Critical Viewing and Critical Thinking Skills

A growing body of research suggest that if we teach children to become critical viewers, we do more than give them the ability to analyze the construction of isolated images; we also give them the ability to think critically about the composition of the picture, enhancing their ability to read words and worlds.

Although many continue to regard television viewing as a passive process, other see the potential of the video age to develop new literacies while reinforcing traditional literacy. A 1990 issue of The Harvard Education Letter, for example, reported: "The video screen is helping children develop a new kind of literacy — visual literacy that they will need to thrive in a technological world … In television or film, the viewer must mentally integrate diverse camera shots of a scene to construct an image of the whole."

Although television can be used to develop reading skills and promote traditional literacy, it is essential that educators also recognize that television is a unique medium and that to understand it fully we must be conversant with its codes, conventions, and characteristics. That means acknowledging the power of the picture and accepting the fact that seeing is not believing. Jack Solomon said, "Television images lull us into thinking that they are real, that they aren't iconic signs at all but realities. Since we see them, we trust them, often failing to realize that, like all signs, they have been constructed with a certain interest behind them."

Deconstructing these media representations requires relinquishing the powerful and pervasive notion in our culture that seeing is believing, that what you see is what you get. The real issue, however, is whether we "get" (i.e., understand) what we see. The process of reading television addresses some of the following elements.

  1. Interpreting the internal content of the program.

  2. Essentially this involves a narrative analysis or the ability to recall and recognize what happened and why, with reference to genre codes and conventions.

  3. Interpreting the internal construction of the frame.

  4. This process focuses attention on media form and style. It includes the overall design and look of the picture and involve such things as camera angles and the various shots used.

  5. Recognizing the external forces and factors shaping the program.

  6. This industrial/sociological approach looks at issues such as media ownership and control in an attempt to understand how these factors shape programming. A simple example would address the relationship between media ownership and the depiction of women and minorities in the media. Can a patriarchal white industry fairly depict women and minorities?

  7. Comparing and contrasting media representations with reality.

  8. This might include comparing television's depiction of the Vietnam War (Tour of Duty, China Beach) with documentaries or histories of the war. It might also include studying incidents of violence on television compared to the national crime statistics or examining the depiction of groups, races, religions, and nationalities to detect stereotyping and bias.

  9. Recognizing and responding to the potential impact of television form and content.

  10. This focuses attention on appropriate responses and viewing behavior including writing to producers and sponsors, as well as using television more selectively.

Author Bio: 

David Considine coordinates the media literacy graduate program at Reich College of Education at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. This article is excerpted with permission from the 1999 edition of his book, Visual Messages: Integrating Imagery Into Instruction.