Every picture tells a story

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Video and ICT offer new ways to generate class debate. Russel Tarr looks at some examples

The potential offered by video as a teaching and learning aid in the history classroom extends way beyond asking students to answer structured questions based around a 30-minute programme. Primary footage, feature films and historical documentaries offer varied and stimulating ways into key topics.


Primary footage enlivens history, allowing students to reach their own judgments by watching events unfold before their eyes. An investigation into whether Emily Davison intended to commit suicide at the 1913 Derby can start with primary sources about her character and career, but most revealing is the footage from the race, which enables students to decide for themselves whether Davison was intent on becoming a martyr or was merely trying to disrupt the race. Footage exists from two different angles, providing the opportunity for comparison. The first clip can be found on the British Pathe site (www.britishpathe.com), which contains 3,500 hours worth of freely downloadable footage from 1896 to 1970. The second clip can be found at the British Film Institute's site (www.screenonline.org.uk), where many hard-to-find films and television programmes from the 1890s to the present are represented by thousands of video extracts and analyses by expert writers.


Another great advantage of contemporary footage is that it illustrates how primary sources, far from being the most reliable, are often so wrapped up in the events described that they are completely biased. Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator opens with a merciless spoof of Hitler's rallies and speech-making techniques. Students could suggest when they think the film was made, based on the fact that he is clearly being depicted as something of a joke. Once they are made aware that the film was made when Hitler was at the height of his power, they should offer reasons why Chaplin has nevertheless chosen to depict him as a figure of ridicule. This can then be compared to Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will to deduce how far the first piece is an accurate representation of the truth. This in turn raises the issue of what the truth actually is; and even if unreliable, are such sources still useful?

Movies and TV shows

Feature films provide invaluable source material for classroom use. The 1979 version of All Quiet on the Western Front provides an opportunity to look at the war from a German perspective and to consider whether this is something we should do more often. The final 20 minutes sees the main character coming home on leave and then returning to battle, providing an excellent way of illustrating both the detachment soldiers developed from normal life and the intense loyalty they developed for each other. The original book was banned both by Poland (for being too pro-German) and by Germany (for being too anti-German), so it is well worth asking the students which point of view they think has the most validity.

Movies also raise interesting questions about the "Hollywoodisation of History". Elizabeth (1998) opens with a three-minute clip showing the burning of Latimer and Ridley which can be compared to primary sources in order to highlight essential differences. This then leads into a discussion about what the director has left out and added, why he probably did so and whether his distortion of the truth is of any consequence. Another idea is to compare clips from two movies dealing with the same topic. Comparing the trial and execution scenes from Cromwell (1970) on the one hand and To Kill a King (2003) on the other allows students to decide which one is the most educational, which is the most entertaining, and which quality is more important in a feature film.

The potential offered by ICT

A number of search engines, including www.excite.co.uk and www.av.com now have the ability to search for audio and video files. Adding swf to a search query in Google also allows users to target Macromedia Flash movie files, which have the added benefit of being very compact. These can be downloaded on to a local intranet and used in class "off the peg". In addition, the software package History Live (pound;350 at www.nelsonthornes.comsecondaryhistoryhistorylive) provides assignments on key GCSE topics based around video clips from the ITN archives and is designed to be networked within the school. Each TV-Rom in the Channel 4 Clipbank series (pound;47 at www.4learningshop.co.uk) contains 30-40 minutes of video clips which can be copied and pasted into student presentations and reports; the accompanying website (www.channel4.comlearningmicrositesCclipbank-lessonplanshistory) contains suggested lesson plans. More flexible, however, is the ability to digitise your own video clips from VHS. A piece of software such as Pinnacle Studio (Pounds 41.99 from Amazon) allows you to digitise your departmental video collection and store it on CD-Rom or on a local hard-drive.

Digital cameras now have the facility for recording movie clips complete with sound, making it simple to film students doing role plays to be edited using Windows Movie Maker before being hosted on the intranet or school website. I recently recorded two students giving opposing interpretations of the Arab-Israeli conflict and then put these on to the departmental website. Students were then asked to consider what the two commentators agreed about (matters of fact) and what they disagreed about (issues of interpretation). This was more engaging than simply providing two written accounts, and will provide a starting point for students producing videos next year on the same topic.

Russel Tarr teaches history and is head of web development at Wolverhampton Grammar School. He is also the author of the website www.activehistory.co.uk

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