Pedagogy: Video killed the teaching star

Written by: Paul Gammans | Published:
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‘What is it with teachers and an obsession with playing films in the classroom? Call me a ...

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The use of film and video clips in the classroom is common, but Paul Gammans believes it is often done without justification, adding nothing to learning outcomes and switching pupils off learning. He presents his arguments and then offers some practical advice for how film might be better used by teachers

What is it with teachers and an obsession with playing films in the classroom? Call me a Neanderthal if you like, but in my opinion, there is no video on Earth that is a replacement for good old fashioned teaching. Not even in HD.

Everyone knows the old adage that teachers can’t work the video player. Like many of you, I remember sitting in class, the teacher wheeling in the trolley with an (even then) ancient CRT TV and VCR, then spending half the lesson calling every other teacher in the department to help them to work it.

We would then sit there all lesson, doodling in our books, whispering about beating each other on Street Fighter after school and generally not paying much attention.

This model hasn’t changed much, except that now the TV trolleys are more advanced. Most classrooms have computers, projectors or even interactive whiteboards to play the films on.

However, with all this extra equipment comes even more technical pitfalls for the teacher as the media player doesn’t have the right codec installed or the network connection for the online video is lost.

The arguments for video

There are two main arguments I repeatedly hear for showing films in class. First, watching the film will help pupils to remember the story and in particular will cater for visual learners in the group.

The reality, however, is that far from helping them to understand, using film versions of studied texts can in fact be confusing for pupils. I have lost count of how many exam papers I have marked in which pupils have written about Lady Macbeth jumping out of the window or Romeo shooting Tybalt after Tybalt shot Mercutio. Because the “visual learners” will indeed remember it, the image of Leonardo DiCaprio on a beach is the one that will stick, not the harder-to-understand Shakespearean text that they glossed over in their other lessons.

Second, watching the film breaks up their education and gives them a chance to relax and “do something fun”. The reality: while I agree that we should be using a range of media, including video, to give our lessons variety, what I have seen far too often is pupils sat bored in front of a two-hour film which takes up two full lessons. Pupils watch the whole film from start to finish while the teacher marks the books they should have marked already, with no more instruction than “take notes”. Lazy teaching, lazy pupils.

A better approach

Last year I taught An Inspector Calls to two different year groups: my year 11 English class, studying the outgoing legacy English specification and my year 9 class, starting the new GCSE English syllabus.

With my year 11 group, we did not watch the film at all. I told them nothing about the plot at the beginning of the unit and allowed them to discover the different character revelations as they went along.

Over several weeks, we worked on one section at a time, breaking the play down into six parts and studying it in depth at each point. As we read the play, the pupils were excited by the story and keen to know what happened next. So much so that by the end of Act 2 they were exclaiming “dun-dun-duuuuhhhh!” like it was an Eastenders cliff-hanger. This has been by far one of the most successful units I have taught as an English teacher.

Having enjoyed this success, I was looking forward to teaching the same unit to my year 9 group. I had a very different experience. As several of them had heard about the story from other pupils and were dangerously close to giving away all the spoilers, I tried an experiment.

At the very beginning of the unit, I played the 1980s BBC film version (very faithful to the script and style) in full, so that they at least heard the story in my class and not through word-of-mouth. I was disappointed in the outcome to say the least. By the end of a gruelling 90 minutes, my class were so bored that one pupil exclaimed: “If I have to study this for the next six weeks, I’m going to kill myself.”

Not the response I was looking for, to be honest.

I have delivered essentially the same scheme of work for these pupils as I did for the year 11 class (of course taking into account the different age groups) and have found the second group to be far less engaged with the text than the first.

Don’t get me wrong, they haven’t done badly, but the year 11s had a real love of the text which was lacking with their younger counterparts. Of course, there could have been a number of factors and we all know that no two classes are the same, but I have no doubt that playing the film at the time that I did made a big difference – first impressions are everything.

Think about it: which classic piece of literature are the pupils examined on, the text or the film?

Picture the scene

In 10 years or so, rows and rows of pupils sit in front of personalised television screens wearing headphones. The examinations officer stands at the front of the exam hall and says “you may press play and begin”. But by then, we’ll have probably given up on trying to teach English altogether and pupils will be studying Big Brother instead of 1984.

Another, secondary concern (or perhaps a primary concern if you are a parent or anyone with a moral conscience) is the content featured in many film adaptations.

Take Macbeth, for example. Now Macbeth, being one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays, is going to be fairly violent, but is there really any need to show pupils 100 naked witches around a fire? Or Lady Macbeth, sleepwalking in the nude? Nothing in Shakespeare’s text suggests this happens, so why would we show it to pupils, consequently having to spend ages reiterating “don’t write that in the exam, it’s not in the text”?

I have had this debate with teachers many times and all they ever seem to care about is the rating of the film: “The film carries a 15 certificate? Then great, I can show it to my year 11 class.”

When I have made the decision to veto the showing of a film, I have been met with incredulity from staff. I have banned films from being shown in my own department, regardless of their rating, because I don’t believe they are suitable. The Purge, Mama and American Pie all carry a 15 certificate, but would you show any of those to your class, even if they were “relevant”? I don’t think so.

When I come to consider how appropriate a film is for viewing by pupils, I put my parent head on. If I wouldn’t want my children to watch it, I don’t show it at school. Like most parents, I have, on occasion, allowed one of my children to watch a film that is rated above their age, but only very occasionally, only if I have carefully considered the content of that film and never without me, so that I can explain things to them and be there to answer any questions they have that might come up.

