Curriculum Opinion

Has Media Literacy Found A Curricular Foothold?

By Robert W. Kubey & Frank W. Baker — October 27, 1999 9 min read
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For more than four decades, both young people and adults in our society have spent the majority of their leisure time in contact with the electronic mass media. But all too many schools still operate as if the only forms of expression worthy of study are the poem, the short story, and the novel.

The educational establishment is still often mystified about how to retool and retrain to educate future citizens for the new realities of communication.

If we consider television alone, which most Americans watch for three to four hours a day, it takes only a simple calculation to recognize that most of us will spend from nine to 12 full years of our lives with this medium (and we are typically only awake for 50 of the 75 years of an average lifespan). The educational establishment in this country has not yet fully grasped this fact, nor adequately helped teachers develop ways to teach about and through such powerful media to better prepare students for the lives they will lead beyond school.

In fact, when it comes to the delivery of media education, the United States lags behind every other major English-speaking country in the world.

More than a decade ago, Ernest L. Boyer, then the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, concluded: “It is no longer enough simply to read and write. Students must also become literate in the understanding of visual images. Our children must learn how to spot a stereotype, isolate a social cliché, and distinguish facts from propaganda, analysis from banter, and important news from coverage.”

As critical as we are of the overall state of media education since Mr. Boyer’s challenge, we are pleased to report that there are unmistakable and hopeful signs of development. Only a few years ago, a mere handful of states had curricular guidelines that called for media education. Last November, The New York Times reported that only 12 states were similarly situated. But by examining current educational frameworks in the states, we have found to our own surprise--and that of all the media educators with whom we’ve spoken--that at least 48 state curricular frameworks now contain one or more elements calling for some form of media education.

The drive for improving curriculum standards, and the process of involving those who teach in writing those standards, have produced near unanimity in this country on the inclusion of elements of what many call “media-literacy education” in the state frameworks.

We conducted our study by closely examining the curricular objectives and educational goals from frameworks available by direct query to state departments of education or via the Internet. All but a few are on the World Wide Web, and we have listed them with direct links at www.med.sc.edu:81/medialit.

We also assessed where the media education elements in a state’s frameworks appeared, and whether such elements fell under one or more of four different curricular categories. We found, in descending order, the following frequencies:

(1) English, language, and communication arts--46 states.

(2) Social studies, history, and civics--30 states.

(3) Health, nutrition, and consumerism--30 states.

(4) Media strand--seven states.

Most states’ frameworks contain elements that fall under at least two of the categories. Only a handful of states have something on the books called a “media strand,” or a viewing, technology, or information strand. (The data are presented, state by state, at the Web address cited above.)

How objective were our ratings? We used three raters, and only concluded that a state called for some form of media education if all three raters agreed, using the following rubric: A state framework was judged to call for media education only where use, analysis, evaluation, or production of electronic media other than print was included, or where the word “viewing” was specifically used. Traditional classes in print journalism did not, by themselves, fulfill the criteria, nor did sole references to use of the Internet.

(We were assisted in our ratings by Michael Rowls, a professor of instruction and teacher education at the University of South Carolina who has special expertise with standards-based education.)

Here are some examples from our study of how media education is being incorporated into state frameworks under each of the major curricular categories we employed:

Languageand Communication Arts. North Carolina’s language/communication arts viewing strand--in our estimation, one of the best-conceived in the country--reads as follows:

“It is an important goal of education for learners to be able to critique and use the dominant media of today. Visual literacy is essential for survival as consumers and citizens in our technologically intensive world. Learners will appreciate various visual forms and compositions, compare and contrast visual and print information, formulate and clarify personal response to visual messages, evaluate the form and content of various visual communications, identify and interpret main ideas and relevant details in visual representations, apply insights and strategies to become more aware and active viewers in their leisure time, relate what is seen to past experience, convey and interpret ideas through nonprint media, recognize the persuasive power of visual representations.”

