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Film as a Medium for Analysis in a Graduate Psychology Course.

Abstract

This paper presents the author's experience using film as a pedagogical tool in a graduate Psychology of Adolescence course. Two films depicted early adolescence and two films illustrated late adolescence. Students analyzed characters, situations, and issues in the films using psychological theories of adolescent development and focused on several main themes. These included parenting styles; theories of identity development; the values of school, family, and peer groups; and issues related to gender and ethnicity. Students concentrated their analyses on the socio-political-economic-historical context of each film.

Introduction

Cognitive theories of learning and research have taught educators much about the importance of active learning. Strategies such as meaningful processing, elaborative rehearsal, personal interaction with material to be learned, and personal relevance all positively affect learning and memory (Stein, Littlefield, Bransford & Persampieri, 1984). Teachers at all levels have sought unique ways of presenting information in an effort to maximize critical thinking, motivation, and achievement. Higher order thinking skills appear to be better developed using formats other than traditional lectures (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). At the elementary and even secondary levels of education, active learning and higher-order thinking can be encouraged through the use of hands-on activities, cooperative group work, projects and presentations, and other creative methods. The nature of much course work at the college level sometimes precludes the kinds of activities utilized at earlier levels. These courses often enroll well above thirty-five students, making some less traditional approaches more difficult to implement. However, with the increasing popularity of collaborative group work and a resurgent focus on constructivist approaches to teaching and learning, active learning is becoming popular even at the college level. One pedagogical technique that utilizes an active processing approach and has been used at the post-secondary level is the showing of feature films in class.

Using film in undergraduate college classrooms is not a revolutionary idea. In 1976 Duckworth and Hoover-Suczek wrote about teaching adolescent psychology using film. In their article they presented detailed descriptions of the plots of the films they used: The Member of the Wedding, Rebel Without a Cause, Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and The Graduate. Films such as these are timeless and, while perhaps out of touch with specific issues of contemporary adolescence, can still be analyzed in terms of the social and historical context of the film. Duckworth and Hoover-Suczek, however, focused on issues other than critical thinking. They defended the use of film as a tool in affective education, asserting that "complete understanding comes not only through learning facts, but through being able to empathize with characters in novels, historic situations, and moral dilemmas" (p. 601). Given the emphasis on affective education at the time Duckworth and Hoover-Suczek wrote the article, it is no surprise that their focus was on affective aspects of learning.

Desforges (1994) described how she used the film The Breakfast Club for an exercise in an adolescent psychology course. Her objective in using this film was to enhance students' understanding of specific developmental theories of Erikson, Marcia, and Kohlberg. Desforges found that students rated the method as enjoyable, supporting the Duckworth and Hoover-Suczek assertion regarding the use of film as an affective and motivational strategy. Moreover, the students actively engaged in processing information regarding psychological theories both in small and large group discussions.

Johnson and Sullivan (1995) describe an adolescent development course in terms of encouraging students to become active learners and to develop an empathic understanding of adolescents and their experiences. They describe a number of different strategies to reach their objectives. These include conducting interviews, writing synthesis papers, reflecting on personal experiences, and discussing and critiquing films. Two professionally produced films titled Kids Out of Control and Teenage Father were used to stimulate group discussion on stimulus questions. Subsequent to the group discussions, which required note taking, students were asked to prepare written critiques of the film or engage in role-playing. The critiques involved presenting students' views but also required the writers to support their positions with evidence or "logical arguments" (p.76). Becker and Eison (1992) prepared a bibliography of illustrative articles to assist psychology professors in the use of non-traditional pedagogical techniques in their classrooms. While not limiting themselves just to references of articles describing the use of films, Becker and Eison (1992) designated "film, videos, slides, and music" as one category to consider in the preparation of lessons designed to stimulate higher-order, critical thinking processes.

Classes in English as a second language also have used videos and other media as pedagogical tools. Dudley (1997) reported the use of various techniques for teaching second languages and presented tips for the use of video clips as part of an ESL lesson. The clips focused on United States history and the consideration of cultural context. Other research using secondary students and adults revealed that videos, along with other non-traditional methods of instruction, served as valuable resources and yielded positive results related both to cognitive and personal growth (Gersten & Tlusty, 1998; Lewis, 1997).

