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Classroom practice - Press play for some explosive learning

Classrooms everywhere are going dark as teachers embrace the power of film to engage otherwise hard-to-reach students

Classrooms everywhere are going dark as teachers embrace the power of film to engage otherwise hard-to-reach students

Bruce Willis once taught maths. And physics. And chemistry. All at the same time. Wearing just a vest.

It was during the fourth Die Hard instalment, and he was trapped inside a road tunnel. You don't remember? It went like this: the bad guys were hovering outside the tunnel in a helicopter, and Bruce, soaked in blood and sweat, was searching for a way out. His eye fell on a car. He paused, presumably to do some rather tough calculations, because what happened next was nothing short of genius. He drove the vehicle at the perfect speed to launch it at the perfect angle to propel it through the air to the perfect point where it hit the helicopter and caused the perfect exothermic chemical reaction: a massive blockbuster explosion.

The audience is left stunned. With good reason: Bruce Willis is demonstrating some quite unbelievable science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) skills.

OK, so the audience is actually drooling over expensive special effects but you get the picture: movies don't have to be just a distraction to occupy agitated students at the end of term or last thing on a Friday afternoon. Whoever they star, whether it be Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham, Christian Bale in Batman Begins, Kermit in the latest instalment of The Muppets or, indeed, Bruce Willis in Die Hard, films can be a valuable resource in the classroom, inspiring engagement where before there was apathy, bringing a fresh twist to subjects that young people may view as staid and irrelevant.

"Film is a uniquely engaging medium and should be used across the curriculum, in all subjects," says Jane Fletcher, schools support director at the UK charity FILMCLUB, which works with and provides extensive film resources to more than 7,000 schools. "It is as important and as useful as a book."

Some may scoff at that comment, particularly those who still believe that film is in some way educationally inferior to books. These are the people who have visions of teachers closing the blinds, sticking The Cure For Insomnia in the DVD player for 5,220 minutes (the film is the longest ever shown in a cinema, according to the IMDb) and catching up with their planning while the students are occupied.

Good use of film in the classroom - which is what FILMCLUB recommends - is nothing like that. For a start, Fletcher stresses that in terms of cross- curricular film use, she is talking about clips, not full-length screenings. "There simply isn't time to spend a whole lesson watching a film, and you don't need to. Although, obviously, students can watch the whole film in their own time," she says.

Film clips are widely available on YouTube and you can also use television-on-demand services. It is easiest, however, simply to skip through a DVD and play the section you need.

Fletcher says the film also has to be relevant to the topic being studied and it must add something to the learning process. "The teachers need to choose the appropriate film for the lesson. We aim to support teachers in giving them the right films for the right subjects and the right situations," she says.

Schools that are already using film across the curriculum extensively have their own tips, too. Shaun Furzer, leader of digital learning at Goffs School, Hertfordshire, says that playing film clips as starters to lessons can be extremely effective.

"We used clips from Bend It Like Beckham to highlight issues of growing up as well as around gender stereotypes," he reveals. "The right film can give students a point of reference, and it helps to introduce topics that are sometimes difficult to bring up out of nothing in the class."

He adds that you should also show films in different ways. One of the school's recent strategies has been to provide QR codes on worksheets that students can scan with their mobile phones, which then automatically show a relevant clip.

Karl Pearce, headteacher at Earl Soham Community Primary School, Suffolk, meanwhile, says that using films creatively is also key. With the short film The Piano by Aidan Gibbons (bit.lyPianoAnimation), he first played the soundtrack to his students, then played the film with no sound, and then played both together. "It really made them think about music, imagery and how these things impact perceptions," he says. "They produced so much amazing written work on these themes."

And Jenni Philbin, a teacher at Heage Primary School in Derbyshire, winner of the 2013 FILMCLUB of the Year Award, advises that films should not be used in isolation. She is currently teaching biography and is giving the children both the film Marley amp; Me and the book it is based on, so they can compare the two and uncover themes to write about.

Reel results

For some critics, these examples mean little without hard proof that film can work. FILMCLUB says it has that proof. In a survey of its members, it found that:

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