From Roots to Robin Hood – User Studies of Young People and History TV


My project has been to look at how young people are users of history TV in different arenas – in the history classroom, at home, and in museum education departments, and look at how they get an understanding of the past, how this fits in with issues surrounding the national curriculum and national identity. My presentation is divided into the following sections to describe the work I have been doing over the past twelve months –


1) Pupil and teacher interviews and responses

2) The preference of fiction over documentary

3) How can TV be specifically relevant to history teaching? (the use of Roots and Robin Hood)

4) Imperial War museum study

5) Future projects


Pupil and teacher interviews and responses


Teachers from different areas of the UK and abroad have been taking part in my online survey and face to face interviews, and their reactions to being asked about their use of TV/film in the history classroom have ranged from indifference to enthusiastic, and some have even been appalled saying it is dangerous to use fictional programming in the classroom. Some teachers have said they don’t have time to include TV in their lessons, or that their school disapproves it, whereas some teachers regularly use TV as a teaching tool and praise its merits. These different reactions speak volumes about the ways in which teachers view TV as an educational tool. The pupils’ responses in interviews show that generally pupils (age 11-16, mostly from London) have strong media literacy or an awareness of how programmes are put together. But despite this it has become clear that talking about TV or film clips in terms of structure and style is saved for media studies and not done in the history classroom. The answers showed that several pupils contradicted themselves by saying they were aware TV can be manipulative but somehow they felt history TV had a duty to tell the truth, and ultimately if they weren’t sure what the truth was the teacher could tell them, in this way the teacher acts as an interpreter of TV to the pupils. This issue if trust came up a lot in the interviews, some pupils felt they needed to see evidence uncovered in front of their eyes if they were watching a documentary. Because of this the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are was a popular choice for the home viewing of pupils. They were not open to the idea that some of this programme might have been staged, even pupils who had shown an understanding of how programmes are made. 


The preference of fiction over documentary


The interviews with pupils have shown that they engaged or empathised with fictional programmes and films more than documentary, although they did enjoy re-enactment sections within documentaries, and reasons given were mostly that they liked to see a story and characterisation, and to engage emotionally with material. All pupils felt fiction could still be educational and more of it should be used in schools. Teachers recognised this preference and used fiction as a way to excite pupils in a topic or to introduce them to a topic by using clear visuals. For example, the BBC series Rome uses CGI graphics to depict ancient Rome and bring it ‘to life’ and enthrall pupils in a way that text books or verbal description cannot match. Most pupils watched history fiction at home rather than documentary, but several interviewees enjoyed the History Channel, the Discovery Channel and the Biography Channel, as well as programmes like Time Team and Who Do You Think You Are, mostly because their parents watched them. Some pupils were watching history TV at home and then asking their teachers questions about it in school. The presenter-led style of history programmes was least popular with pupils who felt that they were boring and the presenters usually too old.


How can TV be specifically relevant to history teaching?


There are ongoing debates about the impact of TV on learning in general but how can TV be relevant to specifically to the teaching of history? The recent BBC series of Robin Hood came up a lot in my interviews with teachers using it to discuss national identity, using scenes that show cultural and religious differences between East and West that could be relevant today. For example, the Muslim character Jack becomes one of the merry men who are all Christians and the differences between them are portrayed as important yet not something that can stand in the way of friendship and comradeship. Alot of teachers have been saying that Robin Hood is a good tool for bringing citizenship into the history curriculum because the story articulates issues if Britishness. The BBC version has black and Asian actors which can provide a talking point about Britain’s multicultural history. Some teachers in the UK, and one in Australia, that I have interviewed have also said that they uses Robin Hood as a tool to show that there is more than one way to tell a historical story and it might involve a style (in this case comedy) and a hero (in this case a mythical one) that are not conventionally connected to the teaching of history. This broadens pupils’ minds about historical sources of evidence.


Another popularly used programme in schools has been Roots which last year celebrated its 30th anniversary and ties in with the recent anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. This 1977 US programme has been used in connection with national curriculum history modules on the slave trade and has proved a popular choice because of its engaging melodramatic style coupled with the sense of it being a ‘true’ story researched by genealogist Alex Haley and therefore educational. On the one hand pupils appreciated a tool that helped them get involved emotionally and understand a module which could be quite hard to empathise with, but on the other hand Dan Lyndon of the Teachers’ Association suggests that there is too much focus on slavery in America in UK schools. He suggests teaching about racial experience by looking at the Africans and Indians who fought for Britain during World War II or teaching about slavery using the story of black abolitionist Olaudah Equiano using an available BBC schools programme on his life. Development of such programmes shows the possibilities of reflecting hidden histories on TV and linking them to the curriculum. Also, it must be considered that although historical drama has its merits in schools, pupils are not the intended audience, and so questions about audience reception, and about the impact of melodrama and nostalgia, and what kind of relationship pupils can have educationally with fictional TV need to be considered.


Imperial War Museum Study


I attended a workshop at the Imperial War Museum in London in November 2007 that used TV not only as an education tool but as a way to tap into the communication model of the museum and have pupils engage with the exhibitions. They later had the opportunity to see what they had learnt by becoming museum designers themselves and create mini-exhibitions in groups which they explained to the rest of the class. The workshop used TV to teach history and to encourage a wider understanding of how museums work too. Two documentaries were shown, one from the BBC, the other from a Canadian TV company, both told the story of the Guinea Pig Club, a group of British soldiers disfigured during World War II who were used for pioneering plastic surgery techniques. The story focused on Jack Toper whose plane was shot down and caught fire when he was only 19. The BBC programme showed Jack as he is now and how the events affected his life. The feedback from pupils was that they enjoyed the programmes, especially the more gruesome aspects of the plastic surgery, but also because they felt they were close in age to the age Jack had been in the war and this helped them empathise with him, as did the use of museum artefacts such as seeing a real aeroplane similar to Jack’s and real pilots’ clothing. The pupils I spoke to at the workshop said they wouldn’t choose to watch documentaries at home but now they knew more about the Guinea Pig Club they would recommend the programmes to their families. These positive reactions showed how successful the museum had been in drawing pupils into the story and the other activities of the workshop by using TV.


Future projects


I have a three month placement at the library of congress in Washington DC later in the year, and as well as using archive material I will hopefully be getting to do school and museum education department visits whilst I am there. I have also arranged a research trip to the Paley Centre in New York. This used to be called the National Museum of Television and Radio and is a place where people can view TV archives. I have been invited to attend workshops in their education department where they use TV and link it specifically to the history curriculum as part of a government teaching American history programme. I hope to extend my study of schools from London to other UK cities, including Ireland, to look at issues of national and local identity taught through TV in the classroom.


Sarah Moody


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