The benefits afforded by the use of these non-traditional techniques can be available to graduate students as well. Methods that stimulate higher-order thinking processes are just as pertinent for graduate level students. The analysis of adolescent characters using the venue of popular film is an ideal method of stimulating higher-level thinking regarding characteristics and issues related to adolescent development. Graduate students who are currently teachers of adolescents can benefit greatly from analyzing film characters as they struggle to understand their students. There is little available information regarding the use of film as a pedagogical technique with graduate students and, in particular, with teachers in masters degree programs. This may be due to the recent backlash against anything that is not considered traditional curriculum. Perhaps professors fear that this method will be viewed as a way to "water down" or "unintellectualize" the course, particularly at the graduate level. The usefulness of different media becomes apparent when educators at all levels focus on the critical thinking levels within the cognitive domain. As Bloom (1956) noted many years ago, beyond knowledge lies comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Using film as a pedagogical tool allows students to engage in these higher levels of thinking.

Over the past few years I have found that using film is one method of maintaining student motivation and interest in various topics, particularly when students are permitted to use their own "voice" in interpreting the films. Since I subscribe to a constructivist, Vygotskian approach to teaching and learning (Vygotsky, 1978), and would like my students to carry on in this tradition when they teach, I model different pedagogical techniques that I believe allow students to build upon already existing knowledge. Thus, they use various personal experiences as one frame of reference.

Each semester, at the beginning sessions of my undergraduate Educational Foundations class, I show the film Stand and Deliver, the story of Jaime Escalante's successful efforts to motivate and teach low achieving students in a poor, urban, Hispanic community in East Los Angeles in the early 1980%. This particular group of students at Garfield High School was considered the typical urban "throw-away kids." Their curriculum consisted of basic skills courses; their counselors attempted to steer them into stereotyped job paths; and they often faced enormous responsibilities outside of school. Yet, through incredible commitment and the use of a validating, constructivist approach (Escalante and Dirmann, 1990), Escalante extracted the best from his students, who all passed the Advanced Placement Calculus exam and were able to continue their education at the college level. Thus began a full AP program at Garfield High School that saw many students going on to college and attaining scholarships in the process.

My community college students' reactions to this film continue to result in their best "analysis papers" of the semester. They focus on issues related to growing up in a poor, urban community, to stereotypes of different ethnic groups, and to familial responsibilities that make studying a daunting task. Some students react by acknowledging similar experiences, others just begin to understand the racism and prejudice to which they may never have been exposed, and others react with admiration for the persistence and efforts that the students and Escalante exhibited. Knowing that the Stand and Deliver story is a tree account lends this particular film experience even more validity. As one student asserted, "If I didn't know it was a true story, I wouldn't have believed this was possible." For students embarking on the challenging path of becoming a teacher, this film allows them to experience hope both for themselves and for the students they will someday teach.

It was subsequent to this initial experience with film as part of my curriculum that I began to think about using popular film as a medium of analyses for higher level courses. The remainder of this paper focuses on graduate students, who are secondary education teachers negotiating relationships with adolescents on a daily basis and straggling to cope with contemporary adolescent issues and problems. It is important that these teachers be able to use critical thinking techniques not only in relation to theory and research but with respect to the young people they face in classrooms each day.

When the professor who taught the graduate Psychology of Adolescence course in my department retired, I was eager to offer the course since I wanted to try some new techniques to make the course student-centered. Having had success using film in the aforementioned course, I decided to research films that I felt were appropriate for a graduate course in adolescence, knowing that most of the students in the class would be teaching concurrently. My main objective was for students to attempt to understand the rich contexts of their students' lives. Since their experiences with adolescents reflect both planned and serendipitous interactions, I wanted these teachers to understand their adolescent students as developing human beings at an important juncture in their lives. The intent of this paper is to share my experience using film as a medium for analysis in this graduate Psychology of Adolescence, and to advocate the use of this pedagogical method in other graduate psychology and education courses. Support for advocacy of this technique is easily observed in my students' analysis of characters through synthesis of theory, research, and class discussions. Moreover, in evaluative feedback, they unanimously endorsed the continued use of films in the course. The technique permitted students to think critically about various theories of adolescent development in relation to the films' characters. Most importantly, students then began to reflect on their own pupils with respect to theory and contemporary issues affecting adolescent development and behavior.