There are also plenty of films that I wouldn’t allow them to watch, even if they are considered “old enough” by the BBFC. That is my right as a parent and I wouldn’t want teachers making that decision, so I try to remember that as a teacher.

Online video

The final thing that is a massive bug-bear with me in relation to the use of video and film in the classroom is the use of online video. Sites such as YouTube provide a mountain of useful video, but also a mountain of useless rubbish. It is very rare nowadays for me to see a new scheme of work produced by a teacher that doesn’t include a link to some sort of online video.

The issues I have with this are:

  1. Is the video from a reliable source?
  2. Does it serve any educational purpose?
  3. Do you have to advertise toothpaste to your pupils before they can watch the clip?
  4. What other videos/links that may or may not be appropriate are going to pop-up before, after or next to the video?

So often, a clip is included which is just a bland reading of a poem, or even a music video or sitcom clip that is there for no reason other than to get a bit of a laugh or make the teacher look “cool”.

In many schools, the use of YouTube by pupils is banned on the network because it wastes pupils’ time in computer-based lessons and distracts from study outside of class.

So why are teachers using it? It also sends out the message that this is how to do research – the teacher went straight to YouTube instead of a book or reputable online source, so why shouldn’t the pupil?

Some practical advice

If you must use a film to “support the delivery of the scheme of work”, consider the following:

  • Stay faithful. Choose a version of the film that stays true to the original setting and style of the play or book you are studying.
  • Break it up. Play the film in small bursts, say one scene/chapter at a time. This stops pupils getting bored with the film to begin with. Dip in and out of the film over several lessons and don’t show it every lesson.
  • Give them something to do. Get pupils to take notes on a specific theme or character while the film is going on. Let them know that you will be sharing notes after the clip as a class so they have to complete the task.
  • Combine it with reading the text. Watch the clip, then read the relevant section as a class. This can still help to reinforce the story for them, but always coming back to the text.
  • Cut out the fluff. Don’t show pupils any filmed sections that contradict or embellish the original text.
  • Control the content. Whatever the pupils may or may not have seen outside the classroom that is worse than the film, it isn’t up to us to decide that questionable content is okay – we are their teachers, not their parents and should remember that.
  • Consider the source. If you plan to include an online video, use a first-party reputable source like BBC Parliament, TED or, rather than an ad-choked third party like YouTube.
  • Save it for the end of term. If you are one of those teachers who likes to reward your pupils with a film on the last day, use this last lesson to play the faithful film version without any confusing bits. The last day is then still a mildly constructive use of their time.


I am not saying don’t use video. Used correctly, it can be highly beneficial. However, used poorly, it can hinder learning and propagate poor teaching.

As teachers, we already get enough stick from the public about the hours we work and our holidays, without compounding this through lazy classroom teaching. Read the above, carefully consider the points I have made and come up with your own conclusions. Or alternatively, just skip the article and go and watch the film – it’s quicker.

  • Paul Gammans works as a faculty director in a secondary school somewhere in the UK. He has 10 years’ teaching experience in a range of subject areas and key stages, from primary to sixth form. Where necessary, names and places have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent.

‘What is it with teachers and an obsession with playing films in the classroom? Call me a Neanderthal if you like, but in my opinion, there is no video on Earth that is a replacement for good old fashioned teaching’.

What a refreshing read this article was.

I have often reflected on the value (or lack of) of teachers ‘opening up the cinema’. I have found myself in front of a class of students and hearing the sounds of a DVD starting up next door. A muffled sound that is reminiscent of the Pearl and Dean ‘Ba Bar ba bar ba bar…’ familiar to anyone that attended the cinema in the 70s and 80s blasts out and rumbles the wall and floor. My class look at me and roll their eyes. I know Johnny would rather I opened up the cinema; he’d love to switch off and not have to think about ‘Macbeth’. I picture the class next door. I imagine them sitting staring at the screen learning little more than ‘Shakespeare’s boring Sir’.

The theatre director/practitioner Augusto Boal talked of the spec-actor, a member of the audience who would partake in the action on stage allowing them to both think and partake. In the English classroom (and other spaces) do we need two types of people? The spec-actor. The student who can both watch and take part and, in relation to the article I am responding to, what I would call the ‘teacher-actor’. I want to make clear that I don’t claim to be the best teacher that ever was, nor that all of my ideas always work, but teachers surely need to be prepared to engage their students and put themselves out there first?

As the article above suggests, video clips work well in moderation, but can the teacher bring Macbeth into the classroom (3D TVs can stay in the box)? What does the ‘heat oppressed brain’ look like in person? Can students see that and take it on themselves? The new GCSE syllabuses for English are certainly causing heat-oppressed brains; the students and teachers both know it. Can the teacher ‘knock, knock and knock’ and then knock some more on the door, the walls, the desks to demonstrate the tension created by Macduff outside Macbeth’s castle right after the murder of Duncan? Can a teacher demonstrate the comic potential of the Porter as he ambles towards said door? I am not calling for teachers to be great actors, but a willingness to demonstrate a love for the text surely has to be better than watching a film (in full). The students? ‘I hate drama Sir’. Well, come on, you can have a go at a small section of the text. You can reflect on and appreciate that the play in front of you was designed to performed, was performed, is performed and loved and felt by many people over the years. The noise of knocking on the desks et al? Well, it can’t be any worse than ‘ba bar ba bar ba bar…’ from next door can it?

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