Social Studies. California’s history/social sciences research framework for grades 9-12 is among the most complete. Here is one section:

“Students evaluate, take, and defend positions on the influence of the media on American political life, in terms of: (1) the meaning and importance of a free and responsible press, (2) the role of electronic, broadcast, print media, and the Internet as means of communication in American politics, (3) how public officials use the media to communicate with the citizenry and to shape public opinion.”

Health, ConsumerSkills. In comparison with those of language arts and social studies, media elements in the curricular frameworks for health are particularly focused. Health educators are especially inclined to use the analysis of media messages in direct ways to get students to consider whether and how the media may encourage unhealthful habits.

West Virginia, for example, calls on students to “analyze media influence on tobacco and alcohol [use] and develop counter-advertisements for peer education.” One of Missouri’s “health maintenance and enhancement” frameworks calls on students from grades 9-12 to “evaluate the idealized body image and elite performance levels portrayed by the media and determine the influence on a young adult’s self- concept, goal setting, and health decisions.”

Overall, we concluded that Texas unquestionably presents the most developed and comprehensive media education framework. Florida’s and North Carolina’s also are impressive. Kansas and Kentucky were the only states we found that did not include nonprint media education, at least in the educational frameworks we were able to locate.

That nearly all states now have one or more media education elements in their curricular frameworks represents a watershed moment in the country’s educational history. Writers of the state frameworks have recognized the overwhelming and pervasive presence of media in our lives and are increasingly including language that allows teachers to integrate media education into the formal classroom setting.

But no one should interpret our enthusiasm for this progress to mean we believe that any state’s media education goals are being adequately met. Guidelines and mandates do not always translate into implementation, quality, or systematic evaluation. New Mexico and Massachusetts, followed by Utah, Texas, and Minnesota, probably have the greatest proportion of students actually receiving media education.

Educators must finally recognize that the way we communicate as a society has changed enough in this century that traditional training in literature and print communication is no longer sufficient by itself. Clearly, we must provide teachers with sufficient in- service training to integrate media education into their teaching. But education schools have a lot of catching up to do.

Our own informal survey of graduate schools of education shows all too many of them concluding that it is adequate merely to train future teachers to thread a 16mm projector or show students a film version of Great Expectations. Quite a few go further, in instructing future teachers how to have students complete an assignment using multimedia. But there remains precious little analysis or evaluation of media, or recognition that language arts instruction in such standard topics as foreshadowing, representation, character development, and symbolism might extend beyond print.

So, while we have documented impressive developments in curricular frameworks, we find the educational establishment still often mystified about to how to retool and retrain to educate future citizens for the new realities of communication.

By contrast, since the mid-1990s, Australian language teachers have been required to teach nonprint media from kindergarten through the 12th grade. The Canadian province of Ontario has required media education in grades 7-12 since 1987. In England this year, approximately 25,000 students took their national gcse exams (for 16-year-olds), and 14,200 university-bound 18-year-olds sat for their A levels, or advanced-level exams, in media studies. And Scotland is ahead of England in media education.

If we factor in South Africa, which has led the United States for some time in the delivery of media education, America comes in last among the world’s major English-speaking countries in teaching for this crucial form of modern literacy.

If most of our students are going to spend 2,000 or more hours each year for the rest of their lives in contact with the electronic media, isn’t it time for us to learn new ways of teaching and to engage in formal media education?

As the state curricular frameworks show, we are making progress. Certainly, the path is clearer now than in 1916, when the Harvard University psychologist Hugo Munsterberg first recognized that there would be resistance to media education. His words from 83 years ago should resonate with today’s educators as they try to quicken the pace of change:

“Of course, there are those, and they may be legion today, who would deride every plan to make the moving pictures the vehicle of aesthetic education. ... The aesthetic commonplace will always triumph over the significant unless systematic efforts are made to reinforce the work of true beauty. The moving-picture audience could only by slow steps be brought from the tasteless and vulgar eccentricities of the first period to the best plays of today, and the best plays of today can be nothing but the beginning of the great upward movement which we hope for in the photoplay. ...

“People still have to learn the great difference between true enjoyment and fleeting pleasure, between real beauty and the mere tickling of senses.”

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