Along with the analyses of film characters and issues that students prepared and discussed, another requirement of the course was to conduct a detailed case study using a particular pupil from their own classes and experience. The analyses of film characters, which required synthesis of different aspects of the course, allowed them to develop skills to analyze and discuss the subjects of their own case studies. The framework established when developing understanding of the film characters appeared to make them more sensitive when asked to analyze individuals within their own frame of reference. These case studies were far more interesting than those prepared by students prior to my using film in the course. They appeared to make greater efforts to understand various issues, behaviors, and characteristics of their own pupils and often referred to film characters, issues and situations, as well as to related class discussions.

The four films used are summarized below in Table 1, with critical information pertinent to their use in a psychology of adolescence course. Longer descriptions of the films appear in the Appendix.
FILM TITLE PROTAGONISTS' AGE SEX

Stand by Me Early Adolescence--12 yrs Male

Now and Then Early Adolescence--12 yrs Female

The Breakfast Club Middle to Late Female
 Adolescence-- & Male
 15-18yrs

Boyz 'n the Hood Early & Late Male
 Adolescence--
 12 yrs & 17-18 yrs

FILM TITLE ADOLESCENT ISSUES

Stand by Me Physical, social, emotional,
 & cognitive dev't; violence;
 friendship; male identity

Now and Then Physical, social, emotional,
 & cognitive dev't;
 friendship; female identity;
 parenting styles, family
 constellations

The Breakfast Club Psycho-social & cognitive
 dev't; peer groups;
 friendship; parenting style;
 family influences; sex

Boyz 'n the Hood Culture & peer group
 differences; family values;
 resistance culture;
 friendship; psycho-social &
 cognitive dev't; sex; drugs


Feature Film as a Pedagogical Tool

The four films cited above provided the context for extensive analyses, both in writing assignments and class discussions. I felt it was important to use the classroom venue for viewing the films because of the group dynamics that operate under this condition. Student reactions often acted as cues to their peers. It was not unusual for students to comment aloud which would prompt other comments (as well as pleas for quiet from other students!). Yet, the comments could act as stimuli for those who might not have had similar thoughts during specific parts of the films. Students were advised to take notes while viewing the films; thus, students were forced to be active, rather than passive, learners. This also allowed the opportunity for students to use metacognitive strategies while they were viewing the films. This active role served to give them a context while reflecting on the films for written assignments at home. It also served to keep these busy teachers awake after a long day of teaching and a three-hour class that began at six thirty in the evening.

I had given suggestions to my students regarding theories to use in their discussion and analysis of characters, issues, and situations in the various films. Although students had choices regarding which theories to use in their analyses, theories that were chosen more often reflected the specific films and the opportunities afforded by the content therein. Consequently, students often focused on many of the same theories in their analyses. For the films that focused on early adolescence, students focused their analyses on physical development and puberty, parenting styles, individuation, psychosocial development, and gender differences. A sampling of student analyses of characters in these films follows below:

?? ... the eccentric woman (waitress) overtly states what young girls covertly "hear" all their lives: that it is better to be a boy. No wonder girls feel inadequate and boys feel more adequate when physical maturation becomes visible ...

?? ... Actually it was he who brought the news of the dead kid. Then, he was not only happy because the opportunity for adventure lay ahead, but because he had info that would please his buddies and reinforce his acceptance in the gang. He accepts his role as the victim of the group because in that role, the group accepts him ...

?? ... The fourth task (Havighurst), achieving emotional independence from parents, is a healthy part of growing up, but because the parents we see in the films (Stand by Me and Now and Then) are so sick and self-involved, the children must achieve independence out of necessity ...

The textbook and other readings were used as background context for class discussions as well. In addition, students were able to relate situations, personalities, and behaviors of the characters to their experiences as teachers. These teachers were able to understand some of their own students and their personal experiences through analyses of the films' characters. Equally important, however, was the aforementioned experience of viewing these films as a group; the students had the same initial stimulus through which they could begin to construct a personal understanding and recollection of adolescent lives within the context of theory, research, and class experiences.

