Watching Documentaries as Part of Education


Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Tim Baker. Tim  is a little bit of a documentary buff, who uses documentaries extensively throughout his life, and raises three kids in his spare time. He created,  an organized collection of documentaries that you can watch free documentaries online.

When many think of documentaries, they envision rather dull movies which contain a bunch of penguins waddling about or a series of old footage about a historical event. That’s not what most of us as kids felt however, when the teacher rolled the good old TV and VHS set into the middle of the classroom. We all knew, and so did the teacher, that this would be one of those rare moments where we all went magically silent. A welcome side effect of putting up documentaries for the class, but I’m pretty sure this was not my teachers only motive to have us sit down and watch TV. Within minutes, we’d be sucked into a wholly different world, where we had exclusive access to interesting people, exotic places and genius ideas. We dived into plants and observed the workings of chlorophyll, had conversations with Einstein, traveled across continents with light speed, or experienced being part of bizarre and inaccessible animal herds.

But what’s so captivating about documentaries? What made us all go silent and sit still for a good hour or so? I can’t keep my children’s full attention for even five minutes, let alone an hour. So what was going on? I’d like to discuss how documentaries can be used as a teaching aid to supplement traditional teaching methods based on my own experiences with my three daughters. Clear distinctions must be made between being smart and using documentaries in an effectively educative manner and being sluggish and using them to only keep your kids busy while you go watch your favorite program without being interrupted. However, these differences are not always obvious, which makes it easy to fall into the laziness trap. You could inadvertently derail the course of your children’s education, especially when you’re homeschooling them. So I’d like to take a moment and address these issues, and talk a little bit about the future of documentaries as well.

What are documentaries?

Documentaries have been around for decades and are considered a very key part of the visual arts genre. As indicated earlier, they can be produced and presented in film format, but the possibilities are virtually endless. As technology develops, new ways of making documentaries become possible – but I’ll discuss this later on. Some documentaries are a rather simple and amateurish affair while others can be full-fledged productions with stunning visuals, beautiful sounds and a carefully crafted storyline.

A documentary documents reality. It doesn’t necessarily entertain, but a good one should keep you current and informed about its subject. Modern day documentaries are primarily made out of a combination of sounds and visuals from varying sources, including television, radio, and other professionally recorded media. No wonder then that the traditional chalkboard can come off as cold and abstract, while the more lifelike documentary is better at grabbing our attention. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing the excellent job teachers do in front of the chalkboard, but there is clearly a balance issue when they have trouble keeping their students attention. Here’s what documentaries do great: They communicate richly and simultaneously through all five channels, namely sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. We experience sight and hearing directly, but our imagination automatically touches this up with taste, smell and touch. There’s not only tremendous amount of input in a short period of time, but it also leaves no room for distraction. Our brains are more engaged, and in effect, we retain more of what we experience.

How to use documentaries effectively

So let’s look at a few positive ways you can use documentaries. I usually ask my kids about their subjects at school. If they’re having biology for example, I’ll put up a documentary about the specific parts they discuss within biology. The point here is to give them a general introduction to the subject, the broader the better. One thing I always lacked at school was a good sense of overview of the subjects I was being taught. We blindly went through all chapters. It’s like trying to break out of a maze without the aid of a map. You might find your way out eventually, but it will take you much longer without a map, and you will get confused as to how you found your way out. The child has to understand the purpose of what he or she is learning. This makes the substance easier to digest and gives them a sense of direction, making everything easier to understand, and much more fun!

Another excellent way to use documentaries is to give them away as presents, in addition to the ones you normally give. So whenever I buy my daughter a video game or girls’ toys, I always add one extra gift, like a documentary DVD or Blu-ray. This should remind them (and their subconscious) that life is, in addition to the fun part, a learning experience. Try to keep them reminded of the endless unexplored areas in life. There are always new things to learn and experience, and documentaries are an awesome way to do this.

