Movies in the Classroom: Teaching History With Film

Visual learners will enjoy knowing more about history with these films.

Be honest—do you still remember the car crash videos that you watched in your Driver’s Education class in high school? If you don’t, you might at least recall that the videos had an effect on you or at least some of your classmates. Your teacher showed you those videos because lectures about the dangers of bad driving don’t work with all students. Neither do books laden with statistics.

For many high school students, and adults too quite frankly, pictures really are worth a thousand words.

That’s how many people learn, and that's why teaching history with film is a great way to make an otherwise potentially tedious subject a blast to get into.

This is all well and good, but is video actually preferable over the written word when it comes to retention, education, and experience? Definitely, or at least according to an article in the Huffington Post entitled Research Confirms Video Improves Learning Results. It is based on a survey taken of 500 educational professionals from 300 different educational institutes.

According to the results of the survey, video “may be the best way to improve learning styles, especially when it comes to remembering key facts and figures.”

“Forrester Research estimates one minute of online video equates to approximately 1.8 million written words,” wrote author Michal Tsur of Kaltura, the company that conducted the survey.

“In addition, 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual, and visuals are processed 60,000 times faster in the brain than text. This indicates visual education aids like video can improve learning styles and increase the rate at which we retain information.”

What this means is that we are inherently visual learners. 

There is plenty of other evidence that videos help students. For example, this article from the University of Queensland summarizes several studies about the impact of video on learning as well as on engaging students. An article in Scholastica entitled How Video Can Help Students, and Teachers, Learn praises the concept of flipped classrooms, which include students watching videos at home and then discussing them with teachers in the classroom. Finally, the article 7 Reasons Students Learn Better With Video reports that 94 percent of teachers use videos effectively.

The research on the educational value of videos is compelling, but do popular movies have educational value? The research on this topic is less compelling. Movies designed for mass audiences are focused on entertainment. Consequently, they are often inaccurate. Too many characters can make a movie too difficult to follow so directors have, for example, combined two or more real-life characters into one. This was done in Schindler’s List with a few of Schindler’s Jewish employees.

 Video can improve learning styles and increase the rate at which we retain information—we are inherently visual learners.

In a study of classrooms where popular movies were used as a teaching tool, psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis tested whether students learned more by reading books or watching popular movies.

“When the psychologists tested all the students a week later, the verdict for classroom movies was one thumb up, one thumb down,” reported the Scientific American article I Learned It at the Movies--Hollywood as a Teacher. 

“Watching the films did clearly help the students learn more, but only when the information was the same in both text and film...But when the information in the film and the reading were contradictory -- that is, when the film was inaccurate -- the students were more likely to recall the film’s distorted version.”

Despite the mixed results, the article concludes that, “Even films that are historically inaccurate can be a valuable teaching tool” and should be shown in classrooms.

Students Should Debate Movies

Why should partly inaccurate movies be shown in the classroom? In short, you are the reason. A good teacher, the article says, can more than make up for a movie’s shortcomings.” In addition, teachers should not just show popular movies in class. They should, among other things, also:

  • Show documentaries that are more precise than popular movies about the same topic.
  • Discuss the impact of popular movies on the culture, even when they are inaccurate or misleading.
  • Discuss why they selected the movies they showed. You might, for example, select a movie more for its portrayal of life in the era that your class is studying rather than to convey information about an important event. The movie might, in fact, be fiction.
  • Ask their students to think critically about the movies viewed, particularly the controversial ones. Students should be able to challenge the viewpoint of a movie’s writers and directors.
  • Ask their students to complete written and oral reports about one or more movies.
  • Ask their students to debate a movie with each other as well as the teacher. You could, for example, organize students into groups that are asked to convey pro-, anti- and neutral positions about the American Revolution.
  • If applicable, discuss the book that the movie is based on. Emphasizing the differences between the book and the movie might help students understand why movie directors sometimes seek to boost viewership instead of being completely accurate.

There are many reasons to show movies, documentaries and popular movies, in class. This article lists six, including the fact that movies can help boost students’ cultural awareness about different ways of life and can help students understand the themes of books.

“Theme (messages about life) can be explored by teaching with a film, not just a text,” writes Joy Sexton. “For the most part, students can have a hard time determining themes in literature, so what better way to get them engaged in theme discussions than using a great movie?”

