There are many wonderful resources to draw on when teaching the rich history of the British Isles: Medieval texts like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Domesday Book have survived intact, while exquisite works of art like the Bayeux Tapestry and the vivid paintings of J.M.W Turner offer wonderful contemporary visuals.
And then there’s Liam Neeson, of course.
The Irish actor famous for his brooding delivery might not compete with the likes of Asa Briggs in terms of scholarly analysis of the archipelago’s history, but he did star in at least two historically respectful biopics of famous natives: Rob Roy, the story of the 18th century Scottish rebel; and Michal Collins, the 20th century Irish revolutionary.
Studies show movies – and audiovisuals in general – are tremendously powerful teaching tools. Sure, they might not be as accurate as some academics like. In fact, some Hollywood productions are so divorced from history they’re useless in a classroom – Kevin Costner’s accent in Robin Hood, for instance, among other stylistic choices, live in infamy. What some of the better videos do, however, is, at the very least, pique an interest that can later be used to correct whatever simplistic views or horrible accents they originally imparted.
This combination of video, text, other visuals and audio, and physical activities, is called intermodality, and it’s often touted as one of the best way to conduct a class.
We all learn best in slightly different ways. Some argue the best way to teach is adapting to a student’s preferred style. This approach is called “matching.” For instance, if an individual learns best from listening it might be best for him or her to attend lectures rather than reading textbooks.
Others say matching does not yield better results. Instead, they support a three-pronged intermodal approach they say offers something for everyone:
- Visuals like video tend to cater to a majority of student’s preferred styles (AKA the “Liam Neeson” approach.) Their efficacy and wide appeal makes them a pillar of any class curriculum.
- Visuals alone, however, will not do. Texts, audio, physical activities (a visit to a site or an arts-and-crafts project) are essential to provide a well-rounded and more profound learning experience.
- Repetition and variation is important. Shifting between these media, and reusing them in different ways helps drill information deeper.
There’s no shortage of opinions about teaching methods. Traditionalists might scoff at using video extensively in the classroom – let alone of popular and often appallingly inaccurate movies. There are, of course, plenty of serious scholarly works done in video that can be used in teaching. In the context of British history, Simon Schama’s 15-episode “History of Britain” is one of many examples. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests today’s teachers might be more open to using less staid examples than their predecessors might have. Some academics are even using Monty Python and the Holy Grail to teach medieval history. If nothing else, students watching the British comedy troupe’s satire be able to tell the difference between the velocity of an unladen African and European swallow.