How Media Education Is Like What You Already Know

Chapter 1 / Screening Images: Ideas for Media Education

A lot of what you are about to read in the rest of this book is based on the premise that teaching the media is not a mystery confined only to a certain erudite set of cognoscenti, but something that any good teacher like you can readily handle in class using your existing knowledge and expertise.

The expertise will come from your experience as a teacher, and from your experience with the media. You already know a lot about helping youngsters learn, and helping youngsters learn media is easier than in many other subjects, because the subject matter is something that the kids already like. We just have to be careful not to ruin it for them by turning it into another turgid school "subject" full of stuff that we know and the students have to learn. (I have never forgotten the young man in my grade 13 class in Ottawa who reacted to my announcement of the first film course in the school by saying, "You're not going to do the same thing to films that you did to books, are you?" I have never forgotten the moment, and I have always tried to heed the admonition.)

Being nervous about teaching in a new subject area is rather like being nervous about swimming in deep water. Even when we know already how to swim, we hesitate to venture into new water, especially if it is deep. There's wisdom in this, and caution is always to be recommended. But still, most swimmers have the confidence to realize that they swim only in the top metre of the water, and that all the water under that need not be a threat. Knowing something about the characteristics of the water is certainly an advantage to any swimmer, but we all know also that the depth of the water does not diminish our competence as swimmers. Teaching is very much the same: once we know how to be good teachers, we have mastered the top metre of our professional pool, and we needn't feel threatened by the rest.

All that you already know about independent and group learning will serve you very well in the media classroom; any courses or workshops that you have taken on learning styles or the process of learning will be useful in the media class; all those hours that you have spent at the cinema, in front of the TV, listening to radio or recorded music, or reading newspapers and magazines will suddenly be turned into research time for one of the most important study areas in modern curriculum.

I've been an English teacher in Ontario for the last thirty years, spending more than twenty of those years as an English co-ordinator. I've learnt a lot about curriculum in reading and writing in those years. It has only been very recently though that I've started to understand that the insights I've developed as an English teacher and co-ordinator are the same ones I need as a teacher of media. Nearly everything I know about reading, and writing, and responding, and process in English curriculum is applicable to the teaching of media.

The same is true for you. What you already know about teaching is applicable to your teaching of media. You don't have to be nervous about media being a new specialty that you need to study before you attempt anything in your classroom. Let media be an exploration for you and for your students. Have the nerve to learn about it together - to make it a true discovery process. Be prepared to say, "I don't know. How could we find out?" The truth most likely is, in fact, that you do know, but that you weren't aware that you knew, rather like the Bourgeois Gentilhomme, M. Jourdain, who discovered in his middle age, that he'd been speaking prose all his life.

A great deal of the knowledge that we have of the media is informal knowledge: stuff that we learnt as we took part in the media. We know without knowing how we know, when a program on TV is coming to an end, who are the good and the bad guys in movies, what certain kinds of music are supposed to mean on a soundtrack, or which newspapers our neighbours would subscribe to. Media education is the process of bringing that natural knowledge into the forefront of our consciousness so that it can be examined and refined.

Some people, people who have made a life-time study of the media, have developed a specialty vocabulary to describe their knowledge - a jargon. You shouldn't feel threatened by this jargon, and you should try to avoid making the learning of it too important for either yourself or for your students. The truth of the matter is that, as in all new areas, when you begin to develop new concepts about things, you'll find that you need names for those concepts, and the jargon will begin to make sense for you. One of the silliest things that you or your students could do would be to try to memorize lists of terminology about media in the belief that you were learning about media by doing so.

Media education is a quest, a quest for meaning. Like other quests, a great deal of its value lies in the search itself as well as in the achievement of the goal.

Yet I do not intend to say that you never need to do anything in your media class other than sit back and wait for miracles to happen. As an interested teacher, you ought to be ready to do some reading in the area of media education, to attend some workshops and conferences, and eventually to take some courses. Ignorance need not be a hindrance to getting started, but it is not a state that you should actively protect. But I do not need to tell you this. If you did not already know it to be true, you would not be reading this book. You are already one of those competent swimmers who is learning snorkelling and scuba diving to find out more about the rest of the water.