During the latter half of the semester students focused on the study of late adolescence. As would be expected, students analyzed the characters using distinctly different aspects of theories and research than in their analyses of early adolescence. They advanced explanations that reflected an understanding of this fascinating stage as a transition to adulthood. Since many of the students were teaching at the senior high school level, with fewer teaching the junior high school or middle school levels, these films were particularly meaningful and offered opportunities to examine issues and situations which, in general, they do not discuss with their own pupils. While students were able to apply most of the theories and research discussed in the course, students tended to appreciate some theories over others and these were reflected both in their character analyses and in their case studies. Table 2 summarizes the theories/research most used by these teachers in their character analyses and case studies.
STAGE OF THEORIES/RESEARCH
DEVELOPMENT

Early Adolescence Piaget's Transition from Concrete to Formal
 Operations
 Erikson's Stage of Industry vs. Inferiority
 Havighurst's First Four Developmental Tasks
 Research on Eating Disorders
 Research on Cultural Differences in
 Eating Disorders
 Parenting Styles: Authoritarian, Authoritative,
 Democratic
 Research on Physical Development & Puberty
 Gilligan's Research on Gender Differences
 Chodorow's Theory on Individuation and Gender

Late Adolescence Piaget's Stage of Formal Operations
 Erikson's Stage of Role Identity vs. Confusion
 Marcia's Sub-stages of Role Identity
 Berzonsky's Identity Orientations
 Parenting Styles: Authoritarian, Authoritative,
 Democratic
 Steele's Research on Stereotyping & Resistance
 Culture
 Research on Race/Cultural Effects on
 Dropout Rate
 Phinney's Ethnic Identity Development


Students appeared to enjoy analyzing the older adolescent characters to an even greater degree than the early adolescents. They seemed able to "connect" more with these characters, possibly because many of them were teaching pupils in this age range. Of particular interest were issues related to identity development, ethnic identity development, parenting styles, family communication patterns, and socio-economic status. The following brief excerpts illustrate the types of analyses and application of theory exhibited by many of the students in the class.

?? ... The biggest source of Andrew's pressure, however, comes from his father. Andrew's father not only reinforces in Andrew the need to achieve athletic success but to also get into a little bit of "boys will be boys" trouble. This identity diffusion or diffuse avoidant orientations, as Berzonsky would say, precipitated him to hurt the "weaker" student....

?? ... The text also talks about parent, school, and self-esteem. Doughboy had no parental support research has shown how important parental involvement is in a school situation. There is no doubt that the lack of interest in Doughboy's life, from his mother, has influenced him in this way ...

?? ... Minorities tend to recognize the differences in the world and that racism may be occurring. The reading refers to an ethnic identity formation with different stages. One of the ethnic identity formations is unexamined. Doughboy falls into this category because he does understand the values of the dominant culture, yet he does not relate to his own ethnicity. The research showed that 56.5% of Blacks fall under this specific ethnic identity formation.

At the end of the semester, I requested anonymous feedback regarding the course, since it had never been offered using several of the techniques that were utilized in the current class. Generally, in this type of course evaluation I ask, "What was the best part of the course; what was your least favorite part of the course, and how could this course be made better?" The feedback concerning the use of film was, without exception, positive, though students expressed varying views regarding other aspects of the course. What I found most interesting were the reactions to the specific films chosen. While most students endorsed the particular films I chose and believed that the characters portrayed allowed them to understand more fully the adolescent experience, others suggested films they felt would be more appropriate or that they had felt inspired them as teachers.

Future Use of Film as an Instructional Technique

My experience conducting this Psychology of Adolescence course using film as a pedagogical method has been extremely positive. Ongoing informal assessment of student reactions both to the technique and to the films leads me to believe that this is a most useful method of presenting the diverse and evolving body of material in this area. Moreover, students' use of critical thinking skills in their analyses and case studies revealed in-depth processing and understanding of theories and research related to adolescent development. Students themselves attributed their advanced ability to conduct comprehensive analyses to class discussions of film characters and situations.

