In defence of DVDs?

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.

5 Comments on In defence of DVDs?

  1. Michael Fordham // 28 June 2015 at 11:31 // Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Ian Phillips // 29 June 2015 at 09:24 // Reply

    Did my PGCE in Bangor, my placement school was bilingual, pupils were taught either through the medium of Welsh or the medium of English except for the pupils in one class who were taught through the medium of TV. The joke was that you could tell his pupils because their necks were permanently bent back and their faces tipped towards a screen.
    The best end of term was in 1985 (I think) the week after the Wembley Live Aid Concert. Walking down a long 1st floor corridor was like and early version of surround sound as you heard Status Quo – Rocking all over the world blasting out from classroom after classroom:

    Take this as my contribution to the impending sense of the end of term.

  3. I use quite a few DVDs–the problem we are running into now is that our admin wants any film viewing to happen on a device at home rather than in class. Of course, this limits what can be shown, but also begs the question of whether film viewing should be a group or individual effort.

  4. mskconstable // 7 July 2015 at 12:46 // Reply

    I am a fan of using video and multimedia in the classroom to help explain some of the more complex concepts – particularly in Sociology. For exmaple the muppets explain phenomenology far better then I can:,d.ZGU

    Also some TV Shows and films can bring these concepts into the real world. Again in sociology we watched the Great Train Robbery (documentary) and I got the students to apply the theories of crime and deviance to it.

    I don’t agree with sticking one on for the sake of it, but these are resources that should be utilised.

  5. edpodesta67 // 10 July 2015 at 07:57 // Reply

    I used to teach with an RE colleague that the kids used to call ‘blockbusters’ – cos you could always rely on him for a good video. Context is everything, as you point out, and the quality of the video as important. I think that the purposes that the video is put to is very important too. A very great teacher educator once advised me to always know why I was doing something, and not to kid myself that the use of a particular resource, technique or even a topic would guarantee that students learned anything from it.

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