Visual education

16mm film projector in the classroom, from
16mm film projector in the classroom, from

I was rather thrilled to read a piece in the Times Educational Supplement, in which Sanjay Sarma, director of digital learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called for teachers to stop relying on traditional teaching methods and instead use ten-minute videos. He is quoted as saying:

The way we teach today is based on lectures, which is still a factory-style system. But cognitive science and cognitive psychology tell us that students learn in a way that, frankly, isn’t compatible with lectures … You can’t do a 10-minute lecture in real life but you can certainly do [one] online. There’s an enormous amount of literature that shows how you can tweak the learning process to make it friendlier to the student without compromising the content or the rigour … The human mind wanders and what we do is make the student feel unhappy about it. In fact, you’re better off doing 10-minute lectures and then asking the students questions about what they just learned, because that transfers stuff from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. [Young people] spend hours each week consuming 10- or 20-minute titbits about physics and history or whatever on YouTube or Khan Academy. It’s not ‘maybe this will be the future’ – it is the future. We just need to recognise it.

The reason for the thrill is that such arguments are not so far away from those which were made by the first people who put forward film as an educational tool, something which has long been a favourite subject of mine. Earnest advocates of the medium as a means through to learn often wrote about how the moving image could be more effective than the printed word in imparting messages to the mind. Here’s non-fiction film producer Charles Urban writing in 1907:

The cinematograph helps the teacher to realise the difference between education and instruction. Education is a work of drawing out, rather than one of building in. It is the making of the best in a pupil by taking advantage of what is already there; to develop it, build upon it, improve upon it, and, as far as possible, make the pupil teach himself. Instruction is simply asking the audience to sit still while facts and laws are poured into the members; it is to look upon the pupil as a big receptacle into which fact after fact can be shovelled. Instruction is only a part – and a very small part – of education. The mind of the pupil is a living, thinking machine, and life and thought can best be brought into play by Cinematograph pictures which give every detail in motion of the subject under consideration. They enable the teacher to accommodate himself to the pupil. He must lead, not beckon, and aim at a mode of treatment which the pupil is able to follow. A series of living pictures imparts more knowledge, in far more interesting and effective manner, in five minutes, than does an oral lesson of an hour’s duration.

I have long thought these words, taken from Urban’s pioneering booklet The Cinematograph in Science, Education and Matters of State, were commendably idealistic but maybe a little too ingenuous, but it may be that he was absolutely spot on in his beliefs. Urban’s short films were trained on the young mind, and would work (at least in theory) because the visual made them inherently interesting. Certainly I think Sarma would concur with that “living, thinking machine” concept.

There were others at this time who espoused similar arguments. American distributor George Kleine wrote in a 1910 film catalogue:

Education thus imparted is never likely to be forgotten, and pupils who are slow in memorizing text-book instruction absorb the same knowledge very readily and rapidly when conveyed by moving pictures, which teach as no words do.

This is a formulaic sentiment, but one grounded in an understanding of how people think. Most notably (and notoriously) Thomas Edison in 1913 was quoted as saying:

Books will soon be obsolete in the schools. Scholars will soon be instructed through the eye. It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed in ten years.

A number of teachers supposedly took him at his word and cast aside the blackboard for the projector screen, but though he was wrong in his prediction of a complete change in how the school system worked in ten years, by 1923 the educational film had moved out of the cinemas and into the classroom, and film was indeed making a modest but noticeable effect on how some subjects were taught.

1923 is the key date, because that is when 16mm safety film was introduced by Kodak, making the exhibition of cheaper films free of fire hazard possible in non-theatrical venues such as school classrooms. A number of businesses arose, particularly in America, which aimed to cater for this emerging market: Charles Urban’s own Urban Motion Picture Industries, the American Motion Picture Corporation, Burton Holmes Laboratories, Bray Productions, Castle Films, DeVry Corporation, Ford Motion Picture Laboratories, the National Cash Register Company, the Society for Visual Education, the United States Steel Corporation, and Yale University Press Film Service, among others. There were numerous journals serving this market, including Visual Education, Educational Screen and Educational Film Magazine. There’s a great survey of the extent of what was generally called ‘visual education’ in the 1920s written by Andrew P. Hollis that’s available online, Motion Pictures for Instruction (1926) – informative and palpably enthusiastic.