One recommendation for enhancement of this technique would be to collaborate with university film schools to identify a broader range of appropriate films. As amenable as faculty may be to using the technique in their classes, a lack of knowledge regarding a broad diversity of available films can lead to the use of films that fail to inspire interest. Further, faculty may neglect those films that may be appropriate yet are unknown to those who are not film "experts." Collaboration with film schools would allow for better identification of a broader range of film choices.

One problem that was very apparent to me was the dearth of popular films that portrayed the great diversity in minority populations and situations. Often, films that portray persons of color do so by using stereotypical characteristics and contexts. Thus, although I believe that Boyz 'n the Hood is an excellent film that offers the occasion to analyze a variety of issues for minority youth, it is obvious that the environment and issues depicted reinforce negative perceptions of Black inner-city males. It was quite difficult for me to make the choice to use this film. While I recognized the value of the film and its endearing characters, I worried that I was sending a negative message to my students. Indeed one student kindly, but firmly, asserted that the film did indeed reinforce stereotypes regarding race. In truth, I was forced to agree with the student, although I knew that I would choose this poignant film again. Other students suggested films such as Fresh, Kidz, and Mi Vida Loca when I articulated this concern to them. However, those films do not fulfill the need to present truly multicultural films, those that portray a diversity of races and ethnic groups in similar contexts. Most films that are considered "multicultural" actually portray non-diversity and focus only on one race. Apparently they are considered "multicultural" because the main characters are not European-American. These issues support the need to consult with film schools, as those faculty may be privy to non-mainstream films that are not popularized by the media.

Another problem that must be addressed with using film is that there appear to be no popular films that focus on middle adolescence. In my course, I focus on three distinctly different stages of adolescence early, middle, and late. Unfortunately, the films either focus on early or late adolescence. My role, then, is to facilitate discussion regarding the overlap in development between early and middle adolescence, and middle and late adolescence. This is not particularly difficult, since there is enough variation in the characters' developmental levels that characteristics of middle adolescence can be identified. Further, this caveat allows students to think about stage theories in terms other than strict identification by age. Discussions then focus on cultural context, peer group, family dynamics, and personality as they relate to adolescent development.

Conclusion

I highly recommend the use of popular film as a pedagogical technique at the graduate level, and particularly with teachers. This method allows students to apply knowledge of psychological theories in the analysis of film characters and situations, and then begin to construct meaning of their own students' lives and their interactions with them. This experience also afforded me the opportunity to understand current needs of classroom teachers with respect to the issues and problems they face in their daily relationships with students. This instructional technique truly permitted students a voice in constructing their knowledge and understanding of theories of adolescent development, and to think critically regarding the relevance of these theories to their own adolescent students.

Students' analysis papers and case studies revealed their ability to use the films to attain a clearer understanding of various theories and research in adolescent psychology. Their analyses demonstrated a true synthesis of many different theories, both classic and recent. The analyses and discussions elicited by the films exhibited a higher-order processing of developmental aspects of adolescence. Teachers recognized adolescent experiences as poignant not only to the films' characters but to their own students as well. In using films as stimuli for discussion and analysis, these teachers were able to actively construct their understanding of adolescent development by appreciating the relevance of psychological theories to experiences with their own students and other significant adolescents in their lives.

Dewey focused on the importance of relevant knowledge and active experience in learning (Dewey, 1997), and Vygotsky focused even more on the importance of actively constructing knowledge, particularly through the use of one's own experiences and the interactive, social aspect of learning (Wertsch & Tulviste, 1992). By using film as a group experience, teachers are able to discuss freely their ideas and understanding, allowing their colleagues to assimilate their understanding as well. My deep belief in Deweyan and Vygotskian approaches to learning permitted me to seek out learning experiences that would allow students the opportunity to engage in deep processing by examining issues relevant to their lives and to those of their students. I have found that using film is one method of achieving my objective.

