The Role Of The History Documentary In The Classroom

One of the readers of this blog recently asked about the role of documentaries in the classroom – specifically PBS’s video Reconstruction.  I wanted to say a few things about how I use history videos in the classroom, but first here is the reader’s question and comment:

Why are you averse to showing entire videos? Does it make you feel lazy as a teacher? Do you feel the students zone out after a short amount of time with the lights out?

I think one needs to be versatile and use videos to supplement the lesson rather than become it, but with a documentary as great as PBS’s Reconstruction, I’d be inclined to show the whole thing. There’s enough time in two semesters to get away with that, I think.

My high school history teacher, Coach Blackburn, relied heavily on videos. I remember the first day of class he said something like "there’s really no difference between me telling you the stuff and the video telling you the stuff."

I want to start by saying that I rarely use history videos in my class for the simple reason that most of them stink.  They are geared towards pure entertainment and contain very little content that is worth thinking critically about.  There are a few exceptions and one of them, as stated above, is PBS’s Reconstruction.  Second, in response to Coach Blackburn, if the teacher is superfluous in teaching the history lesson than it seems to me the class itself is unnecessary because a student can always watch the video at home. 

If I use a video I will typically show no more than 15 minutes; the main reason being that most of my students can only focus for about that long.  Videos do not create active learners; in fact there are plenty of studies that point to the ineffectiveness of this type of approach.  I try to break up my classes into segments.  The first 15 minutes are typically spent giving background to a specific event which is followed by some kind of document analysis and discussion.  If I use a segment of a video it is in connection with a specific lesson plan.  For instance, a few weeks ago I used part of Burns’s Civil War documentary on Lee’s decision to secede along with the statistics from a recent study on West Point graduates from the South who decided to stay with the Union.  The purpose here was to compare a popular version of the story with an analytical study. 

I think it is also important to realize that what we as teachers see as interesting and engaging may fall flat with students.  If a video is going to be used it is absolutely necessary to prepare students with some kind of guide – perhaps a series of questions.  The other issue is preparation.  What will the students have read to prepare them for this video?  This is a fairly sophisticated interpretation of Reconstruction from what I remember. 

As a final thought I repeat my earlier point in the day which is that since there is such an incredible amount of interesting primary source material that can be used in connection with Reconstruction it almost seems criminal to show an entire video.  Be creative, take chances, and rely on the students to think through the tough issues.   I am constantly surprised by the level of sophistication that is possible on the high school level.  Don’t waste opportunities to teach and engage your students.

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2 comments… add one
  • Ed Darrell Dec 19, 2006 @ 12:59

    I worry, from research, that 15 minutes is too long (10 minute blocks are preferred for adult education, according to IBM’s studies), but I’m not nearly proficient enough to use smaller segments for everything.

    I spent three years in a school where the official program was self-directed studies. Most of our students had already failed at history at least once. I found videos — lots of them, in many different formats — extremely useful in making the history entertaining, especially in providing the background information that kids need to make sense of narratives, but which many “at risk” students simply do not have. Videos are vital tools for helping dyslexics and others with disablities or lack of background to get caught up.

    I think it would be useful sometimes to have an enrichment session that includes an hour or more of film, introductory discussion, popcorn, guided note taking, and a bit of some other fun.

    Still, most video available for school use is dull. Burns may be a popularizer, but that’s good.

    Here’s the issue: Television, film, and now computers, are powerful educational tools. As a society, we’ve missed the boat on their use in the classroom. Consequently, others use those tools largely against liberal education’s ends. If we don’t start fighting back, we will lose millions of minds.

  • Cash Dec 18, 2006 @ 21:06


    I agree completely with not using the entire video as part of the lecture, but rather using selected excerpts to illustrate what you’re talking about. Videos can be powerful aids but they shouldn’t be the entire lesson. One option might be for the library to obtain a copy or two that can be checked out so interested students can view the entire video.


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