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December 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 4

Using Film to Expand Horizons

Movies—especially "world cinema"—have tremendous potential to stimulate students' interest, thinking skills, and even empathy.

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As educators, it's crucial that we guide students in developing critical thinking, so that they can become intelligent consumers of visual media, able to appreciate different perspectives. It's our responsibility to open their minds to the world.
Film has a role to play in this undertaking. Teachers often recognize the power of movies made outside the United States (what we call "world cinema") to expose students to other cultures. But they don't always realize that watching, discussing, and even making trailers or similar products tied to movies can develop students' critical thinking and analytical skills as well as their creativity.

Raised on Movies

Early in their development, American children typically watch movies featuring animated animals and toys; fairy tales starring princesses, stepsisters, and witches; musicals with catchy melodies; and action-adventure flicks featuring superheroes on a quest to save the world. As they grow older, young people are offered a greater variety of films. Besides providing entertainment, movies are fundamental sources of information through which young viewers learn about historic events, acquire norms for social behavior (seeing "good" and "bad" role models presented on the screen), and gain insight into their own culture as they internalize the films' implicit messages. Movies impact viewers' emotions, and since they provide implicit and explicit information about specific ideas, they can inform worldviews or intellectual perspectives (Knickerbocker, 2014).
As one scholar puts it, movies shape young people's identities—whether adults like it or not (Pearce, 2006). Accordingly, it makes sense for educators to leverage this art form for deeper learning and to guide students to view these images with a more critical eye.

A Powerful Pedagogical Tool

Films hold incredible potential as a teaching tool because of their entertainment value. They can engage students in content that may seem uninteresting to them otherwise. Supplemented by guided instruction, movies can help students think critically about issues and build their enthusiasm for pursuing certain topics beyond the classroom. An engaging film also stimulates learners' imagination so they can form bonds with characters and feel strong emotions about the images on screen (Marcus, 2005). In other words, studying films builds empathy.
Films also provide viewers with real-life, context-rich dilemmas in which movie characters must exercise higher-order thinking skills to make decisions (Blickenstaff, 2011). If students relate to the characters, they can participate in the film's storyline through their imagination, "living" new experiences and decision-making processes. Identifying with characters allows students to consider new ways of thinking, which can be reinforced or questioned through classroom discussion.
By skillfully leading discussions, teachers can help students analyze film narratives and examine how characters are represented; this helps students become aware of how a film's construction can influence moviegoers' point of view. Well-constructed lessons and activities can stimulate creative thinking by encouraging students to apply concepts from class discussion to generate their own ideas connected to a movie, including imagining character role reversals and alternate endings or even creating parodies. We use these activities in teaching film in college foreign-language classes and curriculum-methods courses.

Children of the World

Because people identify with characters who resemble themselves, young viewers are more prone to engage with world movies in which the main character is a child. Identifying with the character provides a familiar base from which to receive a new culture represented on screen.
Exposure to films from other cultures is helpful in fostering open-mindedness in youth. If young viewers only watch American films, such as Hollywood blockbusters, they have little opportunity to critically examine their own culture because those films only reflect American sociocultural norms and codes. Watching and identifying with a character in a foreign film gives students access to alternative norms and ways of thinking, including perspectives from cultures with more or less freedom than America. Encountering different points of view allows students to see that there is not only one way of thinking.
Introducing a film from a different culture doesn't have to be complicated or intimidating. Teachers can approach a "foreign" film by simply presenting it as such, posing simple, straightforward questions that can help young viewers examine sociocultural norms and codes that are unfamiliar to them. Questions might include: What did you notice about the setting? What is the main character's story? Who are the other characters in the film? What are these characters feeling and why do you think they behave as they do?
When teachers pose such questions, good world films prod students to think about issues and representations on a deeper level, especially if they compare certain aspects of the film with parallels in their own culture. For example, a teacher could encourage students to examine the representation of girls and boys in the French movie Tomboy as the protagonist searches for identity. (Questions might include: How do girls behave versus boys? What do they wear? What kinds of games do they play?) Such exploration requires students to think creatively—for instance, by imagining a character's motivations. This inspires open-mindedness.
Incorporating films from other cultures in the classroom also exposes young viewers to different geographic locations, creating guideposts to examine current events in the world. These films can be a first step in opening the world to students through a character they relate to—who just happens to exist in a different country. If students connect emotionally with a character, they're more likely to care about events happening in that character's part of the world.

Designing Film-Based Lessons: A Six-Part Plan

We've developed a six-segment sequence for planning lessons that guide students through watching and analyzing any world movie with the goal of sparking students' creativity.

Segment 1: Plan the Overall Experience

As a teacher plans an experience watching a particular movie, she should consider such fundamental questions as: What do I want my students to learn from watching this film? What background knowledge will they need before watching it? What collaborative activities can they do to reinforce these learning goal(s) and strengthen their understanding of the topic?
Plan for instruction and activities that engage the students to reflect on and question what they will see—such as cinematographic devices; narrative elements; or literary, historical, and cultural content and concepts embedded in the film (Sommer, 2001).

