Critical Media Literacies in Teacher Education
The notion of young people needing to be “media literate” has a relatively long history (see below) despite the seemingly very modern preoccupation with ideas such as “fake news” and “fact-checking.” However, there is now the perception that media literacy is at a crucial point in its own existence as a field of study, primarily because of the explosion of digital technologies and platforms which allow young people to generate content but also because there is a wider debate in terms of both what schools need to know about this explosion and what teachers might be reasonably expected to teach about it.
A Short History of Critical Media Literacies
Critical media literacy probably has at least some of its origins in the work of the Frankfurt School, where the idea was first put forward that there might be a need to “protect” people from the tendency of popular culture and media to replicate the capitalist status quo. This “inoculative” view of media literacy, easily dismissed as somewhat unsophisticated in the age of digital media, does however mark a point at which ideas about the encounter between individual citizens and the mass media begin to take shape. These critiques of popular culture begin to develop further in both the UK and the USA when scholars began to explore the richer and more complex relationship between people and the mass media as the twentieth century progresses.
The idea of a distinctive “media literacy” starts to appear in the 1980s in two main senses. On one hand in the UK, the USA, and Canada, there was a clear move to establish the idea that children need to be taught certain things about the media in order to form a critical awareness of how it works and the kind of influence it wields. At the same time, a group of scholars who would later become identified as the New London Group began to think about the way that new media technologies might affect more traditional views of literacy. This second sense, which has come to be termed “multi-literacies,” raises some important theoretical questions for teacher educators in that it requires all teachers to view themselves, in some senses, as “teachers of media.”
Today, a number of models of media literacy trace their heritage back to these movements of the 1980s while at the same time exploring the ways in which critical media literacies connect with other notions of literacy (e.g., information literacy, critical literacy) and thinking about the way that these connections inform pedagogy and assessment. Both approaches have significant implications for teacher education.
Approaches to Critical Media Literacy
While a number of key scholars (De’Abreu et al. 2017) typically outline five possible approaches to media literacy that have developed globally (inoculation, critical analytical, media arts, social participatory, and the reflective media production), there are two of these traditions in particular which arise from different geographical and socioeconomic circumstances and focus particularly on the “critical,” wherein the individual is encouraged to think deeply about not only the text or technology they are using but their relationship to both it and the people or organizations producing it. Firstly, the established (largely European and Australasian) practice of teaching about the media through clearly defined and assessed school subjects such as Media Studies and Film Studies which might be seen as critical analytical. Secondly, the more recently significant notion of media literacy as an identified set of competencies which are associated with being an active citizen and the ability to navigate the media in an aware way, cognizant of the way that the media works to represent and mediate the world – which can be termed social participatory. This second approach is most notably associated with American scholars and practitioners but has more recently found advocates in other parts of the world including those where the former, curricular approach has previously been in evidence. Both approaches have much in common, and as noted, the differences they do have tend to be dictated by circumstance and local need, but both really have quite different implications for teacher education and as such require careful consideration by those making teacher education policy.
In the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, where Media and Film Studies often appear as separate subjects in post 14 and post 16 curricular models, the demands on teacher educators are primarily to do with the development of subject knowledge. This demand is made because historically, media education (a distinct version of media literacy associated with the school environment) was originally located in the mother tongue curriculum, often in particular, in the subject area of English. The reasons for this location are explored below, but it should be sufficient to say that the challenge for teacher education has been to harness a critical interest in text and the textual that came out of a subject like English literature and connect it to issues of technology, institutions, and ideas about audiences. This challenge was further complicated in the late twentieth century by the appearance of trainee teachers who had been through Media and Film degrees and now wanted to teach in secondary school – with a concomitant issue of how they translated some quite specialist and sometimes highly technical knowledge back into that context. A detailed account of these challenges is given by David Buckingham (2003).
In other parts of the world, particularly the USA and Southern Europe, the political and economic realities of everyday life have led to a slightly different conception of media literacy. Here, media literacy is concerned more with helping young people develop a set of very practical skills and types of knowledge which allow them to develop as critically aware citizens who use and consume the media in a wide range of ways. It should be noted however, that the critical analytical tradition often had the same aim as this second approach, but as this curricular version of media literacy was located within a broader liberal and creative arts tradition, such outcomes were occasionally seen as only one possible consequence of studying them.
