The Plosive Pointlessness of Tom Bennett

To show a film or not to show a film – that is a stupid question

If I am looking in national newspapers for corroboration of my views on or just common sense about educational matters I will naturally go to The Guardian/Observer. I wouldn’t, for example, read The Daily Mail’s opinions on such which would be like seeking advice from Donald Trump on how to make the world a more caring place.

Yesterday’s Observer had two articles directly and indirectly about using film in the classroom which are convincing rebuttals to views expressed by the DfE’s so-called educational expert Tom Bennett about his opposition to teachers showing films. The first in the newspaper was a report on actor Michael Sheen’s observation the films I was shown in school inspired me; the other in the paper’s The New Review was an article about The British Film Institute’s Shakespearean film season.

I’ve commented on Tom Bennett before in this blog. I don’t know if his specific statements on film use in the classroom and other general observations on teaching approaches are genuine, in which case he is a purveyor of pontification, or just mischievous, in which case he is a perpetrator of pettiness. It’s probably the plosive both, an alliterative impact I would teach to students with a caution about overuse but also illustration, as here, of aptness. I would never teach as a SPaG tick-box points scorer, though Bennett would likely view this as worthy. In addition – to make it a theme – I’d have group work or whole class discussion on whether someone like this should be paid public money to disseminate his elaborate but silly metaphors as educational guidance:

Outside of a media course, the only place for a full movie is a film club or similar. Otherwise you’re just lighting cigars with fivers made out of children’s opportunities. Every second counts in a school; many children won’t get a second chance to sound out letters, learn about Vikings, run their tongue around algorithms and formulae and rhyme. For too many kids, school is the big window into another dimension, a cannon that can fire them from here to infinity. So why stuff that cannon with confetti?

Those final two sentences make little sense to me, but that’s how ‘gurus’ sometimes talk.

As a Head of English, I wouldn’t have been happy if members of the department showed films aimlessly to their classes, but I would have been disappointed if they didn’t use them as the purposeful and winning classroom tool they can be. As an English teacher with thirty years of classroom experience, I can’t imagine having not shown films throughout that time to entertain, engage and inform my students.

The Observer article on the British Film Institute is particularly relevant to my argument in favour of the use of film in the classroom. The BFI school resource packs linked to films – ‘popular’ as well as those interpreting texts, most obviously Shakespeare, but also classic and contemporary – provided a wealth of aids to learning. Obvious connections to English as a subject would be in their developing skills of appreciative and critical analysis, as well as the more general explorations of meanings in themes, characterisation, storytelling and so on. Oh yes, and that ‘entertainment’ factor.

But it is the impact of film versions of Shakespeare’s plays that provided me with the most dynamic classroom resource to complement that of the texts themselves. If students and staff could attend theatre performances, or we could have visiting theatre groups with workshops, then we would – and did [more on this in another posting to celebrate my school’s Shakespeare Days, organised by a colleague]. To engage whole classes and year groups – and the majority who couldn’t/didn’t attend theatre trips – then the use of film versions was a necessity. I’m sure this is glaringly obvious, but not, apparently, for Tom Bennett.

I could write at great length to exemplify my practice and experience of using film to assist in the teaching of Shakespeare, but I’ll save that too for another posting. I will, however, refer to just two other examples – telling ones, but a mere fraction of the use of film in that thirty years of my teaching. The first was in teaching Waiting for Godot to GCSE mixed ability groups. I will always be proud of exploring such a complex play with students of a broad ability range, that pride generated by the quality of their engagement and understanding and reflection of this through coursework as well as speaking and listening responses. This couldn’t have been achieved without seeing the play in performance, and doing so with film versions: in this case using film for the practicality of viewing. Whilst always seeking to explore the whole, the specific assignment I would set focused on the ‘story’ of the four gospels presented in the play. A wider contextualising would be for students to explore, as much as they could individually, whether they saw the play as negative or positive. For a more positive outlook and interpretation, they had to understand its humour, and to understand its humour, it had to be seen in performance. Again, this should be glaringly obvious, but not, apparently, for Tom Bennett.

The second is a more ‘film-as-film’ example and one that, because of this, seems most likely to fall into Bennett’s absolute category for banning. It was also a television programme. Used again for GCSE mixed ability groups, this showing of film was for the media coursework assignment of the syllabus I then taught. The film I used was from The X-Files television series, and it was the episode called Home. Showing this was in many ways genuinely risky, and I could only use in year 11. It was risky because it contained elements of quite graphic horror – though I would not call this ‘explicit’, a nuance I accept – and this was framed in an overall gothic if modern setting. I showed this specifically to teach the impact of visual narrative: the opening setting and scene [the hooker] works across precisely edited visual shots – though accompanied by sound effects of rain and thunder and screams – to tell the uncertain story, at this point, of the burial of a body, probably that of a baby.

The focus of the media assignment was in ‘thematic’ terms the understanding and articulation of how the visual shots conveyed meaning and drama. It was more than this in fact, but I won’t develop now. The other focus of the assignment was on ‘writing’ as a precise skill, here plotting exactly the shots and describing these with a critical vocabulary, in this case media/filmic terms. And it worked. It worked because the visual narrative of this film is so immediately dramatic and effective and engaging and therefore an excellent prompt and tool for teaching and learning. It engaged the students. It helped them to understand visual narrative – and in small groups, students devised their own visual narratives using a defined number of still photo shots – and through this develop a confident appreciation as well as ability to articulate this.

Showing Home was risky for other reasons too, but that was, for me, its educational value beyond the ‘media’ focus. This was in tackling and being challenged by the programme’s exposition of the theme of incest. Such a problematic portrayal is set in the film in contrast with the idealised world/town of Home, and the exploration of what is ‘normal’ behaviour is further examined through quite a bit of humour. Stuffing this educational cannon with confetti? Obviously not, but the ‘film’ context made it accessible in a way I think was profoundly purposeful for teaching, but I would stress it would take confidence, and I had that, to control this. It wouldn’t be a lesson idea I could recommend to everyone.



One thought on “The Plosive Pointlessness of Tom Bennett

  1. Pingback: The Glib, The Spiel and ResearchEd | mikeandenglish

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