Segment 2: Set the Stage for Learning

To prepare students, you might give them a storyline summary, background about the country where the film is set, and other information, including:
  • Who the main characters are (with questions that help engage students emotionally in the characters).
  • What point of view the film presents about a certain topic. Identify the film's central character, why this particular story is being told, and how the film presents a point of view. Prepare questions to pose as students progress in their viewing, such as whether a particular topic is being depicted fairly and whose viewpoint is lacking (Marcus & Stoddard, 2007).
  • Why the movie had a critical impact in society or film history (its aesthetic aspects, important actors/directors, or a unique storyline).
  • Aspects of the time period and society in which the film was made (such as the late 1940s for the film The Bicycle Thieves). Discuss things like wardrobe; how characters speak (including register and slang); interactions between the characters; and how people of people of color, women, and other subgroups are depicted in the movie. Hypothesize who the target audience was and what messages in the film reinforced ideologies of the period.
At this stage, teachers can also introduce vocabulary related to cinematic devices; narrative elements; or literary, historical, social, and cultural issues within the storyline. Studying vocabulary can strengthen students' film literacy, helping them better explore the story and discuss the film with others.
To establish a climate of curiosity and inquiry, offer questions that compel students to contemplate different perspectives, consider their own judgments, and articulate their ideas to others as they learn how classmates view the same content. The best questions make the content meaningful to students, both before they start watching (such as, Have you ever dealt with a similar experience?) and as they watch the film (Do these characters remind you of people or other characters you know? How might the laws or social context at the time have influenced how the director portrays certain characters?).
To strengthen students' understanding of the context, you might show the film's trailer and have students imagine what will happen in the story; discuss the film's posters from different countries; or assign a reading about a relevant issue or a research project into the movie's historical background or a director/actor.

Segment 3: Screen the Film

Teachers can consider several options for showing the film: (1) show the whole film without break, (2) show the film with a break, stopping it at particular points to have a guided discussion or posing questions for students to contemplate (and possibly write about) before they continue viewing, and (3) assign students to view the film on their own time. If possible, we recommend having students watch the whole film together without interruption, so that they have a holistic experience. Option three isn't ideal, considering the numerous distractions that might pull students away from attentive viewing (likely done on a mobile device). But it might be the only option to maximize class time and allow for discussion.

Segment 4: Focus on Selected Scenes

Help students analyze a scene. After students have seen the whole film, teachers can replay—and have students analyze—certain scenes that are cinematographically significant or interesting to explore for the narrative subtleties or representation of characters they convey. Teachers can underscore critical concepts explicitly before replaying the scene, leading students to analyze the scene aesthetically (in terms of color, composition, angle, or point of view) and talk about the storyline or characters in more depth. For a more constructivist approach, you might show the scene before giving any instruction about it, posing questions like, Why do you think this scene is important? What strikes you most about the opening sequence? What detail here might foreshadow something to come later in the film? (Saltau, 2008)
For example, a teacher could show his 5th grade class the opening credits of the Iranian film Children of Heaven (1997), which shows a cobbler repairing a pair of pink shoes, and ask students what they can infer about the owner of the shoes and what type of stories focused on a pair of shoes they might anticipate.

Segment 5: Choose Post-Viewing Activities

The aim here is to further engage students with the film through activities that prompt higher-order thinking. Posing questions that will inspire students to reflect and share their ideas on complex issues, and to listen to what others have to say, is a great start. To spur critical thinking, identify questions that are likely to:
  • Reinforce what you want students to think about/learn from this film.
  • Meet the essence of your lesson objective or an academic standard.
  • Require divergent thinking to respond to.
  • Get students emotionally invested in the film, make them think about applications to their lives, and inspire a lot of interaction from the students (Buchanan, 2015).
Strong post-viewing activities will teach skills that focus on content-area standards, such as writing persuasive, expository, or procedural essays about the film or exploring narrative structure.
Viewing films also provides many opportunities to problem solve. Choose—or have learners choose—a dilemma in a film that students can relate to, then have students explore in small groups how to solve it. They might identify the problem; break it apart to raise other questions; gather as much information about the dilemma as possible; generate possible solutions and choose one; and finally design a way to evaluate their solution's effectiveness. For example, in Children of Heaven, the protagonist's sister discovers that another girl has her shoes. Students might think of different ways she could get the shoes back, giving students an opportunity to discuss problem-solving and negotiating skills.

