginning, and finally Lotherton Hall, electrified in 1903).

Two lamps in the Library at Cragside.

They will be able to select the first, Cragside, and on doing so will see a simplified floor plan of the house and a video introducing them to the guide character for the house. These guide characters, one for each house, will appear in videos throughout each house‘s section, or level, explaining content about the history of electricity. The guide characters, a butler for Cragside, the lady of the house, Mrs. Beale, for Standen, and a maid for Lotherton, will be played by drama students working on the Electrified musical. They will be filmed using green screen techniques and inserted into footage from each of the three houses.

Within the floor plan of each house will be four clickable rooms which pupils can select, in no set order. On selecting a room a large, wide angle photograph of the interior of the room will be displayed, and pupils will look for a hotspot within the picture. This will highlight an object in the room of electrical significance, and hovering over the hotspot will open a larger picture of the object accompanied by a question. Clicking on the question will then open a short video – 60 seconds – in which the guide character will answer the question and provide more information about the object or system to which it relates.

The questions, and their corresponding answers, will be focused around a different theme for each house. For Cragside, the theme will be science and technology; pupils will be encouraged to think about how objects and systems worked within the house, and will be introduced to circuit diagram symbols. This ties the interactive into the KS2 science curriculum. In Standen, the theme is aesthetics. One of the key novelties at Standen is the fact that electricity was built into the plans from the beginning, and thus light fittings were designed and selected iteratively to fit with the rest of the interior décor. Pupils will be prompted to consider how materials were chosen for this, and how electric lighting changed the look of a room. Lotherton represents a broader category of houses which adopted electricity slightly later, at the turn of the twentieth-century, and the theme of the questions and answers will be the social history of electricity: what different people thought of it depending on age, class and gender.

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A light fitting from Mrs. Gascoigne’s Morning Room, as compared with…
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…the lights in her husband Colonel Gascoigne’s office (the Medal Room).

The rooms have been selected to give a range of masculine and feminine rooms – such as Colonel Gascoigne‘s Medal Room or office at Lotherton Hall, and correspondingly Mrs. Gascoigne‘s Boudoir or Morning Room – and family and servant areas, such as the kitchen at Standen or butler‘s pantry at Cragside. Otherwise the clickable rooms represent the range of rooms found in a typical country house: dining room, drawing room, morning room, library, hall, kitchen.

Once the pupils have completed each of the houses in order, there will be a section which tests their understanding of the content they have just watched by asking a set of multiple choice questions. These questions will be positioned beneath an image of a circuit diagram, and each question will relate to a circuit component covered in the material over the course of the interactive. Each correct answer will place a component on the circuit diagram, and at the end, if all questions have been answered correctly, the pupil will be able to click a button to activate the circuit, for example lighting up a bulb, ringing a bell and causing a motor to turn.

We envision the interactive being used both at home and in a classroom environment. At home, the pupil would simply go through it as described above. This should take no more than 20 minutes if all the materials are viewed. In the classroom, the interactive can be projected on a large screen as a whole-class activity, and the teacher can guide the pupils through it. A pupil can be called up to select the hotspot in each room, thus involving 12 pupils in total over the course of the interactive (four rooms with one question each per house). When the question is displayed, the teacher can ask the pupils to suggest answers before clicking on it to show the video. Alternatively the teacher can pick just one of the houses to cover in this way, for example if a visit is planned or if one of the house themes is a particularly good fit with their teaching. We also intend to provide supporting resources for teachers using the interactive in this way, including information about each of the country houses, photographs used in the interactive, and further follow-up activities such as a worksheet and suggestions for related drama activities.

Candles on the table in the Dining Room at Standen.

Thanks to Leeds Media Services, with whom we are working to produce the video content for the interactive, and to our technical officer Corey Benson, who is developing the interactive itself, we will be able to use this opportunity in the classroom to demonstrate a simple, limited version of some of the interactive content to get some feedback from the pupils and their teacher. We will then be able to incorporate this into the character scripts, which will be filmed in December.

Not just a pretty space: using country houses to teach science and technology

One of the key project outputs I’m currently working on is an interactive resource for upper Key Stage 2 pupils (years 5 and 6, age 9-11 years) that tells the story of the electrification of each of the three houses together. This will be hosted on the MyLearning website, a repository for a variety of teaching resources developed by museums and other heritage organisations; please pay them a visit to have a look at other examples of interactive school resources hosted on their site.

Designing this resource is a challenging process because there’s so much involved that needs to be kept in mind. At the centre will be material from Graeme and Abigail’s research, but in order to apply this effectively it’s important to emphasise themes to which school pupils will be able to relate, and which also mesh well with the aims and objectives of the national curriculum guidelines both for history and for science. The interactive needs to draw out common themes from the histories of the three houses, Cragside, Lotherton Hall and Standen, but also must highlight what makes them individual and special.

An electric dinner gong at Cragside
One of two electric dinner gongs at Cragside – these could be used as a starting point for teaching a range of topics including science, technology and history. ©Paul Coleman

Something we’re really keen to promote in this project is that country houses were in the past – and often still are – important sites for technical innovation, and as such can be used as venues for teaching science and technology topics, for example electricity (obviously), but also energy self-sufficiency and sustainability (as I mentioned in a previous blog post). Whereas school groups are more likely to visit country houses to support history and art teaching, this interactive could encourage teachers to consider bringing pupils to a local country house for a trip to tie in with teaching about science and technology.

As demands on teachers’ time are many and varied, this interactive will provide an opportunity to investigate the potential of country houses for this in the classroom both before and after the visit. Even if a visit is not possible, the resource can still enable teachers and pupils to consider the scientific and technological heritage embodied in country houses. We’re hoping for example that teachers might be able to use this resource when putting together the local history study which is now a compulsory part of the new history curriculum.

I’ll write again soon about the specific elements we intend to include within this resource. I’m also going to put together a focus group of teachers to consult with in order to discuss the content and structure of this resource and make sure it will be useful in the classroom. If you’re a primary teacher, do you think you’d run a visit to a country house to teach about science and technology as well as art and history?