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Media Literacy Goes to School

We’ve wired our classrooms. Now what? Media Literacy education is needed, kindergarten through college. The question is what kind.
January 2, 2004

Several years ago, I told a sixth-grade class that I often consulted with games companies and asked what they would like to tell the people who developed their favorite games. All around the room hands shot up. The kids asked hard questions about the influence of game violence, the impact of technological developments, how and why games tell stories, the nature of interactive entertainment, and the economic motives shaping the games industry. The girls challenged the boys to explain why so few games appealed to girls. The students spoke with confidence and passion; they made compelling arguments; they supported their positions. The astonished teachers told me that the most articulate kids here had not opened their mouths all term.

I’ve thought a lot about what made this a “teachable moment.” I gave the classroom discussion real world implications. What they said mattered beyond the classroom walls. I respected their expertise. They were telling me what they knew and in the process, learning from each other. They had spent much time thinking and talking about games but the adults weren’t listening and they didn’t see how that talk connected to anything they were learning in school. Ethical and social issues emerged organically from the task I set them-rethinking what games could be. As I responded to them, I introduced a vocabulary and framework for pushing those ideas to the next level.

Last month, I wrote about the important role parents can play throughout early childhood in preparing their kids for a media-saturated world. This month, I want to focus on what schools can and should do to promote media literacy.

Media literacy education must be integrated into our curriculum from kindergarten through college. But to succeed, educators need to update and rethink the assumptions shaping many existing media literacy programs.

Not everyone would agree. Many feel that school time is too vital to be wasted in helping students understand content that they will encounter on their own and that schools owe it to their young charges to present them with alternatives to popular culture. Even among those who think that media literacy should be part of the U.S. educational system, there are crippling disagreements. As Bob McCannon, the leader of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, notes, “whenever media literacy educators get together, they always circle the wagons-and shoot in!” Much media literacy education is actually anti-media indoctrination rather than an attempt to develop the skills and competencies needed to function meaningfully in the current media environment.

Frankly, the rhetoric of the media literacy movement has so turned me off that I have only recently become active in writing and speaking on this topic. Too often, media literacy advocates depict kids as victims. We are told that advertising is “killing us softly,” that we are “amusing ourselves to death,” and that the only real alternative is to “unplug the plug-in drug” (to quote a few phrases often bandied about). These approaches emerged from an era dominated by top-down broadcast media. Increasingly, kids are demonstrating the capacity to use media to their own ends and adult authorities are holding them accountable for their practices. Schools are suspending students for things they post on their Web sites; the recording industry is suing kids and their parents for the music they download. The problem of media power hasn’t disappeared, but it operates very differently in an age of participatory media. The new media literacy education needs to be about empowerment and responsibility.

Throughout the 1990s, we fought to wire the classrooms. Educators now must give kids the skills they need to fully participate in cyberspace-not just technical training, but also cultural and social skills (including traditional literacy).

Ellen Seiter, a media scholar at the University of California, San Diego, has written about the challenges she confronted in developing a school-based Web journalism program. Kids had difficulty distinguishing reliable from unreliable information; they often did not recognize the commercial or political motives of sites; they often did not distinguish between professional and amateur sites; and they didn’t recognize what perspectives were not being represented within the range of available data. In truth, schools should always have taught students how to assess information rather than taking for granted that what appears in print must be true. The new media culture makes critical reading practices even more urgent.

Last month, a reader questioned my use of the term, “media culture,” contending that most media content has little or no cultural value. I am using culture here not in an evaluative sense, but rather to refer to a shared way of life. “Media culture” refers to the way that we use media technologies to achieve everyday goals. It also refers to the way we draw on media content as a resource for making sense of the world and the way we choose which channels to use to communicate with important people in our lives. In that sense, the media culture that emerged from the Gutenberg Revolution was very different from the media culture in the Edison era or from our own digital age.

This concept of media culture needs to be built into our arts, social sciences, and humanities curriculum-not as something extra that teachers have to cover but rather as a paradigm shift that changes how we teach traditional materials. The study of the American Revolution, for example, might consider the multiple means by which revolutionaries and loyalists gained access to information (oral networks, committees of correspondence, royal decrees, official newspapers, political pamphlets, stump speaking, etc.). Students might consider who controlled each of these channels. They might learn about the speed by which information moved up and down the Eastern seaboard, or from America to Europe, and how this influenced the struggle for independence. Students might then apply this framework comparatively to think about what would have happened if these same events and debates had played themselves out in our current environment-one where information flows globally in microseconds. Such discussions are not a distraction from learning American history. They provide students with powerful new tools for connecting the past to the present.

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