It’s that time of year again.
“Have you planned your Year 9 lesson for today?”
“Yes: insert DVD, then press play”.
Quite rightly, teachers who decide to sit out the last few weeks of the year by playing DVDs (or, these days, getting videos off YouTube) have been attacked on numerous fronts, and I would share in those criticisms. There is nothing more frustrating than a child coming in to a lesson two weeks before the end of term saying “what, are we working? Mr … is letting us watch Shrek!” Teachers who do this undermine the rest of us who want to have pupils working right up to the last day of term by modifying pupils’ expectations in those last few lessons.
I think, however, that we are at risk of falling prey here to the same problem I emphasised in my last post: we tend to focus too much on ‘how’ we teach and not enough on ‘what’ we teach. There is nothing inherently good or bad about using a DVD, at the end of the term or at any other time. What matters is the content of the resource we are using, not the form it takes.
There are of course numerous examples of DVDs that contain high-quality content: documentaries are the obvious starting point. The modern documentary can be a work of genius and there are some exceptional masterpieces available. David Attenborough’s Planet Earth, Simon Schama’s Power of Art or Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem are all compelling series. Often documentaries do breadth very well: they represent a good opportunity to take something that pupils have recently been studying and cast it in a much wider context. Documentaries usually come with powerful narratives and stunning visuals. Like a good textbook, a good documentary is worth its weight in gold.
Alternatively, what about a performance? Over the last few years I have been trying to get more and more into Shakespeare and I am increasingly convinced that one often needs to see and hear a performance done well in order to fully appreciate it, and it is very hard to create opportunities for pupils to have access to these. My populist leanings will no doubt shine through here, but I rather like watching David Tennant as Hamlet, Ben Whishaw as Richard II or Patrick Stewart as Macbeth. Most children are lucky if they get to see a single production of Shakespeare: a filmed production allows us to open up a world to pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who would otherwise find this opportunity closed to them.
As with all resources, a DVD has to be used in an appropriate manner. A documentary, for example, needs to build on pupil prior knowledge and extend this in a certain direction. There needs to be opportunities after watching something to recall what has been seen, such as through the use of quiz questions. Above all, there needs to be a clear curricular rationale for what is being watched: it is the content of the DVD, rather than the fact that a DVD is being watched, which is the crucial thing. As with so much in teaching, we focus far too readily on the process of teaching (should I use a DVD or should I not?) when the important question is whether or not the knowledge being taught to pupils through a DVD is of a sufficiently high quality.
So let’s do away with the sheepish looks when someone says “I was thinking of watching a DVD”. Watching a DVD in lesson is something of which we should be neither proud nor ashamed. Instead, we should be saying “My Year 8s are going to watch Whishaw’s Richard II” or “I’m going to give pupils the economic context to our work on nineteenth-century electoral reform by watching Paxman’s The Victorians”. We are then in a position to begin to judge the curricular value of these particular things.
Once we focus on the content rather than the form of delivery, then we can begin to decide whether or not this is an appropriate thing to be doing with pupils, at the end of term or indeed at any other time.