At the same time there were serious studies into the efficacy of film as an educational medium. The leading study was undertaken by Frank N. Freeman of the University of Chicago, Visual Education: A Comparative Study of Motion Pictures and Other Methods of Instruction (1924). Freeman was concerned that the drive behind the educational film was coming from supply (all those film companies sensing a new market) rather than demand, or need. Freeman concluded that film could “furnish a peculiar type of content of experience” and was of real value on some occasions, when used carefully as something to augment traditional learning, rather than something that replaced it.

Freeman may have been too cautious. What film offered was not simply a different way of receiving information, but one that challenged the structure of education. What is so striking about Sanjay Sarma’s comment is that reference to ‘factory-style system’ -learning by rote to a fixed timetable which suits the system but does not reflect how the young mind actually takes in information. We don’t learn uniformly; we learn through burst of enthusiasm and realisation.

What if the Earth Stopped Spinning, from vSauce

Of course, what has not always helped the cause of the educational film has been the educational films themselves. Often dull in tone and quaint in style, the classroom film of the twentieth-century too often seemed calculated to fill the time rather than feed the mind. But with the online video explosion of the twenty-first century, the power of the medium to change how we learn is there for all (literally) to see. Have you watched vSauce? Have you spoken to a child who has watched this terrific educational science series? Millions do, of their own volition, and what is extraordinary is how much has sunk in and is then enthusiastically reported back by its viewers. It is the ten minutes that transfers to long term memory par excellence.

There are many more YouTube channels doing similar thing, among them Veritasium, Numberphile, Khan Academy and CrashCourse. They all work in much the same way: presenting knowledge and its contexts in an energetic, stylish and concise manner, emphatically visual, with personable presenters, catchy music and snazzy graphics. They look cool; you feel cool for watching them. You learn stuff.

Here is the friendly learning process that Sanjay Sarma identifies with a form of learning best suited to students themselves. The ways we have been taught traditionally have been determined not by how minds work but by the need to fill the day and instill routine. Once children were no longer working in the fields and the law of the land said that they all had to be educated, they had to be contained. They had to be kept off the streets. Now there is a kinder, more productive, more long-lasting form of education that is emerging, one that combines the the online with the classroom (‘blended learning’ is the term generally used) and which may in time tear down the regimented tyranny of the classroom. And I think that there were film pioneers who recognised this, because they understood popular sentiment, and it has taken too long for us to listen to them.

There is a growing literature on the history of the educational film. For a long time all we had was Anthony Slide’s pioneering Before Video: A History of the Non-Theatrical Film (1992), but recently we’ve had Geoff Alexander’s Academic Films for the Classroom: A History (2010), Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson’s Useful Cinema (2011) and Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron and Dan Strieble’s Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (2012), and soon we will have Oliver Gaycken’s Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science (2015). Historical educational films themselves are getting screened more, too, particularly via the annual Orphan Film Symposium, organised by the visionary Dan Strieble.

Also worth looking out for is Arthur Edwin Krows’s Motion Pictures – Not for Theaters, a rambling accounting of the early years of educational film, published over seven years (1938-1944) in Educational Film Magazine (you can read it online but you’ll have to leaf through the issues individually).

Here is an alternative film history, one with all the passions, follies, inventions and dreams of the more familiar film history, but one grounded in the fervent belief that the fundamental purpose of the moving image is not too entertain, but to inform (and entertain while it is doing so). We know that it can do so very well. In places it is doing so better than ever before.


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