The benefits of using film to teach History

Robert Lloyd Williams

History blogger, documentary maker and Deputy Head at Monkton Prep, Robert Lloyd Williams is a regular contributor to Squaducations’ 60 Second Histories. He's a big rugby, cricket and tennis fan, as well as a lover of history and wine!

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I’m probably showing my age with this story. I was 14. It was after a sports lesson. I was tired. It was Geography. The teacher arrived at the classroom in an excited state. We were going to the A.V. room. This was indeed exciting. You must understand that this was before the days of interactive whiteboards, YouTube - using computers, indeed. Classrooms were not equipped to show moving images, so we all had to decamp to a different room set up for this very purpose. It was not even in the same block.


We walked outside where it was raining and "Mostly gone are the days when an entire film can be shown."dark and took a seat in this “new” Audio Visual room. The member of staff put on a video for us to watch. It was 30 minutes long and entitled  ‘Understanding wave patterns’. It was going to show how waves near Swanage, I think, affected coastal patterns. It involved “groynes” which excited the girls; but I don’t really think they really understood that it was not what they thought. The video was inserted into the machine, the teacher unwound the remote control and plugged it in. The lights were turned off and we waited. For the next half an hour a man in flared trousers, a sweater and with a very dull voice and a large beard explained all about waves. The quality of the recording left a lot to be desired, and it was hard to hear him at times – because of those very waves he was talking about! I fell asleep and was only woken when the member of staff put the lights back on and declared that the lesson was over. To this day I have no real understanding of how waves affect our coastline – but I am sure it is interesting. As Alfie Wickers (Jack Whitehall) said in Bad Education, “Teachers live by an ancient code as old as time… If you’re out of your depth, put on a video”.

The set up today is very different. Classrooms have their own access to a whole range of resources. There’s YouTube, the BBC website, Oxford University Press’ Kerboodle digital platform, TeacherTube, teaching channels, iTunes U and a vast array of other sites where you can download or stream “video” content, as I will call it from now on, either for free or for a fee.

It is interesting to note over the last few years how the duration of these films or clips have been reduced in duration. I can remember the BBC ZigZag programmes, which children thoroughly enjoyed, lasting 18 minutes. Other educational programmes made for TV were 20 or 30 minutes long. Now the clip is much shorter with greater focus to concentrate on one issue, area or concept.

Children today are used to being entertained in a visual way that is unrecognisable only five years ago. At home many will have at least two screens on the go at any one time, and content has to be very fast paced, imaginative and often interactive to hold their imagination. Educational video content and teaching have had to try and keep up with this, and its use has to be sharply focused. Mostly gone are the days when an entire film can be shown, especially at a younger age. Various clips are shown instead. Some of this is due to extreme time pressure to get through a syllabus, and some of it is because concentration levels are lower and the point that needs to be made can be lost.

There have been a huge number of studies on the effect of video in education. In 1956 the educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom divided up how we learn into three ‘Domains of learning’:

  • Cognitive (including content knowledge, the development of intellectual skills, recalling information in its basic form to analysing and evaluating it),
  • Affective (how does one approach learning – including feeling, values, appreciation, enthusiasms, motivations and attitudes) and
  • Psychomotor (includes physical movement, coordination and the use of motor-skill areas).

This in turn has led to how video content has an effect on the first two in particular. Barron (1989) said that, “The use of video to ‘anchor’ instruction resulted in improved vocabulary use, greater understanding of plot, characterisation and an increased ability to draw influences based on historical information.” Fisch (2008) said that “The viewing of Sesame Street was documented over 35 years. Viewers showed significantly greater growth in a variety of academic skills.” Cowen (1984), “Visual media makes concepts more accessible.” Saloman (1979) “Data suggests that people learn abstract, new and novel concepts more easily when presented in a verbal and visual form.”

With its use of sight and sound, video is perfect for auditory and visual learners. In 1998 The Visual Teaching Alliance said that at least 65% of pupils are visual learners. This has been backed up in further studies. Well-focused video certainly stimulates and engages pupils and its sensory experience brings to life people and events. You can hear from the very people you are studying, see the places you are learning about, the experiments you are performing and the plays, books you are reading as well as see how the music you are listening to can be used to convey emotion. Pupils can experience worlds and cultures beyond and before their own. Film can give life to and dramatise an idea or activity. Video has the ability to communicate with viewers on an emotional and cognitive level, which in turn has an impact on affective learning.

Visual messages are processed in a different part of the brain than that which processes textual and linguistic learning. The Limbic system, a complex system of nerves and networks in the brain near the edge of the cortex concerned with"It is also useful for students to be able to have access to what they have seen independently." instinct and mood, responds by triggering instinct, emotion and impulse. “Memory is strongly influenced by emotion with the result that video has a powerful ability to relay experience and influence learning.” (Noble 1983). As P.J. Silva further states, interest plays a wonderful role in the growth of knowledge and expertise. Focusing on short clips will pinpoint key information and enhance attention. Students can be an active participant in their studies, not a passive observer.

It is thought that as a practice using video is better used at the start or end of a lesson as this increases engagement. It is also useful for students to be able to have access to what they have seen independently so that they can view it for themselves, further enhancing understanding. With new advances in IT and individual school learning platforms such as Firefly or Moodle, this is becoming increasingly easy to do. Video though must not be seen as a treat rather the teacher needs to model its use as an academic source.

With the ability to pause, rewind and slow down clips, the process is not merely one when the teacher sits back. Instead, it’s a process that sees them challenge pupils; it is now a vital and central part of the learning process. Flexible and challenging, media sources today have very high production quality capable of showcasing complex issues and ideas in a short period of time. There is such a variety of resources available today that are both visually stimulating and often interactive, as well as covering a very wide selection of topics. Popular media, such as YouTube, music, films and Twitter are so familiar to students that they gain and maintain interest.

No-one is saying that video is the only answer or the panacea to all our troubles. Critics point to video as hampering imagination and originality. Reading a book remains a critical part of education and will remain so for ever, as far as I’m concerned. Well used, well focused use of video can help stimulate, interest, explain events, concepts, ideas and much more when used a part of a combination of approaches. Linking video with textbooks, workbooks, teacher presentations, stories, and artefacts is essential to its best use. It should not and cannot be used in isolation. TV and video are among the first cultural experiences of most children in the UK today. The ability to make and share films brings this to a new level and allows students to participate in their making as well as watch. The presentation of information is a critical skill and critiquing productions will only increase their awareness of what works and what does not.

From my own experience I cannot remember wave formations – not because I was not interested, but because the video in question was poorly presented and poorly introduced. The resultant work, with a very dull worksheet, seemed to bear no relevance to what we had watched and we were left with the feeling that the 30 minutes allocated to this were to help a tired teacher and tired pupils. The answer of how to combat this is another topic. Needless to say we all learn from our own experience, either good or bad. Videoing lessons and watching them back – now that is a very salutary learning experience.

How do you utilise video in the classroom? Let us know in the comments.

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