Appendix

Stand by Me

This film, which has become a classic, depicts the adventures of four early adolescent friends as they go in search of the dead body of a boy killed by a train. The film is a sensitive portrayal of adolescent boys growing up in the middle of this century in a rural town in Oregon. The film deals with many issues related to being an adolescent male in that particular social, economic, and historical context. These include issues of identity, physical development, peer pressure, "machismo," violence, friendship, and social and emotional development. The characters reflect different zones of proximal development cognitively, along with varying levels of physical and emotional maturity.

Now and Then

An analogous film to the older Stand by Me, this film portrays the lives of four early adolescent females in the summer of 1970 immediately prior to their moving on to junior high school. The film depicts the adventures of the four girls as they search to solve the mystery of how a twelve-year-old boy (from the previous generation) was killed. The girls deal with issues specific to adolescent females in the particular social, economic, political, and historical context in which the film is imbedded. The summer allows the girls to experience freedom, cognitive and emotional growth, and heterosexual attraction. As in Stand by Me, the characters are at different stages of physical and emotional development, and have experienced different parenting styles and family constellations. The characters in both Now and Then and Stand by Me are all twelve years old.

The Breakfast Club

Another classic film of adolescence, this movie depicts the relationships that develop among five late teens from different social, economic, and familial backgrounds during a Saturday detention at their high school. The film is sensitive in its examination of the difficulties and similarities in the lives of these adolescents, who bond as a group despite initial differences. Included as distinct characters in the film are the stereotypes of the "criminal," the "brain," the "weirdo," the "jock," and the "princess."

Boyz 'n the Hood

Another film that may likely reach classic proportions, the movie examines the relationships among four late adolescent African-American males who have grown up together in an urban environment and who have been friends for at least seven years. Although the neighborhood context is the same, the young men's family values, educational aspirations, and experience with the justice system are quite dissimilar and provide an unforgettable and perceptive outlook on varying conditions in the development of inner-city youth.

Endnotes

(1) Demi Moore portrayed the character of the adult Samantha in the film Now and Then.

References

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Bloom, B., Engelhart, M.D., Frost, E.J., Hill, W.H., & Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay.

Desforges, D.M. (1994). Applying theories of development: An exercise for teaching adolescent psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 21(4), 245-46.

Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and Education. West Lafayette, In.: Kappa Delta Pi.

Duckworth, J.B. & Hoover-Suczek, P.K. (1976). Reel to real: Teaching adolescent psychology through film. Phi Delta Kappan, May.

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Escalante, J. & Dirmann, J. (1990). The Jaime Escalante math program. Journal of Negro Education, 59(3), 407-23.

Evans, B.A. (Producer) & Reiner, R. (Director). (1987). Stand by me (Film). Burbank, Ca.: RCA/Columbia Pictures.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum Publishing Group.

Gersten, B.F. and Tlusty, N. (1998). Creating international contexts for cultural communication: Video exchange projects in the EFL/ESL classroom. TESOL Journal, 7(6), 11-16.

Johnson, E. and Sullivan, S.M. (1995). Thinking critically and understanding empathically: Techniques for teaching adolescent development. ERIC Document # ED389371, 74-83.

Lewis, M. (1997). New ways in teaching adults. New Ways in TESOL Series LL: Innovative Classroom Techniques.

Nicolaids, S. (Producer) & Singleton, J. (Director). (1991). Boyz 'n the hood (Film). Burbank, Ca.: Columbia Pictures.

Pascarella, E.T. and Terenzini, P.T. (1991). How college affects students. San Francisco, Ca.: Jossey-Bass.

Stein, B.S., Littlefield, J., Bransford, J.D., & Persampieri, M. (1984). Elaboration and knowledge acquisition. Memory and Cognition, 12, 522-29.

Tanen, N., Hughes, J. (Producers), & Hughes, J. (Director). (1985). The breakfast club (Film). Hollywood, Ca.: Universal City Studios.

Todd, S. & Moore, D. (Producers) & Glatter, L.L. (Director). (1996). Now and then (Film). Burbank, Ca.: New Line Cinema.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher mental process. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press.

Wertsch, J.V. & Tulviste, P. (1992). L.S. Vygotsky and contemporary developmental psychology. Developmental Psychology, 28(4), 548-57.

Rosaria Caporrimo Queens College/Queensborough Community College, City University of New York
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