Film as a Multicultural Teaching Tool

by Laurie L. Williamson

Films can be used to provide students with portraits of different social and cultural realities. Films, both fictional and those based on actual events, are valuable teaching tools. "In addition to capturing student interest, use of films helps to dramatize and frame issues, generate discussion, and provide links with personal experience" (Harper & Rogers, 1999, p. 89). Personal experience is directly related to a person's place within a particular culture (Fehlman, 1994). Through films, students are introduced to the history, art, politics, family relationships, and daily survival in a culture much different from their own. Cognitive dissonance frequently results as the two realms of diverse worldviews interact and sometimes collide. Facilitating cognitive dissonance is a healthy means of challenging students to expand their multicultural awareness.

Pescosolido (1990) refers to "sociological imagination," which he considers the key in assisting students to adopt another's perspective. Tipton and Tiemann (1993) reported excellent results when using films to "facilitate sociological thinking." Film makes unfamiliar ideas and remote situations more immediate and compelling, and students gain a better understanding of the diversity of social experience. There are unique psychological elements that lead people to empathize (i.e., emotionally identify) with film characters (Glastein & Feldstein, 1983). Film affords students an opportunity to identify with a wide range of characters operating under varied cultural circumstances. Students learn more than just facts; they experience a different way of thinking and feeling.

"The key advantage to this teaching strategy [film] lies in its critical match with current students' high visual literacy" (Pescosolido, 1990, p. 337). Films can be used as case studies and help train students in techniques of ethnographic observation and intervention strategies. Film allows students to identify and challenge their perceptions of a wide range of cultures in a timely and affordable fashion. "Counselors can learn about a variety of human experiences from film without having to endure the experiences themselves" (Glastein & Feldstein, 1983, p. 128).

To demonstrate the potential richness of this approach, I will review the film Not One Less and provide instructions for how I infuse the film into a counseling course focusing on aspects of life and career planning.

Not One Less, 1999 - Mandarin with English subtitles

This film by Zhang Yimou is based on a true story about a young girl assigned to substitute teach in rural China. One of her young students runs away to find work in the city. Stubbornly, the young woman follows, determined to bring him back to school. She must keep the class intact to be paid. Topics to explore: China, communism, rural vs. urban society, education, poverty, responsibility, integrity.

Instructions for conducting activity with counseling students: This activity is best introduced after the initial groundwork for the course has been laid. My course is in career counseling and students need to have a basic understanding of the major career development theories. When I introduce the video, I list the major objectives the students are to identify and ask that they make notes throughout the viewing. Students are asked to identify, discuss, and defend aspects of the young woman's career and lifestyle decision-making process in the film Not One Less.


    1) current status (roles: teacher, young woman, daughter, student)

    2) environmental influences (Chinese culture, communism, duty, rural/urban, poverty)

    3) personality characteristics (bright, capable, determined, principled)

    4) racial/ethnic identity (history and culture, language, body language, exposure to diversity)

    5) career considerations (limited opportunities, extended family influences, social role responsibilities and expectations)

    6) primary motivating value (motto or creed: "I am responsible", "I cannot consider any other outcome")

    7) career theory (social learning theory)

    8) future predictions (where might she be in 5-10 years?)


I usually break the class up into groups and have them formulate their responses. I will model the process of identifying, discussing, and defending a specific topic. There are, of course, no definitive right answers and many areas are open to debate. The purpose of the activity, however, is to encourage discussion and to consider the possible applications of the different theoretical models.

Student response to this activity has been overwhelmingly positive. Students generally give the films the highest ratings on course evaluations.


Films are dramatic and appealing to a visually oriented student population. Chosen carefully and used well, films can engage student attention, increase awareness, stimulate interest, identify issues, and promote discussion. "Hollywood films are not substitutes for more scholarly sources of information, but they help to frame the questions those sources of information can help to answer" (Harper & Rogers, 1999, p. 95). Films are intellectually and emotionally stimulating, and provide a unique opportunity to foster student growth in a meaningful manner.


Fehlman, R. H. (1994). Teaching film in the 1990s. English Journal, 83, 39-46.

Glastein, G. A. and Feldstein, J. C. (1983). Using film to increase counselor empathic experiences. Counselor Education and Supervision, 23, 125-131.

Harper, R. E. and Rogers, R. E. (1999). Using feature films to teach human development concepts. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, 38, 89-97.

Pescosolido, B. A. (1990). Teaching medical sociology through film: Theoretical perspectives and practical tools. Teaching Sociology, 18, 337-346.

Tipton, D. B., & Tiemann, K. A. (1993). Using the feature film to facilitate sociological thinking. Teaching Sociology, 21, 187-191.

Laurie L. Williamson is an Associate Professor and the Coordinator for the School Counseling Program at Appalachian State University.

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