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Big Screen Homeschool

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #57, 2004.

How to get the most out of educational DVDs and videos.

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Mary Pride

Couch potato homeschooling. What a dream! Just plop your kids down in front of the big screen, leave a stack of DVDs or videos in easy reach, and see learning magically happen.

Well, it's not quite this easy. Your children can learn many good things by watching videos and DVDs, depending on (1) what they watch, (2) how they watch, and (3) what support materials you can round up.

First, let's talk about what your children can watch. This breaks down into four categories:

  • Television
  • Instructional DVDs and videos
  • Documentaries
  • Movies


For years I have been telling people that one of the first steps to homeschool success is to ditch the TV.

Like the Internet, TV is a black hole of time. Unlike the Internet, TV is also the prime source for "mind junk" for your kids. I'm not talking about the shows, but the commercials. The constant breaks from any steady train of thought required by commercials has been linked with ADD and ADHD. The mind-numbing worldview of commercials promotes materialism, worldliness, and superficiality - and your kids will spend more time with commercials than with you.

Having said all that, some good stuff does appear on TV. If you're inclined to only watch educational channels, and make a conscious effort to mute the sound every time a commercial comes on, you can access a lot of information. This requires keeping track of the TV listings and either taping or viewing the shows you want.

An even better approach, in my view, is to buy or rent the best of TV on video or DVD. This way you can watch it straight through, with no commercials, and the DVD will often include special features.

Educational shows sometimes make learning guides and special websites available to accompany their programs. This is a real plus.

Here are some subjects you can study using TV programs: foreign languages, science, history, math, home repair... just about anything, in fact!

I don't have to tell you about PBS and the Discovery Channel. You might not be aware, however, that Bob Jones University Press courses are available, taught by a live teacher, via satellite through their HomeSAT service (www.homesat.com). This is one imaginative way that a curriculum provider can bring you added content without having to get their own TV or cable channel.

Instructional DVDs and Videos

This is nice and straightforward. You get a course that teaches a school subject, only the course happens to be on video or DVD.

Many subjects lend themselves to this kind of visual instruction. Math and science spring to mind. It's so much easier to understand how to solve a problem when you can see it done step by step in real time. It's also much easier to understand an experiment or a science fact when you can watch the experiment or see the butterfly, elephant, microbe, or whatever in full color and motion.

Here's a math problem: If one picture is worth a thousand words, what are 30 pictures per second worth?

Some notable publishers of instructional videos are:

Some video content is also available in software form, such as the Genesis Science math and science CD-ROMs, which include problems worked out on a whiteboard with accompanying narration, and the Ready!Set! Sign!! program, which teaches sign language with video clips as well as with computer interaction.

If you have the choice, the DVD version of just about every product is far superior educationally to VHS. How much slicker it is to just press a button on your remote and go to the exact lesson you wish, rather than winding and rewinding and crinkling the tape and ending up with static and rolling frames. Not to mention the sharper picture.

You can't get every educational video you want on DVD... yet. But there's already enough great educational DVD content to make it well worth your while to invest in a DVD player.


When viewing documentaries, the main thing to keep in mind is who the producer and publisher are. You're never seeing pure facts with no bias added. The writer and director always leave some things out, add some other things in, and interpret it all.

Generally, mass media companies and anything that gets a lot of government funding tend to be politically correct, evolutionistic, and historically revisionist when it comes to issues of patriotism and the achievements of Western civilization and Christianity as opposed to other civilizations and religions. They still produce many things that are worth watching; you just have to be aware of their bias.

Christian documentaries aren't automatically trustworthy, either. I have seen some pretty exploitative videos produced in the name of warning us away from various social ills. I personally think the Harry Potter movies are more wholesome than one anti-Harry Potter video I watched. The moral: always use discernment. It

really helps to first read a review of the documentary written by a trustworthy reviewer, if at all possible.

You know the big boys: BBC, PBS, Discovery Channel, History Channel, etc. Here are some more documentary producers you should know:

  • Moody Science documentaries consistently win our Reader Awards (www.moodypublishers.org)

  • Vision Video is a great source for Christian documentaries, with over 2,000 in stock, of which 50 presently have Learning Guides available for download (www.visionvideo.com)

  • WGBH Boston publishes the marvelous David Macaulay "Building Big" video series, the Nova science series, the excellent "Commanding Heights" economics video series reviewed in issue 55, and lots more (shop.wgbh.org)

The best way to use documentaries is as interest sparkers, to be followed by study of the person, event, time period, or whatever using reliable sources. If a printed or downloadable learning guide is available, by all means grab that, but use a few outside sources as well. That way you'll get the full story and a lesson in how far you can or can't trust certain producers.


If you want to learn about Elizabethan England, or ancient Rome, or the Jazz Age, you can rent a movie set in that time period. And if you want to learn about a historical figure, you hop out again and rent a movie about that person, right?

Maybe. It depends. Movies can lie and mislead as well as tell the truth. Two well-known examples that spring to mind are Titanic and Jesus Christ, Superstar. Jesus Christ, Superstar presents a human, confused Jesus and a Judas who is the real star of the show. For the whole story of what really happened on the Titanic and where the movie went wrong, see this moving description of the Titanic tragedy. (Hint: there was no class warfare on the Titanic and the big story was how even wealthy men willingly gave up their places in the boats for the women and children.)

Thousands, if not millions, who saw these movies fully believe that what they saw was "how it happened." This is why you must exercise extreme care when using movies to teach history.

Movies also can "sell" a hidden point of view. For example, the movie Small Soldiers is supposedly about the amusing antics of a bunch of toys that come to "life" (thanks to an inserted military chip) with disastrous results. However, even though the title includes "soldiers," the entire movie background is filled with anti-military imagery, and the toy soldiers are the bad guys. The audience is expected to cheer while the toys are dismembered, set on fire, and exploded. Don't think that pacifism gets any good press here, though - the toys that refuse to fight are losers until they get over this inhibition and learn to fight back.

On the other hand, most historical dramas really do try hard to be accurate when it comes to costumes and set design. And some take extreme pains to get it right. As Chris Wyatt of Mentura.com told me, "For the Lewis & Clark reenactment, the filmmakers used the exact same canoes, followed the same route, etc."

The best way to approach historical and biographical movies is to use them as very dubious documentaries that make great interest sparkers. Check every "fact" with a reliable source. Sometimes the Special Features on a DVD will tell you right up front what the director changed in order to make the movie more dramatic (and less historical). It's also very educational to watch it again with the Commentary feature turned on. This usually will give you major clues about what the director was trying to say and how he tried to say it, which also happens to be the very heart and soul of literary analysis.

Speaking of literary analysis, many movies are based on books. In almost every case, the book is better. However, the movie may spark an interest in reading the book and studying about the author. My daughters all are Jane Austen fans as a direct result of seeing Sense and Sensibility. We now have a complete collection of Austen books and the best videos based on those books.

Bottom line? You don't need videos and DVDs to homeschool. But if you carefully choose the right ones and spend the time to help your children understand them, you can have a multimillion dollar education at home.

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