Learning about the Victorians with Charles Dickens

Context based learning via an HTML package

Derek P Robertson

This article first appeared in MAPE Focus on History Spring 2000

(Note the hyperlinks in this article are not live.)


Mr. Togs the Tailor has had a distinct influence on the learning environment that I try to create in the classroom. No, he was not a fine artisan noted for his tweed jackets with leather elbow patches but a character created by a primary 2 class in a thematic study. This context-based learning was featured in the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum document Mr. Togs the Tailor-A Context for Learning. Documents such as this and Some Aspects of Thematic Work (SCCC) championed the thematic approach to learning when I was a student in the early nineties. It is, Mr. Togs then, who is responsible for the contextualising of the curriculum that I offer the children and for a colleague of mine appearing as Scrooge at the Christmas Party (thanks Gordon), The Rainbow People, Mr & Mrs Litterbug and for the context about which I will now expand.

Creating context HTML based learning environment

One of my favourite authors is Charles Dickens so when I was faced with an environmental studies project on the Victorians I was very keen to convey the enthusiasm I have for his writing in a relevant and exciting context. I decided to create a context using Adobe PageMill that would introduce The Ghost of Charles Dickens to the children. The idea I had was that The Ghost of Charles Dickens, via the PC, would direct the children's learning. The class came in one afternoon and was left to see if they would notice the following message on the screen...

 Hello, Hello!!!

Is there anyone out there?

If anyone is out there and can read this
please click HERE

Someone did notice the message and before long this strange scenario was the focus of class intrigue.

Thank goodness somebody got my message!

Allow me to introduce myself...


My name is Charles Dickens. Yes, I know that may seem hard to believe but I am Charles Dickens, the famous Victorian novelist. I think some of you may know of some of my stories, particularly one about a man named Ebenezer Scrooge.

What was that book called?

Click HERE to get the answer.


_Yes, I may be dead, but like many of my stories I am alive in spirit. I understand you are about to study the Victorians. Is that correct Mr Robertson?

Click HERE if that is correct. I think it might be!

I had set the context so that it would build on something that the children already knew about Charles Dickens, i.e. he wrote A Christmas Carol.

Good! Well I am willing to help you explore this project if you wish. You may well ask why I want to do this. Well I will tell you.

The Victorian times were good times for many people but tough times for many, many more. I wrote about the difference in peoples' lives in my novels.

During our journey together you will find out what it was like to be at school, what kind of work you would have been expected to do and what kind of toys you would have played with in these times. You will also find out about some famous Victorian people and how many of the Christmas customs the Victorians had are still alive today.

Click HERE for your first assignment.

They followed the on screen instructions and came to the first introductory assignment.

Assignment 1

Find out why the Victorian times got this name and when they were.

Click here for an answer

I had them in that instant. This was not just another exercise with Mr. Robertson but something mysterious that was worthy of further investigation and it just so happened that Mr. Robertson had the materials ready that would allow them to complete this exercise!

One of the girls used PageMill to create a response to the first assignment.

Some of the more mature children had deduced that I was responsible for this set-up but were willing to go along with the fun. The others were rather unsure of how I had managed to get in touch with The Ghost of Charles Dickens but were particularly motivated by the whole scenario. All the children were keen to see what Charles Dickens had in store for them next.

Other Context based Activities

The activities were designed so that the children could learn about and learn through ICT. My key learning focus was environmental studies based but would allow me to develop certain areas of English Language and also webpage construction.

Assignment 2

Mr. Robertson is going to introduce you to a novel of mine called, Nicholas Nickleby. In it I created a nasty character called Wackford Squeers. He was the schoolmaster at a school for boys called Dotheboys Hall.

I want you to listen to the tape recording of his description and draw your impression of what he would have looked like.


Assignment 3

In the book there is a terrible scene where the boys are given brimstone and treacle - a disgusting medicine of the time that made you feel worse than you already were! Listen to the tape recording of this scene then try the following activity.

Draw or paint how you think that scene may have looked How might that scene have looked?


Assignment 4

Imagine that you are one of the boys at Dotheboys Hall. Write a letter to your parents telling them of the happenings here. Do you like it here or do you want to come home?


Dotheboy's Hall

5th November 1838

Dear mother and father,

Dotheboys Hall is a terrifying place to be. Some things here are drastic and horrible. Human-beings should not be treated so badly as they are treated here.

Ross is the only person in the class that hasn't been hit with the cane. One day the class was as cold as the Antarctic. Ross came with just a t-shirt. His t-shirt was very thin and his teeth started to chatter. He got sent into the corner. His teeth began to chatter a thousand times a minute. It got louder, Wackford Squeers screamed, "Come here!" Ross' lips were blue, he was full of fear. Wackford Squeers hit him with the cane for the first time. Wackford Squeers hit Ross so badly that he went blind.

Please come and get me and take me away from this place. I'm begging you with my life.

Love from


How successful was this approach?

Although I did not deliver this entire topic via this medium I found that the motivation levels engendered by Charles' Ghost were distinctly obvious. The context related work produced by the children was of a particularly high standard and there is also strong evidence that the children have shown greater retention of the learning achieved under the tutelage of The Ghost of Charles Dickens.

Because the context and the activities were tailored to create a relevant and meaningful learning experience the children were able to empathise with the conditions in a Victorian school. I felt that the context created significantly helped to achieve the attainment outcomes I had planned for. It also made the learning fun and exciting for the children.

Developing and extending this approach

The learning environment in this topic was targeted at developing an empathy with the conditions in Victorian schools. I plan to further develop this so that it is particularly relevant to the cultural heritage of Dundee and its surrounding area. There are two excellent museums that celebrate particular aspects of Dundee's cultural heritage. My intention is that I create learning environments, within the context of 'Charles' ghost', that are directly related to these establishments which are:

Discovery Point

A museum built around Captain Scott's Antarctic exploration ship, The Discovery, which was built in Dundee

Verdant Works

A working museum that documents Dundee's rich association with the textile industry.
Dundee City Council has appointed four ICT Staff Tutors (Primary) who are responsible for supporting ICT in our primary schools, all of which have been furnished with a local network and a suite of software. Textease is one of the featured programs on this system and is being used to great effect by many of our staff and pupils at the moment. The intention is that we will use Textease to create learning environments such as The Ghost of Charles Dickens and that they will be readily available to teachers on their individual school network.

I believe that as teachers we must be just as concerned with how children retain their learning as we are with how they learn. The arguments offered and successes achieved with characters such as Mr. Togs and The Ghost of Charles Dickens have convinced me that contextual learning is a tool that teachers, with a bit of imagination, can utilise to great effect in order to facilitate learning.


Whitfield Primary School:

Dundee City Council:

Discovery Point

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