Can documentaries enhance the study of history?

Broadcaster: BBC Two
Year: 2014 (transmission)
Genre: Documentary

Review by: Cara Goodwin

How do we make history interesting? The association of an academic pursuit filled with time-consuming reading intrinsically linked with the older man in a tweed jacket and arm chair clings to the study of history. This is the problem which all those who teach, aspire to teach, curate or merely hold a vested interest in the subject hope to address. In short the aspiration is to make history enjoyable, appealing and most importantly interesting.

Ofsted’s History for All report (2011) found that despite the number of students opting to take GCSE and A-Level history rising steadily over the last decade, the introduction of a two-year Key Stage 3 has led to the majority of students ending their historical studies before the age of 14. Whilst each discipline regards their subject as inherently important, and I am no different, I believe that opting to study history can significantly improve one’s own academic and personal development. History develops the widely transferable skills of reflective learning, analysis and interpretation which can be used and built upon for all areas of life, in addition to academia. This is something many will miss out on.

The digital age leads to the question of what types of media can be used to appeal to prospective and existing history students, enhancing the predominantly textbook based study of history in schools. Documentaries are undoubtedly used and an obvious choice, but how much out there is available and relevant to the subjects taught in post-compulsory history education? I looked at AQA’s A-level history modules and decided to focus on a theme ‘Tsarist Russia, 1855-1917’, which is divided into 5 subtopics.

A search of the BOB media archive unearthed endless material on Russian history, none of which appeared to be entirely or in most cases at all relevant. However, I found a two-part documentary I’d seen before called ‘Royal Cousins at War’ and decided to evaluate its content, having enjoyed it in a non-academic capacity upon its first viewing.

Royal Cousins at War

The title misleadingly suggests a documentary about war and begins with the marriage of the future Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark in 1863, tracing the history of the three men in charge of almost half of the world’s population (a fact taken from the documentary) at the outbreak of World War I. Outlining the interconnected ruling families of Europe, in particular those of France, Germany and Russia, their respective childhoods and interactions up to World War I, ‘Royal Cousins at War’ does not fit into any particular module that can be studied in the syllabus, however it does provide a varied and human perspective into the lives of the monarchy and the ruling elite across several generations until the end of World War I. The documentary explores the changing alliances and ententes across Europe in the lead up to war and how the personal relationships of the King, Tsar and Kaiser contribute to and are ignored in policy making, with the decline of inherited power.

The use of sources in Royal Cousins at War is its greatest strength in appealing to students, using a narrative often based on private epistolary sources alongside videos and photographs. It features primary material and source types which would not be necessary to study at A-Level, making it engaging on a personal level in a way a textbook cannot. However, as I previously mentioned it does not fit neatly into the module divisions of A-Level history and could apply to many topics such as ‘Tsarist Russia, 1855-1917’, ‘The Development of Germany, 1871–1925’ or ‘Russia and Germany, 1871–1914’ and probably more across the different units and exam boards. This further highlights the difficulty in finding suitable and relevant documentaries to supplement traditional textbook based methods. The problem therefore remains, that as exam topics continue to change every few years, documentary makers will not make programmes aimed specifically tailored to a syllabus, and if they did they would almost certainly be less interesting than those made for a wider audience, therefore educators face the problem of finding material with suitable educational content, or to use one less media platform in the teaching of history.

To encourage students to watch historical documentaries they must be engaging and enjoyable but also feature enough academic content to make them useful as a resource. By presenting the study of history in a modern way it may be more comfortable or appealing to students, however the focus must always be on the content and therefore as I found, often there is very little accurate or entirely appropriate content, despite being enjoyable to watch.

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