Watching documentaries is also an amazing opportunity to have quality family moments. Most parents leave the scene way too early, or don’t even stay at all. As soon as they press the play button, they’re gone! Letting your kids watch solo is a big mistake in my opinion. Documentaries have much greater impact when there’s at least some active social element while watching them, otherwise it may become boring too quickly. Children not only get to ask you lots of questions, but it’s simply much more fun for them when there’s somebody around. And in the midst of it all, you also get to gauge their reactions to different documentary topics. There’s a good chance you might discover some future career ideas, depending on how enthusiastic they react. If you think you’re on to something, try more documentaries with the same subject, and decide how you can guide your children from there, without forcing anything on them obviously.

Now, documentaries are obviously just tools, they’re handy teaching aids, not meant to replace any form of traditional mainstream education. But like any other tool, some caution and skill should accompany its use. First of all, make sure the documentaries you’re about to watch are not produced for propaganda purposes. Nowadays anybody can produce documentaries, and many junk producers do just that to spread carefully crafted disinformation for their employers. It’s easy to mislead with documentaries, because unlike books, it’s almost impossible to check the authenticity of the sources, and they’re so much more convincing on top of that. Some of them are so spruced up, that only well after an hour you come to realize you basically have been watching an hour long commercial! As a rule of thumb, it’s usually safe to watch documentaries from respectable producers like BBC, HBO and PBS. Otherwise, make sure you watch the documentary yourself before playing them in front of your kids. When in doubt, try and search the Internet for any skeptical reviews, and use your common sense. As a last resort, you could always use Google to directly check whether there’s any truth to the documentary’s claims or sources at all. This is harder to do, but very effective.

There are a couple of other problems with watching documentaries. For instance, it’s a very unsocial activity, but this can easily be tackled by watching the documentary in a social setting, like I mentioned earlier. Try to reduce the amount of time your kids spend watching documentaries. One or two hours a week really is sufficient. They can fill the rest of their week with more social activities. Then there’s also the problem of passivity. There’s no interaction with the material whatsoever and everything is very linear, almost no different from watching TV. To introduce some engagement, you could try out web documentaries, an advanced new form of documentaries which I will discuss next.

The future of documentaries

Nowadays the word ‘documentary’ has become somewhat of a synonym for ‘documentary film’, partly because there are almost no other forms of documentaries on the market. In theory, documentaries can be represented in any technological shape or form. In practice though, this shift towards new trends is either nonexistent or very slow. There have been specialized forms of documentaries around for a while, like the headphones you get at museums for virtual guided tours, but these are just minor changes, in which the visuals have shifted from prerecorded material to real life objects in glass display cases.

However, there’s a new kind of documentary which could potentially cause the next big paradigm shift. Enter the world of web documentaries, where interactive web technology is combined with multimedia like videos, images, animations, infographics and sounds. Thanks to interactivity we no longer have to walk that notoriously linear path anymore, and we can take a turn at any intersection we like. Combine this with more sophisticated human input, like the use of touchscreens, voice recognition and augmented reality, and we truly have something unique here. The possibilities are endless: We already have smartphones and tablets, but computers never stop miniaturizing, and they increasingly find their way into everyday objects like glasses (see Google’s Project Glass). There are so many ways we could communicate with interactive documentaries, it’s mind boggling. I suspect that this will be one of those areas where artificial intelligence will play a big role. If you’re interested in more, have a look at, one of the best websites I’ve found on interactive web documentaries.

So, I can already carry documentaries in my back pocket and there’s really no telling where this development will take us in the future. As technology and information continue converging and synergizing more and more, the line between technology and education keeps getting thinner and thinner as well. We will one day inevitably be faced with tough moral questions, but those are way beyond the scope of this post. In the meantime, I’d say enjoy your documentaries, and share your own experiences using them!

Picture by clem via Morguefile

EDUKWEST Guest Contributor.