Using Movies for Education

we-trust-much-to-pictures-but-charlotte-mason-posterPart II- I answered the question about whether or not Miss Mason would have used film if it were available to her,  briefly here, with a lot of quotes from CM showing she was familiar with movies (the cinema), and she dismissed them as entertainment.  But I have more to share.  First,  let me first make it clear upfront that we use movies, too, to entertain, distract, veg out, and to a lesser degree to learn. We don’t have television, but we do use the DVD player and movie sites like dramafever, netflix, viki, and so on- with far too much regularity.  And even Charlotte Mason admits that pictures can be useful to correct our notions- so that, for example, a well done version of Pride and Prejudice can be as good as the British museum and the Quennel books that Miss Mason used for the purpose of giving the children an accurate visual frame of reference for every day things and how they are used- although I find her stress on the use of movies to *correct* our mental images (first formed through words) quite instructive.

Let me back up just a moment to expand further on the point that we assume incorrectly that movies weren’t around yet in CM’s time.  I had a lot of information on this, and I want to use it.;-D
Here’s an interesting bit of background on the cinema that would have been available to her (she died in 1923, and volume 6 was published the same year):


As generally acknowledged, cinema (a word derived from Cinematographe) was born on December 28, 1895, in Paris, France. The Lumieres presented the first commercial and public exhibition of a projected motion picture to a paying public in the world’s first movie theatre – in the Salon Indien, at the Grand Cafe on Paris’ Boulevard des Capucines. [it was so popular that just two years later, In 1897, a cinema building was built in Paris, solely for the purpose of showing films.] It has often been considered “the birth of film” or “the First Cinema” since the Cinematographe was the first advanced projector (not experimental) and the first to be offered for sale.

The 20-minute program included ten short films with twenty showings a day


The film age hit the world with a splash. The film were ‘epic’ and extremely popular (see this western from 1916, or look at the careers of Mary Pickford, Tom Mix, the Gish sisters, Buster Keaton, or Fatty Arbuckle).  Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops were famous years before Miss Mason’s sixth volume was published. The industry was so well established that by 1912 it was big enough to support the publication of several motion picture fan magazines. And Miss Mason did not live in a bubble. She read the papers. She insisted on her students being aware of the news of the day. She couldn’t possibly have been unaware of this huge sea-change in public culture (and she wasn’t- she just considered that it was part of the maiming of the intellect she talks about).


In the early 1900s, motion pictures (“flickers”) were no longer innovative experiments. They soon became an escapist entertainment medium for the working-class masses, and one could spend an evening at the cinema for a cheap entry fee. Kinetoscope parlors, lecture halls, and storefronts were often converted into nickelodeons, the first real movie theatres. The normal admission charge was a nickel (sometimes a dime) – hence the name nickelodeon. They usually remained open from early morning to midnight.

And given Miss Mason’s insistence on being informed of the scientific advances of the day, it’s hard to believe she would have been unaware of this.  Films weren’t just slapstick comedies and treacly romances, either. Dante’s Inferno, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, and Oliver Twist were all classic stories retold for film long before her death.  And yet she never mentions film in any positive connection that I can find.

Another error we make is assuming that because early films do not measure up to our standards, we with our marvelous CGI, our full color, our giant screens, and other advancements in technology, that the old films were really insignificant.  But they were new, and as a technology in its infancy, they struck viewers with wonder and amazement.  I would venture to suggest that the early films, so primitive to our own eyes, were even more amazing to those who first watched them than our advanced films with their CGI generated special effects are to our more jaded eyes.  If you’ve watched the movie Hugo you know something of which I speak.  One of the true parts of that film is that in one of those early films a film of an oncoming train actually did terrify viewers because it seemed so realistic to them.


They even had color, at least sometimes:


These early color films were painstakingly hand colored, frame by frame.

Miss Mason did know about movies.  Her objections to pictures for learning are based on the lack of application the student has to make to obtain the information- how much more true this is of a movie! On page 340 of volume 6, she says that:

“We trust much to pictures, lantern slides, cinematography displays; but without labour there is no profit, and probably the pictures which remain with us are those which we have first conceived through the medium of words; pictures may help us to correct our notions, but the imagination does not work upon a visual presentation.” (emphasis added)


Consider this in light of Jane Healy’s information a hundred years later, in her book Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think And What We Can Do About It:


“The Importance of Words without Pictures” Any activity that helps children use their brains to separate from the “here and now,” to get away from pictures and use words to manipulate ideas in their own minds, also helps them with the development of abstract thinking….Even more important, however, is understanding words alone as the main source of meaning. Because the words do not come with pictures attached, the child must come to grips with “the symbolic potential of language…Experiences with pictures attached, even when they involve looking at picture books and learning new words, are not as valuable, says Wells, because the child needs to learn “sooner, rather than later” to go beyond just naming things that can be seen. He concludes: ‘For this, the experience of stories is probably the ideal preparation… Gradually, they will lead them to reflect on their experience, and in so doing, to discover the power that language has, through its symbolic potential, to create and explore alternative possible worlds with their own inner coherence and logic. Stories may thus lead to the imaginative, hypothetical stance that is required in a wide range of intellectual activities and for problem-solving of all kinds.'” (p. 91-92)


(thanks to Sandy Fairchild for bringing this quote to my attention).


Healy wrote another book, called “Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning From Birth to Adolescence” I think it’s so important that I assign it to my high school students for school reading. They have concluded with no input from me that no child of theirs will watch any TV until the age of 8. The oldest grandchild’s daddy loves movies too much for that to have worked, and he does watch them. The Oldest grandbaby of the other family is still just 18 months and it’s too soon to tell. Often, as in my own case, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

A while back Pip participated in a University study on almonds- she had to eat a certain amount each morning and then go for regular blood draws.  A few times over the course of the study she had to stay 8 hours while they monitored her blood over the course of the day.  The subjects were allowed to do anything they wanted while waiting during that 8 hour period, except for two things.  They could not nap or watch movies.  They could watch documentaries, however.  Curious, she asked them why.  They explained that watching movies alters the hormone levels in the blood, which affected their study results.  Even more curious, she came home and researched this further.   She found that studies indicate that watching chick flicks really does elevate the female hormones in the blood- even when it’s a red blooded male who hates the experience watching the chick flick.  And watching violent movies elevates testosterone levels, and in males with already high testosterone levels, it elevated them by an even greater ratio than in, say, mild mannered young women. However, while the rates of elevation varied by individual, and the type of hormone raised depended on the movie, everybody experienced elevated hormone levels when they watched movies, but this was not true of documentaries.  Perhaps this is a function of how our brains respond to stories?
Most people understand that television does change the way our brains work, but we think it is a function of the type of program- the jittery, rapidly changing camera angles of some programs are deemed unacceptable, while slower paced television shows are presumed to have no affect.  In actuality,  it is not just the number of cameras and the frequency of perspective changes that change the way the brain functions while watching television- although these are important factors. But it is also the very nature of the medium itself. Whether one angle, one camera, one perspective, or a hundred, the picture on the screen is made up of thousands of little pixels, too small to be seen by the conscious eye, each of them changing rapidly, flashing minutely to create the moving picture, no matter how slowly you think it’s moving. It is _this_ rapid movement that causes the brain of a person watching _any_ television show to start imitating the brain patterns of a person under hypnosis or in a deep sleep. There are other books besides Healy’s that document this-

Marie Winn’s The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life,

Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,

Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,

and from a Christian perspective, several chapters in The Child Influencers: Restoring the Lost Art of Parentingby Dan Adams deal specifically with the influence of television and film.

Here’s another I have not read, but it looks even more damning than the others: Remotely Controlled: How Television is Damaging Our Lives. From the review:

In August 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued guidelines clearly recommending that children under the age of two watch no television or any screen entertainment at all, and that children of all ages should never have a television in their bedroom because television ‘can negatively affect early brain development’.

This startling announcement has just been added to by the latest study of 2,500 children published in their medical journal, Pediatrics. About seven per cent of our children now suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and the rate of this neurological disorder appears to be increasing. In the United States, it is now the most common behavioural disorder in children. Although genetic inheritance accounts for some of the prevalence of ADHD, and despite decades of research, little thought has gone in to the potentially crucial role that early childhood experiences may have on the development of attentional problems. The authors of the study wondered if there is an omnipresent environmental agent that is putting children at risk of developing ADHD. Critics have wrongly argued that ADHD is a convenient label that simply medicalises the behaviour of difficult American children for the benefit of exasperated parents, teachers and pharmaceutical companies, and that Ritalin is a profitable ‘chemical cosh’. Yet new research at London’s Institute of Psychiatry concludes that ADHD is a real problem, and brain-imaging evidence shows it has a biological basis. The parts of the brain that we use for controlling our impulses are found to be underactive. Moreover, 10 years later, boys with ADHD are four times more likely to have developed mental illness.

