Friday, January 22, 2010

Father of the Documentary

This week, I will reflect on the NFB documentary Grierson. First, though, the results of the Kaiser Family Foundation study, Generation M(2), released this past week, look very interesting – and in some ways, worrisome. I will, however, reserve further comment until after I have read the report more fully.

The documentary Grierson by the National Film Board of Canada was very interesting and had much to offer for thought and reflection. First, it was another example of the influence of Canadians and Canadian Institutions on many aspects of modern life. The documentary also exposed me to another person who was ahead of his time, much like Leo Vygotsky, whose work on child development and learning in the early 20th century still is in use today. While Vygotsky’s work was lost then rediscovered after his death. Grierson’s ideas took hold and had effect immediately. It is interesting how ‘new’ ideas are not always new.

I was struck by many of Grierson’s ideas explored in the documentary. The major accomplishment was how he took a fledgling new media, film, and came up with a new application for it, the documentary. His idea to use film to promote social democracy was groundbreaking. He saw the application of this medium for education and saw the importance of education to promote social justice – a current catchword in today’s schools. This new use of film was used to teach about and empower the common person. His idea of using the new films in schools and in public spaces, especially the latter, was very prophetic. Much of the promise of new technology in education is this very idea – to allow all persons the opportunity to be heard, to empower people and expose us to new points of view. This ideal may still not be realized, after all there is much disparity in access, know how, and control, however, the potential is there if used properly. I wonder what Grierson would make of our new media, of modern television and the Internet? YouTube, for example, allows anyone to post and there is a lot of ‘junk’ there, yet there are also gems that teach and have powerful messages for tolerance and understanding.

Another telling point about Grierson that was shared in the doc. was that he was not about the gadgets and technology itself, but rather about how to make use of it. This is the attitude promoted today about educational technology; that it is about the learning, not the technology itself.

One more thing that struck me, as Gary noted in discussion, is the effect that McCarthyism had on many people, including Grierson. His ideas did indeed promote the everyday man, yet the attack on Grierson in the communist ‘witch hunt’ of the fifties, shows how fear could be used to blind people to ideas and thinking that may speak against or threaten the existing power structure.

Grierson was surely ahead of his time, a visionary. Examining the past helps understand the now and the future and allows us to pause, reflect and learn.


  1. Lev Vygotsky is one of my eduactional heros. His ideas of social constructivism are as natural to learning as breathing is to life. Bruner's constructivism is different, more about individual inquiry and discovery, meaning being made using already established cognitions. Without social learning, Bruner's constructivism still may be possible (we always look around, hear sounds, smell, etc.), but it is better to know how to talk before actually trying to read a book. If knowledge were not first socially constructed, how would people learn how to talk and subsequently read and write?

    I would like to watch Grierson again. The idea of film used to empower people is a powerful one. I agree fully, Mike, that YouTube contains a mountain of junk, but as you say, there is good stuff there too. What YouTube represents for citizen journalism is fantastic, but people do need to know which information is reliable. Knowing how to make use of the "tools" may be said to be the essence of educational technology.

    I've always liked watching good documentary film. Is there anything quite like "reality" TV? Good animation maybe... like the vignette we saw at the beginning of class.

  2. Leo Vygotsky spells it out well. Culture and learning. Took me back, years in the typical African village setting where TV, radio and traditional media did not exist but some forms of media and culture was cooked to introduce learning, life skills and values to young people. Then, it would be tales by moonlight, stories tacitly handed down from generation to generation. Plays and theatrics, dances and arts. Lots to learn from in those settings. They represented our traditional media of today. Grierson used what was culturally available in his day and transformed it into new forms - documentary. Our discussions about gadgets, technologies, etc, and how they influence learning this past week should perhaps be seen as new culture. And maybe we can leverage this knowledge to produce new forms of learning. Just thinking...!

  3. Good thoughts, Ben. Good thoughts. Your telling of the learning in the African village really stirs the imagination. Thank-you!

  4. A comment on Ben's comment....that is a great way to learn Ben. Learning should include more of storytelling, dance or any type of art. It allows for authentic learning experiences that are real NOT virtual! Thanks for sharing that.

  5. Mike I checked out the link to the "Clever Sheep" blog that you passed along. It's great! Thanks. Important to keep the things he mentions in mind when working with technology.