Empowerment Spiral

“Successful media education results not so much from what is taught as how it is taught.”

Chris Worsnop, Screening Images:  Ideas for Media Education


The final aspect of the basic MediaLit Kit™ framework is the Empowerment Spiral which outlines a way to participate in the media world and to organize media literacy learning, especially in a class or group setting.  Also called “Action Learning” the model has proven to be an excellent process for uncorking a spiral of inquiry that leads to increased comprehension, greater critical thinking and ability to make informed judgments. It is these steps that provoke action, in deciding whether to take any “next steps” or not.

Often when dealing with media issues or topics, we can sometimes be intimidated by the complex technological and institutional structures that dominate our media culture.  We can feel powerless against the psychological sophistication of advertising messages and pop culture icons. 

The Empowerment Spiral, based on the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, outlines how to break complex topics or concepts into four short term learning steps that stimulate different aspects of the brain and enhance our ability to evolve new knowledge from past experience. 

Teachers or leaders who use these four steps to design lesson plans or organize group activities will find the Empowerment Spiral is a powerful matrix that transforms both learning and teaching.  


In the Awareness step, students participate in an activity that leads to observations and personal connections for potential insight:  “Oh!  I never thought of that before.” For example youngsters might compare whether their action toys perform like the ones in commercials; teens might time the length of stories on the nightly news to uncover how much is really news; a class might keep a media journal just one day (from waking up to falling asleep)  to become aware of how many different media they experience in their lives.  Awareness activities provide the “ah-ha” moments that unlock a spiral of critical inquiry and exploration that is the foundation of media literacy pedagogy.


The next step, Analysis, provides time for students to figure out “how” an issue came to be.  Applying the Five Key Questions and conducting a close analysis (page 29) are two techniques that can be used to better understand the complexity of the selected issue.  Creative production experiences could also help the group understand “how” and “what” happens in the exchange between a media producer and the audience.

It’s important that analysis go deeper than just trying to identify some “meaning” in an ad, a song or an episode of a sitcom.  Indeed, try to avoid “why” questions; they too often lead to speculation, personal interpretation and circular debate which can stop the critical process of inquiry, exploration and discovery. 

 Instead ask “what” and “how”: 

  •  How does the camera angle make us feel about the product being advertised? 
  •  What difference would it make if the car in the ad were blue instead of red?
  • What do we know about a character from her dress, make-up and jewelry?
  • How does the music contribute to the mood of the story being told? 

The power of media literacy lies in figuring out how the construction of any media product influences and contributes to the meaning we make of it.


In the Reflection step, the group looks deeper to ask “So what?” or “What ought we to do or think?”  Depending on the group, they may want to also consider philosophical or religious traditions, ethical values, social justice or democratic principles that are accepted as guides for individual and collective decision-making. 

  •   Is it right for news programs to only interview government experts?
  •   Does the First Amendment protect advertising? 
  •  How about the advertising of dangerous products, like cigarettes? 
  •  What are other ways an action hero could have solved the problem?


Finally the Action step gives participants an opportunity to formulate constructive action ideas, to “learn by doing, individually or collectively.”  It’s important to remember that, in this context, action doesn’t necessarily imply activism nor does it have to be life-changing or earth-shattering.  In fact, deciding not to act is an action.   The most long-lasting actions are often simple activities that symbolize or ritualize increased internal awareness.

1.     After discovering and reflecting on the amount of violence they saw in one week of children’s cartoons, one second grade class wrote a “Declaration of Independence” from violence on TV.  Each child signed his/her name just like the Founding Fathers and they posted their declaration on the bulletin board in the school lobby for all to read, and wrote emails to their Congressional representatives. 

2.     A group of teens in a church youth group created their own website to share their exploration, insights and reflection on popular music and movies. 

3.     While studying the health effects of tobacco, a fifth grade class wrote and performed a play for other students about the techniques of persuasion that tobacco companies use to sell their products.

4.     High school students concerned about school board budget cuts interviewed their parents and neighbors on video and produced short video about various perspectives on what the cuts might mean.  It was shown every night for a week on the district’s closed circuit cable channel and website. 

These actions all involve interacting and connecting with classmates and others, with circulating ideas and collaborating on identifying problems and solutions, and in creating media and disseminating it.