Humanities - Moving pictures

Films can bring a vivid reality to historical events

A quick glance at your timetable reveals you have the untamed Year 8s for the final lesson, again. On the last occasion you went home exhausted and questioned the reasons you ever joined the profession. Suddenly the flicker of an idea - "Why don't I show a film?"

You know this will definitely cover two of your lessons, but will probably be hard to explain to the head of department or senior leadership team member who drops in uninvited. So when is it justifiable to show films to pupils?

I believe one of the most common mistakes teachers make is to show the whole film. There are occasions when this is necessary, but using only parts is often more rewarding. A clip at the start of the lesson is a way of drawing the students in. Watching a speech by Hitler, a scene of the trenches or concentration camp is a fantastic way of getting pupils to make assumptions or even try to guess the lesson objective.

By their very nature, films are often sensationalised for the purpose of attracting the audience. This gives the teacher of history a perfect lesson in interpretations. For example, you could start a sequence of lessons with clips from Elizabeth and get pupils to write their own Wikipedia page about the queen based on what they have seen. Then you could use other primary and secondary sources to establish how accurate a picture of the queen the film was.

Recently, I got students to investigate the backgrounds of filmmakers of a series of films about the Vietnam war they were using as evidence for their coursework. By doing this, some were able to suggest reasons why a film might have had a pro-America or anti-America slant. Similarly, studying some of the American and Russian movies from the 1950s and '60s provides an interesting insight into the attitudes of the Cold War.

Watching clips from Schindler's List encourages children to engage with conditions in a concentration camp and to empathise with the inmates' struggle for survival. Having a selection of screen shots from the film on PowerPoint is a useful way to review and discuss key moments, and helps students remember them for feedback.

Films are definitely an important visual tool for teaching some themes and topics in history. Just remember: you don't have to show the whole thing.

Dan Hartley is head of history and religious studies at a Devon comprehensive

What else?

In the forums

Check out a discussion initiated by a history teacher on whether the use of video clips in class is allowed.

Look at recommendations of good DVDs for key stage 3 and GCSE history students.

Get advice on videos to help teach the Industrial Revolution.

Try tips on useful videos about the Battle of Hastings.

All resources and forum links at

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