10 Great Choices for Teaching History with Film

We will now list movies that can be utilized with great effect in Social Studies/History classes. In many cases, teachers can also find online resources that will help them with lesson plans for these movies.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

For starters, this movie shows students that “old movies” can be really good. It tells the fictional story of World War I from a soldier’s perspective.

After watching it, teachers can talk to students about the importance of war, whether wars can be good, what causes wars, and how wars affect people.

In this case, teachers can discuss how World War I was a factor in World War II. This movie is one of about 175 movies that an educational company named Shmoop provides an online analysis of, including themes and questions. Here is its analysis of this movie.

2. All the President's Men (1976)

This movie is very pertinent to today because it is about an investigation of a president, Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974 because of corruption allegations against him. The movie, which is based on a book by The Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, gives teachers a chance to talk about the importance of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, the role of the press in a democracy, how the U.S. presidency and the nation’s legislative and judicial branches work, and current events. Here is Shmoop’s analysis of the movie.

3. The Birth of a Nation (1915)

This is an offensive movie but an important one. For a silent movie, it is so racist that you should get feedback from parents and school administrators before you show it, as it could cause a firestorm. If your students are mature, though, this fictional movie can be an excellent way to discuss how movies affect culture. It revived the Ku Klux Klan and affected attitudes toward African-Americans. Here is Shmoop’s analysis. Gone with the Wind is another pro-slavery fictional movie that could trigger a discussion about a movie spurring racism. Both movies can be part of your lessons on the Civil War and its aftermath.

4. The Deer Hunter (1978)

The Vietnam War might be the topic of more excellent movies than any other subject. This article lists 10 of them, and The Deer Hunter is ranked No. 1. Many Vietnam War movies show the effect of war on soldiers and the people who love them, but not quite like Michael Cimino's intense and jarring masterpiece. This is pertinent today because many students know veterans of the Vietnam War and the more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

5. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

This movie can be shown in Social Studies or English classes. If John Steinbeck’s novel is part of your English curriculum, show it in English class.

Social Studies teachers trying to convey the horrors of the Great Depression should consider showing this 1940 movie about Oklahomans who migrated to California to find work in their class.

Director Frank Capra made several fictional movies portraying life in the Depression, including It’s a Wonderful Life which Shmoop analyzes here.

6. Hoop Dreams (1994)

On this list of the 30 greatest sports movies, No. 1 is Hoop Dreams. This is a documentary about two high school basketball players that excels at portraying the struggles of African-Americans. Brian’s Song, which is about a relationship between a dying white athlete and a black athlete when interracial friendships were rare, is also worth a look.

7. Johnny Tremaine (1943)

You can probably name 10 excellent Westerns, but can you name one great movie about the American Revolution? We’re not ashamed to admit we couldn’t and had to research the topic. Here is an article about the top 10 movies about the American Revolution. We chose Johnny Tremaine which is No. 5 on the list because it’s a Disney film for young adults and is also based on the novel, so it can be used by Social Studies and English teachers.

8. Phildelphia (1993)

Teaching students about the struggle of Americans who weren’t white men for more rights is crucial. In recent decades, gay rights has been, perhaps, the most pertinent human rights issue. Philadelphia is about a fictional attorney who was fired because he was a gay man with AIDS.

9. Schindler's List (1993)

Classes about World War II that focus on military battles are a mistake.

How about discussing whether the Allies could or should have done more to destroy concentration camps?

Or whether the U.S. should have let in more immigrants like the Frank family fleeing the Nazis? Schindler’s List, which portrayed an actual Nazi business executive saving thousands of Jews, shows that people could have done more. The film's final scene, in which Oskar Schindler emotionally berates himself for not doing everything he feels he could have to save Jewish lives, is heart-rending. Here is Shmoop’s analysis of the film.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Students could learn a lot about U.S. history by watching movies that depict injustice against 20th century African-Americans. To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent example. The fact that a child tells the fictional story makes it even better for classes.

Teaching History with Film is an Adventure

Historically, a large percentage of Social Studies students have complained that history is boring. Memorizing facts just doesn’t interest them, many of them have repeatedly said. Showing popular movies in class can not only change students’ perspectives about history, but it can also spur them to watch more fictional and non-fiction movies about history. It might even spur them to think more analytically about history and read more books!

We hope teaching history with film works in your classes. Good luck!