Making and editing films as a historical skills exercise

Making and using films in the history classroom has great potential. Pupils are able to access a wide range of archival film clips or produce their own. The editing process may seem more of an ICT or Computing task but taught carefully, it is a powerful exercise in developing several historical skills.

How can making a historical film develop historical skills and conceptual understanding?

Historians seek to find answers about the past, using various sources, with the aim of developing understanding. They also aim to share their findings. These broad aims lend themselves to use of film making as a valid approach for demonstrating learning about the past.

To study any aspect of the past we consider evidence, evaluate it, then present it. This could be as simple non-chronological reports, essays, wall displays and presentations; or at a higher level through articles, dissertations, books and booklets or detailed reports. Film, be it documentary or drama, offers an audio-visual means of doing much of this. From lower level ‘talking heads’ style clips that explain one minor aspect of the past through to significantly longer exploration of the past, it is feasible to construct work that develops historical skills, is knowledge rich,  immersive and with strong ties to other areas of the curriculum.

Historical film is discussed and critiqued at the highest of academic levels. As it is the most frequently seen form of public history it is the subject of scrutiny at all levels. That could be a review in a newspaper, through to journal articles discussing the manner in which an event has been interpreted. It results in academic discussion and a form of historiography is generated by this dialogue. See our discussion with Simon Schama for some examples.

How does it develop historical skills?

Whatever topic you are teaching there will be a wealth of source material available. They come in all shapes and sizes. The majority of these pieces of evidence cannot easily be included in any piece of historical written work in a classroom, most are visual or objects. Film offers an opportunity to show the evidence and put these types of sources alongside other types of historical evidence.

At whatever level of study, there is a selection process. Which pieces of evidence are best suited to answering the questions you have about the past? You simply cannot use everything. There is never enough space for everything and to try would most likely create a jumbled mess of an interpretation.

Film making requires pupils to make a decision about the evidence that they are going to use and discard. In fact, they have to do so to a much larger extent than would normally be seen in a classroom: you need much more material in a few minutes of footage than you would in a medium sized essay. Additionally, they have to think about how to present the evidence. Not only will this reflect their interpretation of events but it will require careful thought about how a combination of pieces of evidence develops those ways of viewing the past. Again, this goes beyond the number of sources a pupil would usually consider, it is making them more aware and developed as a historian. In simple terms, they are learning how to create their own interpretation.

Understanding chronology is often an area that gets little dedicated curriculum time. Yes, pupils will almost certainly be taught about chronological order and the use of terminology. There is so much more to having good chronological awareness than this. Chronology also incorporates a sense of period. Here, film making has huge advantages over text-based lessons. If a pupil is being asked to visually portray the past, they must think carefully about what it really looked like. This can embrace anything from architecture to fashion but includes issues such as language, the economy and money, diversity and the way that different roles were fulfilled within that particular place at that particular time.

Example: In Medicine Through Time / Health courses it is often very hard for pupils to remember key features of different periods. Simply record a video incorporating a pupil voiceover, a variety of sources and some clips from video for each unit. These can be made available via your school website, on the network or on video sharing websites. Ideally, these would be accompanied by a brief teacher commentary which can be developed over the course of the year. They can follow a theme and be an easy way of revising at a later date whilst also being a valuable learning activity at the time of construction. For a professional version of this approach in action, see timelines.tv

The construction of an interpretative film, mini-documentary, drama based production or a talking heads style film requires sifting, selecting, deselecting. Evidence is weighed up and priority given to some sources over others. For more advanced films things such as the editing process, directorial decisions over camera angles, choice of location and artefacts will all influence the way in which a film interprets the past.

Can it be done in the classroom?

Clearly, this depends upon the resources you have at hand but in simple terms, yes.

The National Archives have an online unit that enables the creation of films. Focus on Film provides learners with a range of clips. Structured activities based around these are then followed by a trip to the editor’s room, in which the learner can edit clips together to create their own documentary. It’s an incredibly good resource, limited only by the limited number of topics that it covers. It would be useful for lessons on the Western Front in the First World War and would help to set the context for a study of Medicine during the First World War.

If you like that concept but want to cover an area not included there, don’t be perturbed. For most content areas, certainly at secondary, there are lots of films and documentaries available. It is reasonably easy to find clips from these that are suitably sized which can be downloaded for use offline. There are lots of different applications that can be used by pupils if the ICT technicians will install them, to edit video clips, stitch them together and add voice-overs, sound effects, transitions and titles. One free, open source, application that is incredibly user-friendly is Open Shot.

If you have access to tablets or handheld devices it is quite easy to record Green Screen based footage, talking heads style clips and to use the camera function to photograph objects. Video clips from external sources could be made available for these devices but do be wary of the file sizes. This type of usage is something that I did a lot of at Upper Primary and across Secondary. It is very simple, the children will know how to do it, engaging and can incorporate a wide range of sources in the visual presentation.

More ambitious would be to make a small documentary film. I have done this with Primary and Secondary classes. It is quite expensive but sometimes you can access grants to help fund them. In each of the films that I was involved in the pupils were involved in every aspect of the interpretation. They wrote the scripts, directed, acted, edited and even created the soundtracks. The equipment to do a high-quality production like these can be hired, often with specialist staff coming along to help, from a variety of sources. Your own school should know where the nearest specialist unit is: used to be via CLC’s.

Contact local Universities who have media courses. Students on these courses need experience working on a variety of projects. They can access the physical equipment. The drawback of this approach is that the university student would need to take a lead on the directing and editing, though it should be possible to get pupils involved.

Primary History

How to evaluate a historical source

A Discussion with Simon Schama

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