Thinking back into one’s own education, you might remember a teacher using film as a bright moment that propelled historical empathy and thinking, or an absolute bore. Thinking back on my own education, I had professors & teachers who used film artfully, using movies as a vehicle to challenge students’ perceptions of the past. Other teachers showed films to relieve a substitute teacher from having to deal with unruly students, or used it themselves to give us (and them) a break from classroom interaction. Despite the mixed use of film, I lean towards using them because they can combat teacher bias during assessment and promote democracy.
Recently, I read an article about assessment bias among teachers (Alvén, 2019), and another about whether or not teachers use film to promote critical thinking (Wagner, 2019). For the benefit of practicing teachers, I thought about how film could be used to combat the biases we have as teachers and to promote critical thinking among students. What follows are my suggestions.
Alvén, Fredrik (2019). Bias in teacher’ assessments of students’ historical narratives. History Education Research Journal, 16(2), 306-21.
Wagner, David-Alexandre (2019). Critical thinking and use of film in Norwegian lower secondary history classrooms. History Education Research Journal, 16(2), 274-90.
First, we must acknowledge that there are many types of historical films, some meant to entertain, others to be educational, and many a combination of both. Due to this, students should watch historical films while also engaging with primary sources. To make it easier on students, a teacher can preselect sources and even ask students to read the sources through key scenes. There are many places a teacher can find primary sources, the History Forge team has organized some of them at Teaching with Primary Sources. You can also allow students to find their own sources, especially if this was part of a longer project. I am especially excited about this idea if students get to select their own movie.
This idea could be part of an interdisciplinary approach in which a media and social studies teacher work together.
I believe single-national narratives can be combated by democratizing selection of films. Provide students with opportunities to watch different films which represent different perspectives. Students do not need to watch the same film, and they can be encouraged to watch films at home, during independent study hours, or if technology is available, on separate laptops in the school.
Second, we must also ask ourselves what the films are trying to represent. For instance, much of what has been taught in past history courses has been for the purpose of promoting a national narrative, something that will unite citizens together (Alven, 2019; Wagner, 2019). For this reason, many historical films provide viewers with scenes which skew history, especially in favor of a positive national past. I remember an early scene in Roland Emmerich’s movie The Patriot (2000), starring Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin, where British soldiers take enslaved Blacks away from Martin’s farm in order to be conscripted into British forces. The enslaved claim out loud towards the British soldiers that they do not wish to leave Martin’s plantation because they freely work the land. The British take them anyway. This scene offers an example of how national narratives and American mythological exceptionalism can twist history into a blatantly disrespectful disregard, especially towards the disenfranchised Black enslaved.
Third, ensure that students understand how you will grade their work. If students are going to produce some type of essay, argument, or analysis, as the teacher you must ensure that you are only grading them over specific dimensions. For instance, Fredrik’s Alvén (2019) describes three dimensions that students and teachers, consciously and subconsciously, address when they write out historical narratives. The three dimensions are “(1) the historical thinking dimension – corresponding to the scientific use of history; (2) the ethical dimension – corresponding to morality, and moral or political statements; and (3) the rhetorical dimension – corresponding to ideas of how history narratives should be linguistically formulated.” Often, teachers will only want to address the first dimension, but the other two can get in the way. A teacher might not like the political stance a student has taken, but if they reached their conclusions based on acceptable use of historical thinking, then they cannot be graded unfairly.
If students choose their own films, especially if they understand to choose films that represent alternative perspectives, there are bound to be conflicts between political and ethical stances. Creating rubrics is a great way to ensure that you only grade students based on their historical thinking.
Fourth, clarify your own understanding of what it means to comprehend and assess historical thinking. Wagner’s study (2019) of Norwegian social studies teachers suggests that teachers think they know what historical thinking is, but actually do not. Wagner interviewed teachers and asked them about historical thinking and critical thinking, which many of them believed was represented by their willingness to choose specific films. Historical thinking goes much deeper than choosing between movies, and it can focus on many different types of inquiries. Several techniques and skills comprise historical thinking, and students should practice them. If you are not familiar with these techniques and skills, I encourage you to read about them at Skills Based Grading and Grading for Mastery.