The documentary as a teaching tool

Engagement is the key to effective instruction.

A direct path to engagement is simply to tell a good story.

Documentary film, done well, can engage and instruct through storytelling. Consider Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Presented to the Public Broadcasting Service audience as a niche product – a miniseries exploring at length an era most people may have had their fill of in grade school – the film surprised Burns and PBS when it became a national phenomenon.

The Civil War also found its way into the classroom. Used as a means to engage students in the topic, it provides a jumping-off point for discussion, interpretation, and further study. Burns says, in his introduction to the PBS site devoted to educational use of the film, “The series can’t replace the teacher or the classroom, but in conjunction with what you as the teacher do, it can make the era come alive in a way never before possible. In many ways, the series asks as many questions as it answers and should serve as a starting point for active learning and classroom discussion.”

Even when excellent course materials are available, the addition of documentary film to teaching brings a number of enhancements.

  • Flexibility for the instructor: A course will be structured in specific ways, and generally must be presented in its entirety and in sequence. A film can be viewed at any time and excerpted as needed.
  • Lower cognitive load for the learner: Viewing a film demands less of the audience than reading text or clicking through a course. The learner follows along with the story without conscious effort.
  • Easy sell: “Watch this” (at home, in class, on a phone) is an easy task to assign and to complete. Much easier than “read pages 148-207” or “complete Module 5.”
  • Potentially high engagement: Despite the apparent passivity of watching, visual media can lead to greater engagement with the material, which leads to high retention. Ask yourself how many good movie scenes you can recall? Now–how many good textbook passages?

In an instructional context, these factors – especially the combination of an easy sell and a high level of engagement – are very valuable.

But a film can’t stand alone as an instructional method. As noted above, watching the documentary should only be part of the process. Discussion questions and related readings need to be included in the mix to prompt reflection and to illustrate the topic more completely.

The de Beaumont Foundation’s film Public Health and Politics: Examining the Surgeon General is seeing similar application. The short documentary explores the interplay of politics with the Office of the Surgeon General throughout the Surgeon General’s history. It is built around interviews with public health officials relating the challenges of balancing science and politics through a focus on the July, 2007 Congressional hearing on improving the effectiveness of government. Since making the film available online and presenting it at screenings and film festivals, we’ve spoken with educators who have shared their ideas for using it in public health policy, ethics, and law classes.

The film was developed alongside our free learning course of the same name. We designed the course using archival footage and interviews coupled with selected readings and discussion questions – not dissimilar to the lesson plans and learning activities you can find at the PBS Civil War site and other resource links below. The film can serve as an introduction to the complex relationship between politics and public health, and as a supplement to our course and others.

Let me offer one word of caution. Take the same care when selecting a film for your classroom that you would when assigning a book. Be aware that documentary films can be made to promote a specific viewpoint, sometimes to the detriment of accuracy. While this can raise questions about the appropriateness of using a particular film in the classroom, a documentary that takes sides – even a propaganda piece – can still be of value. In these cases, watching the film and then examining the history and context behind it can provide valuable insight on the issues the film addresses. An instructor might ask students to compare the film’s position with opposing views held by other sources – and with their own.

In other instances, using Public Health and Politics as an example, the documentary may present varying positions on an issue. This is an opportunity for students to work with the complexity of the topic. A discussion can be prompted by asking students to explain where the individuals presented have differing views and where they agree.

The best films, especially for training and education, are the ones that carry us along with them to new places, the ones that have us see things with new eyes, and – without our even realizing it – the ones that enable us to think about things in new ways.


Interested in using documentaries as teaching tools?

Lesson plans, sample discussion questions, and other resources are available at the following links:

  • PBS provides clips, lesson plans, and learning activities using Ken Burns’ The Civil War: The Civil War in the Classroom.
  • PBS’s POV has free resources for educators, including online film clips connected to discussion questions and lesson plans.
  • Jessie Daniels, PhD (Hunter College and The Graduate Center – CUNY) has set up a wiki of films and resources for her Teaching Sociology through Documentary project.
  • Dr. Daniels discusses her approach to using film and other media in her courses at CUNY: Teaching and Learning with Documentaries.
  • The New York Times Learning Network Film Club offers short NYT documentaries with related discussion questions.
  • Teach With Movies offers two film study worksheets designed to help K-12 teachers quickly create lesson plans based on documentary films; one is for movies that are primarily informational and the other for films designed to persuade the viewer on a matter of political or social significance.