Media literacy

We’ve all been there: sitting in a theater or auditorium with dozens of other teachers, learning about how to create dynamic, exciting lessons and curriculum for our students, viewing one horribly designed PowerPoint slide after another.

It ranks up there with another frustration of mine: when presenters use outdated, inappropriate pedagogy to deliver a talk about innovative pedagogy.

Why is it that intelligent, professional educator who are charged with teaching students how to design presentations, websites, and discussions have such a difficult time modeling that same behaviour? Why do people who teach design often fail at utilizing these same principles?

I think about what George Lucas said about visual and film literacy in an interview with Edutopia, and I’m struck by a number of thoughts:

  • Lucas is absolutely correct when he says “Today we work with the written or spoken word as the primary form of communication. But we also need to understand the importance of graphics, music, and cinema, which are just as powerful and in some ways more deeply intertwined with young people’s culture.”
  • For the past 50 years, schools have stressed linguistic and mathematical literacies, but most teachers have had little practice in artistic or aesthetic literacy. We’re not great at it.
  • It is a bit ironic that Lucas is criticizing teachers for our struggle to practice the types of innovative practices and pedagogies for which we often advocate. Lucas has had similar struggles (and failures) himself with practicing what he preaches. Case in point: his comment in From ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Jedi’ that “A Special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.

By and large, it seems that media literacy has two broad components:

  1. Learning how to design and create aesthetically beautiful images, presentations, movies, music, and other media
  2. Learning to interrogate media in the same way that literary critics interrogate texts: to examine the assumptions, biases, agendas, and implications of all types of media.

The first of these areas seems like a fertile area for interdisciplinary studies. After all, understanding how visual art, music, theater, dance, and design affect people and emotions is an integral part of those subjects. It also crosses over into literature, history, psychology, science, and sociology.

As for the interrogation of media, it’s interesting to me how comedy and satire are actually leading the way with this global discourse.  Take, for example, how The Daily Show with Jon Stewart regularly lampoons the absurdities of the 24 hour news cycle and Fox News. Or look at South Park’s responses to the Danish cartoon controversy, or their critique of how photoshopping images can have devastating impacts on the self-images of girls.

Various writers have characterized young people today as cynical and disillusioned. I would argue that at least part of this characterization comes from an increasing sophistication to the types of psychological manipulations coming from commercials, newscasts, etc.  Many kids have a finely tuned bullshit radar, and all too often their suspicions about hidden agendas and ulterior motives are born out.

On the other hand, sometimes these sorts of satirical critiques backfire when kids have not yet gained the necessary level of media sophistication. Back in 2005 I was working as a dorm supervisor at Woodstock school in India. I was in charge of 27 ninth grade boys, and one weekend while I was off-duty my mother, who was covering for me, walked in on one of my boys watching the Sasha Baron Cohen film Borat. My mom had no idea what the film was about but suspected that it might be some sort of gay porn, so she confiscated the DVD and told them that I would deal with it when I got back.

When I returned I was faced with a conundrum. I was a personal fan of the Borat film because I thought it did an amazing job of exposing the cultural ignorance and prejudices of Americans, but I wasn’t sure that my Indian boys saw it the same way. I told the kids that I would give them back their movie if they could explain to me why it was funny. One of them answered (not making this up) that it was funny because Borat was making fun of Jewish people.  I was a bit horrified, and told them that Sasha Baron Cohen would not want them to be watching the film. Their response: “Who is Sasha Baron Cohen?”