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Posted at 11:45 AM ET, 01/ 4/2010

Willingham: The value/problem of showing popular movies of historical events in class

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a professor at the University of Virginia.

By Daniel Willingham
Should history teachers show popular movies of historical events?

On the one hand, movies might get students interested in historical events in a way that books and other resources do not. On the other hand, screenwriters and directors are often willing to sacrifice historical accuracy for the sake of a good story.

What if students learn from the movies, but what they learn is inaccurate? If teachers warned students about the accuracy problem, would that be enough, or would the movie be so vivid that students would still learn the inaccuracies?

Andrew Butler and a research team at Washington University in St. Louis recently studied this problem.

They had undergraduates read nine texts (which were always accurate). For six of the texts, there was an accompanying film clip; three were fully accurate, but three had an inaccuracy and thus contradicted the text.

For example, in “The Last Samurai,” an American military advisor is hired by the Emperor of Japan in the 1870s to help quash a rebellion. In truth, the emperor hired French advisors, not Americans.

Some of the subjects got a general warning about potential inaccuracies in Hollywood movies. Some got the same warning but the inaccuracy in a particular film clip was specified, and the correct information was provided. Some of the subjects were not given any warning at all.

A week later, all of the subjects returned to the laboratory and took a test of their knowledge for the information in the texts. (e.g., “From what country did Emperor Meiji hire military advisors to help the Imperial Japanese army put down the Satsuma Rebellion?”)

The first finding was that watching the 2003 film in addition to reading the text led to better memory than reading the text alone. That’s not surprising, because subjects experienced the information twice, rather than once.

The second finding was that students rated the texts as more interesting if they also saw an accompanying movie. Thus, the movie clips did have the effect of drawing students into the material.

Third, watching the movies led people to remember the incorrect information at fairly high levels. Between a third and half of the time, people answered a question by using the inaccurate information from the movie, rather than accurate information from the text.

Fourth, the warning was effective only if it was specific. Thus, alerting people that Hollywood movies often contain inaccuracies had no effect. People still frequently reported the incorrect information from the film. But the specific warning—“the advisors were French, not American as the movie depicts”— worked. Students remembered the accurate information if given that warning.

This is only one study, but it provides provisional (and useful) information for the classroom.

Teachers may dislike the idea of using movies in their classrooms that contain inaccuracies, but if they decide to show them to students, they can negate the danger that students will misremember the incorrect information by providing specific information about what is inaccurate.

What movies have you or your children seen in class? Was it a useful exercise?

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 4, 2010; 11:45 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, History  | Tags:  history, history class  
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I would be comfortable with teachers occasionally using Hollywood films in conjunction with accurate texts. What aggravates me is the time my elementary school girls have spent watching Herbie Fully Loaded and other bubblegum movies on "Fun Film Friday." And recently my ninth grade daughter spent two class days in history watching Disney's Hercules, with no followup discussion, (not that it merited much. In my experience many teachers use films for babysitting, without a valuable pedagical objective.

Posted by: LauraBrodie | January 4, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

If a parent is thinking of using a movie as a helper for a child studying a historical period it probably would be useful to review the movie ahead of time so as to know what the inaccuracies are and either skip around them or explain the errors to the child.

When my children were in school I would often seek out a movie of a book or period they were studying as a tool to nudge them into learning more about it.

Posted by: RedBird27 | January 4, 2010 9:50 PM | Report abuse

Always with stop and talk moments and follow along thinksheets.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
9/11 (CBS)
The Grapes of Wrath
To Sir With Love
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Hotel Rwanda
Power of One
Princess Mononoke
The Good Earth
.......the students never forget'em

Posted by: noscott | January 5, 2010 12:18 AM | Report abuse

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