The authors of the study in Pediatrics believe that ‘…early exposure to television during critical periods of synaptic [brain cell] development would be associated with subsequent attentional problems’. And it looks as if the researchers are being proved right. They found that ‘Early television exposure is associated with attentional problems at age seven’ which ‘are consistent with a diagnosis of ADHD’. Children who watch television at ages one and three have a significantly increased risk of developing such attentional problems by the time they are seven. For every hour of television a child watches per day, there is a nine per cent increase in attentional damage. The scientists suggest that their findings may actually be an understatement of the risks to children. They speculate that even if there is some educational benefit to be had from the actual programmes watched, this benefit may have covered up the even greater damage to the children’s attentional systems that would occur if they watched programmes that had little educational benefit for them. Banning all screen time during the formative years of brain development, they believe, ‘may reduce children’s subsequent risk of developing ADHD’.

There is now growing concern that watching television distorts the wiring in the developing brain, which is undergoing rapid growth during the first few years of a child’s life. The advice now is that children should not start watching television before the age of three. The American Medical Association is now notifying its paediatricians to assess viewing habits when treating all hyperactive children.

Our Shrinking Attention Spans

When it comes to the link between our television culture and attention ‘spans’, there are wider concerns than children developing ADHD. While ADHD is the most infamous label in attention pathology, attentional damage and attention itself are enormous subjects that we are just beginning to understand. Attention — the act or faculty of applying one’s mind — may be something we take for granted, but capitalist boardrooms and the advertising industry certainly don’t. The Harvard Business Review and Harvard Business School Press are beginning to publish articles and entire books on the ‘attention economy’. Observations within the book entitled The Attention Economy include business mantras such as ‘Like airplane seats and fresh food, attention is a highly perishable commodity,’ and ‘…there’s a cash market for human attention, the most coveted commodity of all’. The business authors are even fully aware of the medical evidence of the role of television in affecting attention: ‘The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggest that children who watch a lot of television have lower grades in school, read fewer books, and exercise less. There is only so much attention to go around…’

Have you ever tried to narrate a scene from a television show or a movie? Have you had your children narrate a television show? You might be surprised. My sister in law and I were once talking about a movie we’d only just seen in the theater- and by just, I mean about an hour previously to our conversation.  We suddenly realized we had trouble coming up with details, but could easily revisit how that scene had made us feel. This emotional connection may well explain why so many of us get so defensive when we are confronted with information challenging our notions about how safe this national past-time is, especially for children with still developing brains.

I do realize there are individual differences as to how deeply a person is affected by television. I wonder if there’s any connection to how easily a person may be hypnotized? I  don’t know, just now wondered.   I know I  have two of my seven who are captured completely, slack-jawed and drooling, by a flickering screen pattern, and the others display varying levels of susceptibility, one or two of them possibly not affected at all. Those of you with one or two may be lucky enough not to have the slack-jawed, drooling, glassy eyed watchers and so can’t figure out what gets some of us so excited about this whole television thing. I tend toward the slack-jawed myself, and have a very hard time coming out of a movie with a coherent account of what I saw. I can describe the emotional impact, but I can’t give a narration.

Interesting, because that’s what the brain research folk explain so well. The part of the brain that shuts down, gives up, and turns off because it can’t cope with those rapidly changing little pixels on the screen, is the gate keeper, the critical thinker, the reasoning, sifting and sorting part of the mind. The part left in charge is the wide open, emotional, accepting part of the brain. I explain it very poorly, but I tell you, if you read the research, it’s very disturbing to think about a nation of people with the one side turned off and the other full on as they receive a barrage of television and movie messages calculated to alter the way we think.

A little more history:

“Originally, the earliest documentaries in the US and France were either short newsreels, instructional pictures, records of current events, or travelogues (termed actualities) without any creative story-telling, narrative, or staging. The first attempts at film-making, by the Lumiere Brothers and others, were literal documentaries, e.g., a train entering a station, factory workers leaving a plant, etc.


The first official documentary or non-fiction narrative film was Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), an ethnographic look at the harsh life of Canadian Inuit Eskimos living in the Arctic, although some of the film’s scenes of obsolete customs were staged. Flaherty, often regarded as the “Father of the Documentary Film,” also made the landmark film Moana (1926) about Samoan Pacific islanders, although it was less successful.”

1902 colour footage of a Macaw, some children and other things

17 of the oldest bits of film footage– I like the little street arab.

Claymation- around since 1908, although the oldest one still surviving is later

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