Actions speak louder than words

11th April 2008 at 01:00
In Sweden, moving image education is part of the curriculum. Emma Seith looks at how film can be used to teach some subjects

The task was set. The pupils at Lugnetgymnasiet, a high school in Falun, Sweden, were to create a piece of work about the things that affected them each day.

Two girls decided to make a documentary about the school. They highlighted the number of maintenance jobs pending and exposed the fact that the school had originally been designed to house far fewer pupils.

They interviewed their contemporaries and showed them pictures of the headteacher and the principal, asking if they knew who they were. Very few did. Yet, when they were interviewed, both the headteacher and the principal acknowledged it was important to be a familiar face.

When the girls handed in their documentary, the board and senior management team panicked and it was banned. The local press, however, got hold of the story and, according to Per Ericsson of the Swedish Film Institute, "it exploded". Ultimately, he says, the school backed down and admitted it had been wrong. And the girls, who had always had the backing of their teacher, received an "A" for their work.

"It would never have reached that point if they had written an essay," argues Mr Ericsson, who spoke last term at a national conference in Edinburgh on the Impact of the Arts. "Film makes things more public and official. Now a film can be posted on YouTube and, within days, potentially the whole world will have seen it."

That is why film education is essential, he believes: "Our world is based so much on media and moving images that we have to be good at it to make our voices heard."

In Sweden, roughly two-thirds of municipalities have school cinema programmes, with 176 out of 290 committed to delivering moving image education. In other areas, film education is being taken forward on an ad hoc basis, but that is not what Mr Ericsson - or the Swedish Film Institute - wants.

"We want local authorities to take charge of this so it's not up to one person who is good at it and wants to do it; then when they retire or leave the school, it all stops. If the local authority has it written into its school plan, there's a bigger chance of follow through."

In recent years, the number of municipalities interested in providing moving image education has grown. Since 2000, government guidelines in Sweden have stated that it should form part of the curriculum. Small start-up grants are available from the Swedish Film Institute for interested municipalities. The institute has EUR300,000 to hand out each year with no one area receiving more than EUR10,000.

Mr Ericsson is one of three people employed by the institute to spread good practice, write study guides and secure films that can be made available cheaply to Swedish schools. He liaises with 19 regional film centres where moving image education is taking place in their area.

Sweden is not planning to establish classes in film-making, he says, but wants pupils to be taught through film: "We want them to be media literate and producing their own material, but that doesn't have to be the main objective," he says.

Mr Ericsson admits that a lot of youngsters have a good idea of what they are doing, but says it is up to schools to hone these skills. "Kids can teach themselves how to write, but we teach them how to write well by making sentences and improving their rhetoric," he says.

It would be foolish to turn a blind eye to a world that has children hooked before they start nursery, he says. "They should be able to show what they can do without using text - many feel hindered by writing."

For teachers who lack confidence and feel pupils know more than they do, he advises: keep calm. "A common argument is that teachers are poorly educated: they don't know what YouTube is, they can't turn on a camera. But as an adult and a teacher you have something to contribute, even though you don't feel you're good at it. Be calm; they will find a way to explain their interest."

How Scotland fares

In Scotland, moving image education is patchy and "quite a long way" from the Swedish set-up, according to the head of education development at Scottish Screen. There are, Scott Donaldson says, "tons and tons of resources out there" but there is a lack of opportunities for teachers to experience film education in continuing professional development or initial teacher training.

South Lanarkshire has enlisted the help of Scottish Screen to train some of its teachers over the next two years, but pockets of good practice like this are rare, says Mr Donaldson. "Finding ways of developing moving image education in the classroom is not rocket science, but teachers need to be supported. There are lots of brilliant teachers who will make their way through the resources but, for the system as a whole, that's not enough. This needs to be supported from the bottom, middle and top."

Like the Swedish Film Institute, Scottish Screen feels moving image education should be about using film to teach a range of subjects. For instance, the moving image education programme in the Brechin High cluster, launched in 2004, is using film education to improve literacy through discussion and analysis of film, and to stimulate personal writing and film-making.

Mr Donaldson is hopeful that the new curriculum will allow film education to infiltrate more classrooms. The literacy outcomes and experiences recognise, he says, that reading, writing, listening and talking can be improved by more than traditional written and printed texts. And he believes that moving image education is perfectly suited to the style of learning and teaching A Curriculum for Excellence is aiming for. "It's about collaborative learning, not delivering content," he says.

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