Segment 6: Assignments that Spur Creativity

This part of the lesson—where students exercise higher-level creative thinking through processing, synthesizing, and applying their new knowledge and skills—is the most fun for students. Encouraging students to generate new ideas or perspectives inspires creativity, just as asking them to imagine and produce an original product does. Activities should encourage students to be fluent and flexible as they work toward creating an innovative product:
  • Imagine an alternate opening credits sequence (through different images, narrative, music, or all three).
  • Write an alternate ending (tragic, "open," and so on).
  • Rewrite a scene using a different register of language (such as slang or subtitles representing characters' thoughts).
  • Write the script for a scene from another character's perspective.
  • Record an alternative trailer for the film (using classmates or clay or paper figures to act out the roles).
  • Design the movie poster to emphasize a specific aspect of the story.
  • Write a diary entry in the voice of a certain character from the film.
  • Change the location of the film to your local community, and write a synopsis of that film.
  • Write a parody of a scene and act it out in front of the class.
When assigning these activities, provide students choices for what they can do, and vary activities so they cover different learning preferences. Help plan and carry out product completion. For example, teachers might guide students through choosing an assignment, setting goals, keeping a steady pace, and monitoring their progress. Encourage students to share their thoughts with—and seek constructive feedback from—others. It's good for teachers to offer some constructive feedback as well—but refrain judging students' work until it's thoroughly formulated. Avoid hovering over students; take a long-term view of their work rather than interrupting with frequent suggestions.

A Multitude of Perspectives

These activities and practices aim to encourage more critical thinking and analysis in the minds of kids who will consume countless hours of visual media. By examining sociocultural codes and norms conveyed in films from around the world, through a child protagonist's point of view, teachers can guide students to embrace a multitude of perspectives in today's complex intersection of cultures. In effect, educators can promote young people's creativity and global understanding.

Choosing a Film for Your Classroom

Screen any potential movie first, without students. Determine how the storyline and related content might meet standards for your discipline and how the film could enhance students' cultural awareness, considering what aspects of this culture you want students to learn about. Assess whether your students will find the storyline interesting and relate to the protagonist. Safeguard against violence, foul language, and sexually explicit images.

An internet search using "child-friendly foreign films" or "enriching foreign films with children in leading roles" will generate possibilities. Here are a few we recommend (with the grade level each is appropriate for):

  • Children of Heaven (1997). A poor Iranian boy loses his sister's only pair of shoes, then aims to enter a race and win the coveted prize—new shoes. 4th grade and up.

  • Wadjda (2012). This Saudi Arabian film showcases a 10-year-old girl who raises the money to buy a bike she covets, flouting social conventions. 6th grade and up.

  • Bicycle Thieves (1948). Known as one of the best movies ever made, this film tells the story of a man's struggle to survive, along with his son, in poverty-stricken post-war Italy. 7th grade and up.

  • The 400 Blows (1959). In this classic French film, 14-year-old Antoine must deal with a troubled family life and being falsely accused of plagiarism. 8th grade and up.

  • Cinema Paradiso (1988). This Italian movie tells the story of a boy who loves movies and his friendship with the fatherly projectionist at the Cinema Paradiso, while tracing the evolution of Italian society from World War II to the 1980s. 9th grade and up.

  • Persepolis (2007). Codirected by Iranian-born author Marjane Satrapi, this animated film follows a young girl's coming of age during the Iranian revolution, adolescence in Vienna, and exile in Paris. 9th grade and up.

  • Tomboy (2011). A French 10-year-old girl tries to pass as a boy with her new friends. 10th grade and up.


Blickenstaff, J. C. (2011). I'll bring the popcorn! Using popular movies in science class. The Science Teacher, 78(6), 42–46.

Buchanan, L. B. (2015). Fostering historical thinking toward civil rights movement counter-narratives: Documentary film in elementary social studies. The Social Studies, 106(2), 47–56.

Knickerbocker, J. L. (2014). Vintage films as primary sources in the history classroom. American Secondary Education, 43(1), 69–83.

Marcus, A. S. (2005). "It is as it was": Feature film in the history classroom. The Social Studies, 96(2), 61–67.

Marcus, A. S., & Stoddard, J. D. (2007). Tinsel town as teacher: Hollywood film in the high school classroom. The History Teacher, 40(3), 303–330.

Pearce, S. (2006). Sex and the cinema: What American Pie teaches the young. Sex Education, 6(4), 367–376.

Saltau, M. (2008). Not just another teen movie: Juno—A study guide. Screen Education, 52, 110–116.

Sommer, P. (2001). Using film in the English classroom: Why and how. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 44(5), 485–487.

David Campos began his education career more than 15 years ago when he started teaching 2nd grade. He later entered graduate school, taught ESL, and worked in corporate training and development. 

In 1996, he earned his doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin, specializing in learning disabilities and behavior disorders. 

His first job in academia was at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he was an Assistant Professor in the College of Education. There he served as Director of the Metropolitan Institute for Teaching and Learning and was an Acting Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs. 

After earning rank and tenure, he accepted an Associate Professor of Education position at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Tex.

He has written three books grounded in youth sexuality and coauthored a resource text and evaluation instrument for teachers of English language learners. His peer-reviewed articles focus on constructivist teaching and authentic assessment by way of African American visionaries. Dr. Campos traveled to China in 2004 on a Fulbright grant.

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