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The Expanding Presence of Film in Education

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Audrey Johnston
Professor Dalke & Professor Grobstein
Web Project #3
April 15, 2011

The Expanding Presence of Film In Education

Since its invention by Thomas Edison in 1890, film technology has become an increasingly powerful mode of transmitting information to the general public. Film is not only a source of entertainment, but also a revolutionary lens through which viewers gain an impression of new or foreign concepts and creations. As early as 1902, the newsreel, travelogue, and scientific motion picture emerged as some of the earliest cinematic forms through which the public experienced news of the day, discoveries and glimpses of entities and ideas previously out of reach and unseen. As time went on, the illuminating quality of film resulted in its being grafted into the realm of education as an instructive tool, being deliberately inserted into curriculums to augment the traditional coursework. Edison himself saw promise in the relationship between film and education. In 1922 he wrote,

"I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks. I should say that on the average, we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture - where it should be possible to achieve one hundred percent efficiency." (King, 211)

Foreseeing a major impact on teaching strategies and, subsequently, the caliber of education, Edison optimistically projected film's taking of center-stage in the classroom, where textbooks had long held sway. His prediction was not merely the hope of a proud inventor championing his creation - statistics drawn from research on educational use of film at the time supported his claims. A 1920's study in which students were divided into two groups wherein the experimental group's education was supplemented with film and the control group received tradition education without film revealed film to be beneficial to the students' reception and retention of information: only 38% of the control group showed the educational gains of the experimental group (King, 213). Research findings continued to support the belief that film provided an elemental addition to the education system. Students were enabled to experience through the senses of sight and hearing what was previously only described in books or lectures, and as a result their understanding took a more detailed and definite shape.
Notably, the classes in which film established itself as a boon to education - quick and clean and empowering - were largely science-based because of film's ability to expose and enhance the natural world through empirical documentation and experience. As the technology grew more accurate and efficient, the appearance of film in the science classroom grew more frequent and substantial. By the 1930's, film was institutionalized as educational technology, engaging young minds through revelations of microscopic and macroscopic lenses, close and clean dissections and shining constellations. (King, 216). As Kenneth King writes in "The Motion Picture in Science Education: 'One Hundred Percent Efficiency'",

"...motion pictures...were seen as ways of developing skills and knowledge related to scientific literacy.
This shift was witnessed by an editorial change in the journal of School Science and Mathematics. Rather than treating the release of new motion pictures as news articles, a series of reviews were offered of motion pictures as suitable for science education, as was done with appropriate textbooks. This shift underscored the comfortable home motion pictures had acquired within the context of science education." (King, 216)

From early on in its educational career, film was couched in the realm of science. It provided an engaging and efficient lift to a curriculum that previously languished between the pages of the textbook, and, as research shows, allowed the science education to evolve effectively at a fast pace.
At the other end of the school hallway, so-to-speak, English classrooms were often untouched by the presence of film or even, as Valerie Muller writes in "Film as Film: Using Movies To Help Students Visualize Literary Theory", they were seen as "strongholds" in a war against the invasion of technology (Muller, 32). Indeed, the fervor over film as a teaching tool did not exist in English as it was founded on a landscape of text-based literature, fluid concepts and abstract theories that could not necessarily be depicted on film.

All that is beginning to change, however, as we move forward into the twenty-first century. According to a 2003 study, the average person spends approximately ten hours engaged in at least one form of multi-media each day (Muller, 32). Reflexively, people tend to do more reading on the computer screen or absorb their narratives through television and movies rather than with a book in their hands. This has a deep impact on the ways in which literature is received in English classes. Muller believes that the time has come for teachers to being integrating film into their English curriculums because that is the primary way in which students are drawn to receiving information. This implies to important augmentations to English curriculums: first, that traditional works of the canon of literature can be understood with the visual aid of film, and second, that film has a narrative and language unto itself that is prominent enough in our society to be considered worthy of study, scrutiny, and reflection. Muller believes that film ought not to be interpreted using traditional literary methods, but respected as a medium of its own unique nature. Nevertheless, she recommends inserting this medium into English curriculums, partly as an inevitable reaction to the film-heavy diet of day-to-day life, and partly as a means of improving the retention of literary study in much the same way as it does science. Muller describes film as "a unique, moving medium able to present texts in ways literature cannot. By critically thinking about film as film, students will learn to scrutinize a new generation of text - read daily outside the classroom - with its own language and conventions." (Muller, 33) Inherent in Muller's argument is the belief that a traditional, text-only literature course may be stagnant in this day and age, paling in comparison to a film-enhanced course. At the same time, she sees implications of useful, if not necessary, cultural awareness in tying film to language and literature. Film can be seen as a still-new narrative genre that has far-reaching impact on the ways in which we "read" ourselves and each other, and the world around us.

In tracing the evolution of film in educational settings, it becomes clear that this ever-changing technology has roots in the spreading of information and from an early age established itself as essential in science curriculums. Yet, over time, as society has embraced the technology into its daily life and general lens, it has become necessary to adapt areas of thought once seen as isolated from technology - in particular, English literature - to the world of cinematic representation. How this new aspect of film-infused reading will shape the reception of literature is yet to be fully grasped, yet one can see in this new development a remarkable element of film: as a medium it manages to unite the realms of science and English, to speak the language of each at the same time, and to allow a new experience of studying the two as one, or as entities together, and that combination could prove to be a powerful new lens through which to experience the world. Rather than isolating the two fields as separate and even opposing of each other, they can be used to tell a story of greater breadth and depth, and in doing so, teach many valuable lessons.

Works Cited:

King, Kenneth P. "The Motion Picture in Science Education: 'One Hundred Percent Efficiency'" Journal of Science Education and Technology, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Sep., 1999), pp. 211-226

Muller, Valerie. "Film as Film: Using Movies to Help Students Visualize Literary Theory" The English Journal, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Jan., 2006), pp. 32-38