An analytical approach to the moving image is vital in our multimedia world. And, as Chris Johnston reports, using film, video and television can help all teachers get their message across
Despite the long-held belief that much of what kids like to watch on television rots their brains, many parents seem only too grateful that the box acts as an electronic babysitter.
The present generation of school pupils were weaned on videos of Bob the Builder and other animated characters, and have spent far more hours watching television and movies than they have reading books.
According to a survey by global market research company NOP late last year, one-third of children under six watch television for between two and six hours a day. David Bell, chief inspector of schools, recently reprimanded parents for plonking kids in front of the television rather than talking to or playing with them.
So it is hardly surprising that many teachers, particularly those new to the profession, do not spend much time thinking about using video and other forms of moving image in the classroom.
Cary Bazalgette, head of education development at the British Film Institute, says this tendency stems from teachers feeling they do not have "permission" to use moving images in their lessons because they are deemed to be suspect and unworthy compared with the printed word.
Even those who find the idea appealing, wrongly assume it demands much technical expertise and experience, and requires hoards of expensive equipment.
Bazalgette says newly qualified teachers are not getting the training they need to be able to use moving image effectively in the classroom partly because teacher trainers are not well versed and need help themselves.
What's more, potential teachers with an interest in the moving image, such as graduates of media studies courses, are unlikely to get a place in a teacher training college because they have not studied a national curriculum subject. Yet there are compelling reasons why teachers should recognise and capitalise on the televisual experience children bring with them to school, says Bazalgette.
Researchers from the United States have found that children who are good at understanding television programmes and recalling storylines are also better readers. Bazalgette says the University of Minnesota study, which considered a group of children at six years of age and again two years later, suggests that children who are encouraged to think about their viewing have a confidence with texts that spills over to their reading.
She advises teachers to look for opportunities to relate pupils' viewing experiences to what goes on in the classroom. "We need to move on from asking them simply to tell the story, to prompting for responses to it," she says. "In a science show about genetically modified crops, for example, you could ask if the information offered could be better - does it tell you the whole story?" And if the class reacts to a particular part of a show, it can be a good idea to look more closely at it.
New teachers should look at their school's policies and determine what their department is trying to achieve, Bazalgette recommends. "If there are opportunities for getting into creative work then do it, but you don't have to spend half a term making a film. Why not see whether students could make a video instead of writing a history essay?"
One school that has wholeheartedly embraced the moving image is Robin Hood primary in Birmingham. Ann Aston, its deputy head and a member of the BFI's primary education working group, says her school introduced a visual literacy scheme a year ago.
"If it was important in the past to be able to read and compose text, now it's a multimedia age and it's just as important that children are able to understand material on television and the web," she says.
Critics may argue that teaching pupils about the conventions of editing and shot composition will not help them pass exams, but that is a view Aston rejects. "We're not here to help them jump through test hoops; we're trying to give them an education for the age they live in," she says.
She underlines the point by explaining how enthusiastic a group of nine-year-old special needs pupils were about making a video on the good and bad points of their school. They would have found writing an essay difficult, she says, but that task encouraged them to articulate their ideas in order to have them incorporated into the video.
"Text is important, but what we are saying is that communication is much wider than it used to be and the ability to be critical about visual material is now vital," Aston says.
Neither do teachers necessarily need a lot of expensive equipment. Year 2 pupils have been making short animations using a laptop and a cheap webcam.
New teachers in schools that do not pay as much attention to the moving image as Robin Hood are advised by Aston not to give up easily. She recommends seeking out staff members who are also interested in helping their pupils become more visually literate, as well as knocking on the head's door for resources.
Philippa Thompson, a community teacher with Sheffield Early Years Education and Childcare, and another member of the BFI working group, understands why new teachers might be more concerned about fitting in to their new school than proposing ways of teaching visual literacy. However, she argues this is the time teachers are at their most enthusiastic and ought to try new ideas.
Thompson suggests that a good starting point is to find out what children are interested in and to reflect that in their teaching. "Tuning in to what they are about is the key," she says. "It's about engaging learning and going across the curriculum. Teaching things like narrative structure and character development can be so exciting when you use moving images."
In her experience, doubtful teachers only have to see how excited and motivated pupils can be when working with moving images to be converted.
But until teachers have the opportunity to experiment with resources such as a digital video camera or editing software and play with the order of shots or the soundtrack, they will fail to appreciate the power of the technology.