The Uses of Film in the Teaching of History: Results of a National Workshop

Theodore K. Rabb, March 1997

Editor's Note: Theodore Rabb was principal historical adviser for the television series described in this article. He wrote the article because he received many questions about the workshop and thought that it would be useful to share his experience with a wider audience. Readers interested in obtaining more detailed information may contact the author through e-mail at

In 1993 the Medici Foundation, the producer of the six-part Renaissance television series, which had aired on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and which later was nominated for an Emmy Award, sponsored a series of workshops on the uses of film in the classroom. Thanks to a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) of the U.S. Department of Education, it was possible to hold six workshops, each in a different city of the United States: Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, and Boston.

The 191 participants in the workshops were history faculty from various institutions. Forty percent came from small four-year colleges, 52 percent from community colleges, and 8 percent from high schools. As the basis for their discussions, the participants viewed examples of the PBS series and sample films from an 18-part telecourse, distributed by the PBS Adult Learning Service (with accompanying textbook and teacher and student manuals) that the Medici Foundation derived from the PBS series and entitled The Renaissance: Origins of the Modern World. Beyond these materials, however, the participants were encouraged to consider in general terms the problems and opportunities that this kind of instruction presents. The result was a succession of broad and illuminating assessments of the ways film can be used in the teaching of history.

From the start, of course, there were almost as many views and approaches as participants. Nevertheless, whatever their initial attitude toward the use of films in teaching—hostile, enthusiastic, indifferent, or merely puzzled—all who attended the workshops learned a great deal from one another, left the meetings much more fully aware of both the problems and the opportunities offered by audiovisual materials, and generally agreed about a number of basic issues. That these were not merely vague impressions was confirmed by Research Communications, the FIPSE evaluator of the project, which administered a formal assessment of the proceedings (by way of before-and-after survey instruments) and concluded that the consequences were significant, among both the participants and their students.

The following were the main issues that were addressed at the workshops.

The Problem of Student Attention

For many students, audiovisual materials shown in the classroom are associated with—as one participant put it—“the history class taught by the football coach.” They assume that any time given over to such materials is somehow not a “real” class and tune out accordingly. If the presentation is entertaining, such as a feature film, they do not take it seriously. Alternatively, their attention spans shrink when sober documentaries are shown. The participants stressed that with careful preparation, however, a class can be persuaded to think analytically about film, and to regard visual material as no less relevant, either as primary or as secondary texts, than written materials. In particular, they recommended handing out questions about the film in advance, making provision for interruptions for discussion, and warning that the films would appear on tests. Above all, it was agreed that whatever the method, deliberate efforts were needed to ensure that films had their intended effect.

The Relative Merits of Film and Print

Every teacher at the workshops believed that students learn far more from print than film; however, nearly all of them—even the doubters, who came to accept the point grudgingly by the end of their workshop—acknowledged that film conveys certain kinds of information (especially atmospheres and feelings) that written texts cannot provide. It can stimulate inquiry (even reading!) and educate through visual memory in ways that words cannot. On the other hand, film is so powerful that it can close off, as well as stimulate, speculation and ideas. Although some argued that both forms of learning are essential and complementary, others put print far above film, and this remained an area of contention.

Student Skills

While it is often said that students raised on TV are more sophisticated viewers, making higher demands on visual materials, this was far from a unanimous skill. All participants agreed about the effectiveness of nonwritten forms of communication and teaching in classes with low literacy levels, but many argued that students are as incapable of analytic watching as they are of analytic reading. It is not easy to get them to use film for purposes different from those for which it was made (for example, to understand Spartacus as a reflection of American democracy as well as an evocation of ancient Rome). The general consensus was that careful guidance is as necessary with films as with books, showing students how to discern, for instance, different points of view or structural devices. To this end, the workshops advocated the establishment of film labs in which students can have group discussions and see films more than once. In general, it was agreed that film can level the playing field because it offers opportunities for intellectual achievement to some students who struggle with the written word, while at the same time posing challenging problems for those who do well with texts.


One of the differences that participants regarded as likely to be permanent has to do with the length of film that can be shown to students in class. Viewing in one’s own time, as an “outside” requirement, is one thing. But in-class screenings create significant problems. Some felt that a full viewing was essential for students to enter into the emotional atmosphere of a film. Others, anxious to preserve class time, insisted on using short extracts. For both groups, a central issue was the mechanism of delivering the film, because videotapes are cumbersome to cue and do not lend themselves to indexing and brief extracts. Although only a few of the participants had experience with laser discs or CD-ROMs, let alone CD-Interactive or digital video discs (all of which are more precisely programmable media), it was the general impression that digitized visual materials were likely to ease the difficulties in future, should the funds become available to equip classrooms with the necessary hardware.

Identification of Visual Resources

Despite the interest in both film and new technologies, most participants admitted that information about what is available is hard to come by. Apart from the need for advanced technology, the most serious shortcoming for those who want to use visual materials in their teaching is the absence of a mechanism that would offer easy access to information about available resources. In particular, there is far less information available about documentary films than about feature films. Because documentaries are often the equivalent of primary sources (while feature films are more like secondary sources), this disparity is particularly unfortunate.

The workshops concluded with a number of recommendations for the future:

  1. Because the exchange of ideas and experiences is crucial as new techniques are developed, teachers will benefit greatly from a newsletter, occasional meetings, and any other means that can be devised for discussing with fellow practitioners the most effective techniques for using film in the classroom.
  2. Because  information is hard to come by, it would also be enormously useful if there were easily accessible data, such as a national listing, about the availability of films and documentaries for classroom use.
  3. Similarly, there is a need for direct and simple access to up-to-date information about the latest developments in audiovisual technologies.

In general, the appetite for information and ideas was only whetted by the workshops, and it may be that the American Historical Association could devise ways of stimulating further exchanges of this kind.

—Theodore K. Rabb is professor of history at Princeton University.