Making a Case for Media Literacy in the Classroom


This article originally appeared in Issue# 57

Impact of Images: Education

The necessity for and methods of media literacy education are often absent or unclear for many teachers and parents. Teachers are struggling with many problems already: illiteracy, new educational technologies, and students from dysfunctional families. We deal with drug problems, poverty, minority underachievement, and even violence.

Why should media literacy be added to our challenges? Didn't we get along without media literacy for 75 years of radio, 50 years of television and centuries of newspapers and magazines?

The answers to these questions are intertwined: Media literacy is no longer separable from education. If we train students in basic skills such as reading and arithmetic, if we teach them about their native languages, and the history of their countries, if we do all these things so that they may be useful adults and productive citizens, then we must teach them about the media as well.

The spectrum of communications technologies that we encounter in our everyday lives is much greater than the one we are educated to encounter in our schools. If schools intend to prepare people to function with efficiency and pleasure in the 21st Century, they need to catch up to this larger spectrum. As well as addressing the value issues in a play or novel, schools need to address the value issues in newscasts and feature articles. As well as addressing the aesthetics in a poem or painting, schools need to address aesthetics in a sitcom or magazine ad.

For some students, there is a connection between media consumption and functional illiteracy. Electronic mass media don't communicate through print, but through sound and images. Those hours (often six cumulative hours per day for television and radio, about equal to the time spent in school) are hours people are not reading and writing, so print literacy is not being practiced.

There is, however, a great deal of sound and visual communication going on in those six hours, and these can lead to the development of media literacy if such a concept is introduced formally in the home and/or school. Such a subject should be introduced. Newspapers are not the primary source of information for most people and have not been for over a decade. We get most of our information from radio and television, but if we are never taught how to take information from these media, how can we be expected to absorb it effectively, if at all?

Media education has become a priority today because we have discovered the extent of the media's importance in people's lives. Just as we now know about the importance of nutrition and the need to preserve the environment-also matters whose awareness has developed recently-we have recognized that the media is not just a source of entertainment and information, but an experience that defines our lives.

We need media literacy education because we know more about it. We know that there is a definitive connection between students' attitudes and their ability to learn-that a positive attitude facilitates learning, a negative one obstructs it. We know that students have different learning styles-some learning better from reading, some from hearing, some from seeing. We know that students are much more attentive to ideas they recognize as directly relevant to their lives, that their attention spans can increase 400 percent if they perceive a topic to be of personal relevance.

This does not mean the job is easy. But once we begin, we understand the media's connection to other, more pressing societal problems. To a large degree, our images of how to be comes from the media. They are crucial shaper of the young lives we are striving to direct.

Because this is so, media literacy can empower students to interact positively with their society. This empowerment can occur when they realize the possibilities of their interaction and develop the tools with which to interact.

But before we can teach media literacy to others, we need to understand its importance ourselves. Teachers don't develop proficiency in teaching reading, mathematics or oral expression in a year or two. They learn to convey each subject by studying it for years, teaching it, reflecting upon in and discussing it. Media literacy will be no different, except in one way: lack of instructional models.

Like most teachers, I never studied the mass media in school myself. But I listened to a great deal of radio and watched many hours of television. In fact, I don't remember a time before television. It came along at the beginning of my formative years and has been a presence in my life ever since. I have also been a long-time newspaper and magazine reader, beginning long before my media studies began. I have a steady job and a family, so why should I be concerned about my own media literacy?

This is a fair question, and should be asked by anyone contemplating a media studies program.

As a person, I need to understand the media because they help me learn. They contain the content of my culture. How many adults regularly consume poetry, drama, novels and fine art after leaving school? Unfortunately, relatively few. How many adults regularly consume movies, radio, television, newspapers and magazines after leaving school? Almost all.

As a teacher, I have a need to assimilate this cultural content, deal with media-created problems, and pass the means for understanding both on to my students. Media awareness can help:

  • Teach techniques to counter marketing programs that use young people's insecurities or low self-esteem to promote the use of tobacco, alcohol and other negative behaviors.
  • Explode stereotypes and misconceptions so they don't poison attitudes and interpersonal relations.
  • Facilitate positive attitudes toward learning and help provide an effective means of conveying ideas and information.
  • Help young people learn how to absorb and question media-conveyed news and information.
  • Show students how to use the media as a tool for life-long learning.

Reading is still an essential skill, but proficiency with print has become only one aspect of literacy in our society. Functional literacy, which must include media literacy, could well bring about greater self-esteem and achievement in many students-even a decline in drug use and other behavior problems. It can also help strengthen the social fabric by helping minorities into mainstream culture.

If we want our students to be able to confront and overcome the problems of today and tomorrow, we have to give them the tools they require. Media literacy can help them engage and solve many of their problems, both personal and social.

  1. How is media important in the lives of the young people in your life? What are they learning from the television programs, video games and popular music they're excited about?
  2. In what ways are media part of your classroom or church group already? Don't stop with "educational" programming. Think about additional ways to use news programs, videos, MTV and entertainment programming as lessons in behavior, popular culture, stereotypes and economics.
  3. In the U.S., the National Catholic Educational Association has identified media literacy as a "competency for the future." What does this mean? Make a list of positive steps toward media awareness that can be taken into your group or classroom. How will they help empower young people who will live all their lives in a media world?
Author Bio: 

Neil Andersen is a resource teacher in Scarborough, Ontario, the author of Media Works and StreetNOISE in Class, and the editor of Mediacy, the Association for Media Literacy newsletter.