Scott Thornbury’s Six great films about teaching

It’s time for another voice here, and what a treat! I’m honoured that Scott Thornbury has agreed to do another of my “guest lists”. Scott Thornbury is an award-winning author and probably one of the most influential voices in ELT today. Here he shares six good films about teaching (or is it six films about good teaching?). It’s a perfect list for now, as this is the season of the Golden Globes, Oscars and other film awards. 

Scott Thornbury

Scott Thornbury


Good films about teaching are rare. Hollywood tends either to caricature or to sentimentalise classroom interaction, and teachers are typically portrayed as charismatic misfits (as in Dead Poets’ Society or The History Boys) or tragic has-beens (The Browning Version; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). However, occasionally a teaching film breaks the mould: this is my pick of the best.


1. Italian for Beginners: This is a dogme film in every sense: it as an early example (and the first by a woman: Lone Scherfig) of the Dogme 95 film movement, whose followers shun high-tech, and instead pledge allegiance to ten “vows”, such as: “Shooting must be done on location…. The camera must be hand-held” etc. It is also a film about a language class (in a small town in Denmark), and as such the teaching is consistent with Dogme ELT principles as there are no materials, the content of each lesson being based firmly on the needs, interests and desires of the people in the room. The film interleaves the classroom experience with scenes from the lives of the (adult) students, who all end up using their halting Italian on holiday in Venice, the language being both the motivation and the medium of each individual’s self-realisation.  All teaching should be like this!


2. Blackboards: Another film directed by a woman (Samira Makhmalbaf of Iran), this charming film narrates the vicissitudes of a group of dispossessed teachers who wander the mountains of Kurdistan looking for students, their enormous blackboards strapped to their backs. These blackboards also serve as tables, shelter, even a bier, and as such are symbolic of the teachers’ ingenuity as well as their fortitude. The fact that the blackboards are the only aid the teachers need (and that they are of the non-interactive variety) is also consistent with the notion of minimal technology, a core principle of dogme thinking.


3. Etre et Avoir (To Be and To Have) : Directed by Nicolas Philibert, this beautifully filmed documentary chronicles a year in the life of a small, one-teacher school in rural France. Nearing the end of his career, the teacher is the antithesis of the Robin Williams school of teaching: with calm, unobtrusive assurance, he welds the disparate mix of ages and learning styles into a tight-knit, mutually-supportive community, who are in turn the youthful embodiment of the wider community in which the school is nested. This is probably one of the best films about teaching ever made. And again: there’s not a computer in sight!


4. The Class: another French film, just released and which (I have to confess) I haven’t seen yet. But it looks like being a winner (and in fact it won last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes). Set in a multi-cultural high school in Paris, the film is directed by Laurent Cantet, and stars an actual teacher, François Bégaudeau, on whose book about the school where he teaches French the film is based. This is one not to miss.


5. Confidential Agent: Made in 1945, starring Charles Boyer and Lauren Bacall,  this is not really a film about teaching at all.  But part of the plot (based on a Graham Greene novel) revolves around a language school in London, modelled on the typical Berlitz school of its time, and which happens to be a front for pre-World War 2 espionage. One of the teachers, played by the inimitable Peter Lorre, gives direct method one-to-one lessons as a pretext for passing on state secrets. The lessons (in a fictitious language) are surprisingly plausible, as is the insidious presence, on the other side of the classroom door, of the school director, eavesdropping to make sure that the method is being observed. Needless to say Peter Lorre gets his come-uppance, a lesson to all teachers who mix teaching and politics!


6. Two Loves. Another one I haven’t seen, but not through want of trying. This 1961 movie, starring Shirley MacLaine, is based on the novel, Spinster, by Sylvia Ashton-Warner, the visionary educational reformer. It purports to tell the story of how a remarkable teacher brings innovative classroom methods to a rural New Zealand primary school, winning over the headmaster (played by Jack Hawkins) and the local Maori community. Pedagogy gives way to melodrama, however, and it all ends in tears.  A curiosity, but worth hunting out, if only because it indirectly celebrates the work of Ashton-Warner, whose rejection of coursebooks elevates her to the topmost rung of the dogme pantheon.


Published in: on January 14, 2009 at 8:33 am  Comments (19)  
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