Using film to teach history is topic of new book

February 18, 2010

University Park, Pa. – Scott Alan Metzger, assistant professor of social studies education, has co-authored a newly released book, "Teaching History with Film: Strategies for Secondary Social Studies." Co-authors are Alan S. Marcus (University of Connecticut), Richard J. Paxton (Pacific University), and Jeremy D. Stoddard (College of William & Mary).

Published by Routledge, "Teaching History with Film" examines how feature films set in or about the past can be used to effectively enhance social studies instruction. Using cases of experienced teachers to illustrate accomplished history teaching through the use of movies, the book provides teachers with ideas for implementing film-based lessons in their own classrooms and offers a deeper understanding of the issues involved in using film to teach history.

“The common folklore about movies in the classroom is that they are just time filler, when the teacher is gone or doesn’t feel like really teaching,” Metzger said. “But this old saw ignores that teachers must choose which films to show and how they connect to the topics in class. My colleagues and I have found that teachers often take these educational decisions very seriously.”

Metzger believes that, far from being a dodge to avoid real teaching, effective film-based instruction is quite demanding.

“The teacher needs to screen possible films, choose which titles or scenes meet specific educational goals or instructional purposes, and research historical content knowledge necessary to help students understand and critique the filmic versions of the past,” he said. “We find that educationally powerful use of film is incorporated into carefully designed lesson plans in purposeful ways to meet clear goals.”

As products of popular culture, movies can be especially exciting for students. It is not surprising that teachers want to take advantage of this excitement to increase students’ motivation to learn history. “Classroom uses of history movies probably won’t go away,” Metzger said, “so the challenge is to help teachers use movies more effectively.”

Metzger and his colleagues argue that effective film-based instruction has serious potential to support historical literacy and rigorous learning through understanding of different historical perspectives, developing analytical and interpretive skills, exploring controversial issues in history, visualizing complex historical elements and narratives, and applying subject matter knowledge to analyzing how movies construct the past.

“History movies on their own aren’t educationally good or bad,” said Metzger. “Good movies can be part of bad lessons, and bad movies can be used effectively in good lessons. What matters is how the teacher uses film when appropriate as an instructional resource intentionally integrated with course content and student learning activities.”

Metzger's research and teaching includes history in film and popular culture, history teaching and learning, and the history, sociology and philosophy of education.

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Last Updated January 09, 2015