A new journal article published this week in Psychological Science asks whether watching popular Hollywood films depicting historical events can enhance learning of historical facts. This is a question that has been asked many times in the past and educators often assume that there is a benefit to watching video reenactments, not least of all because they are entertaining. This study aimed to test whether there can be both benefits (when the hostorical informationd epicted in the film is accurate) and costs (when the details are inaccurate) to using historical films in a history lesson. They used selection of excerpts from well-known feature films including The Last Samurai (Ed Zwick, 2003), Amistad (Steven Spielberg, 1997) and Glory (Ed Zwick, 1989). They recorded better memory for historical facts when the students watched a film version but only when the film depicted the facts accurately. When the facts were inaccurate the false details in the film sometimes take precendence over the accurate details taught to the students using traditional means.
This is a very interesting study as it shows both the strengths of using films to teach history but also the weaknesses. Any educator considering using a feature film in their lessons should consider that the primary purpose of a feature film is to entertain, not be historically accurate. The most entertaining way of telling a story is rarely the most authentic. Film makers often distort the truth to increase drama and excitement. As outlined in the study below, educators should make their students aware of this so that they don't believe everything they see on the screen.
I personally learned this lesson the hard way by very confidentally answering "Ben Hur" to the question "Who helped Jesus with the cross?" in a Religious Education class. Damn artistic licence!
(*according to the New Testament the answer is Simon The Cyrene...... not Charlton Heston)
Using Popular Films to Enhance Classroom Learning: The Good, the Bad, and the Interesting
Butler, A. C., Zaromb, F. Z., Lyle, K.B. & Roediger, H. L. III (in press) Psychological Science
ABSTRACT—Popular history films sometimes contain major historical inaccuracies. Two experiments investigated how watching such films influences people's ability to remember associated texts. Subjects watched film clips and studied texts about various historical topics. Whereas the texts contained only correct information, the film clips contained both correct information (consistent with the text) and misinformation (contradicted by the text). Before watching each clip, subjects received a specific warning, a general warning, or no warning about the misinformation. One week later, they returned for a cued-recall test about the texts. Watching a film clip increased correct recall of consistent information relative to recall of the same information when subjects did not see the clip. However, when the information in the film contradicted the text, subjects often (falsely) recalled misinformation from the film. The specific warning substantially reduced this misinformation effect. Teachers should use popular history films with caution and should warn students about major inaccuracies in the films.