Media Literacy as Civic Participation
How will new digital platforms and spaces facilitate civic dialogue?
What types of information flow will they enable for public and private needs?
What do young people need to be taught about these spaces?
Do young people conceive of these spaces as public or private?
These questions speak not only to the nature of this civic participation but also to the need for teachers to consider how the young people in their care conceive of and use these spaces. While many millions of young people around the world might be connected through any number of online communities, from fan groups to political activist networks, this proliferation means that their critically aware involvement in them is an increasingly important part of being a twenty-first-century citizen. The implication of this for teachers is manifold, understanding the digital platform or space, thinking about the types of information that they make available, and helping students to navigate these spaces safely and efficiently in terms of journalism, ethics, the law, and personal finance – all of these might be challenges which face any teacher of civics; politics; religious education; personal, social, and health education (PSHE); English; Media Studies; or indeed any area of the curriculum which requires young people to face outwards into public digital spaces. The idea of a set of competencies which permit such a navigation would clearly have some attraction for teachers and students alike. While the “digital natives” narrative is rightly increasingly challenged by both teachers and students alike, there is clearly at least some need for both groups to think about how models of learning in this social participatory approach would actually work (further discussion of this below). This need is most urgent when the traditional structures of schooling do not appear to be able to adapt to the changes brought about by these participatory technologies, with mobile devices being prohibited or restricted in some classroom environments on the grounds that they “interfere” with education. Similar tensions are also in evidence in those environments where the study of the media is more formalized through subject disciplines.
Critical Analytical Models of Media Literacy
In the light of recent debates about “fake news,” it may surprise some teachers and teacher educators to know that in parts of the world, young people have been taught about the relationship between news organizations, the people that own them, and their audiences in formal classroom situations for more than a quarter of a century. These approaches, identified by D’Abreu and others as critical analytical, present a more curriculum-focused view of media literacy. In the quite recent past in both the UK and other countries, such an approach has been subject to the forces of both neo-traditionalism and social realism, with governments attempting to turn the field into a mandatory set of lists of topics and texts. From the start, it is important to emphasize that this is totally alien to the critical analytic tradition which seeks to start from the media experience of the young person and encourages them to ask questions of that experience. This aim then is not dissimilar to the social participation approach outlined above, but being located within a school and college subject has some distinct advantages and disadvantages over an approach which might be more cross-curricular or indeed extracurricular.
In the UK, publicly set and assessed examinations in Media Studies have allowed young people to explore the way that things like news (but also TV, film, and advertising) have been mediated and commercialized, since their introduction to schools in the late 1980s. This critical analytical tradition, starting in the UK but also developing almost contemporaneously in places like Australia and Canada, is built on the idea that the school is the best place in which young people can become critically media literate. Arising out of the mother tongue curriculum (in many cases the school subject of “English”) with its focus on both textual and linguistic studies, the notion of literacy was extended from traditional pen-and-paper competencies to include the moving image, advertising, and later other kinds of digital media. The study of books, spoken and written language, and alongside textual grammars saw Media Studies become, in some contexts, a kind of parallel version of school English but one which was anti-canonical, linguistically agile, and creatively diverse. Thus, the development of a school subject like Media Studies, with its foundations in the constructivism of Lev Vygotsky and, later on, the critical realist approaches of the New London Group, is an attempt to bring critical media literacy into the school curriculum. This clearly has some advantages in terms of access, profile, and resources but is also not without difficulties, most notably those presented by attempts to prescribe or mandate curricula – again, these are neatly summed up by David Buckingham (2003).
Perhaps the most significant benefit of formalizing critical media literacy within the school system though is the opportunity to both theorize what gets taught and the way that it does so from an educational perspective while at the same time, acknowledging the centrality of the student’s experience of the media. Consequently, the emergence of “key concept” (Buckingham 2003; Poyntz 2015) models of media literacy directly coincides with establishment of distinctive curricula assessed through a combination of coursework and examinations. These models, which encourage teachers and students to explore media texts through a number of conceptual lenses (e.g., Media Language, representation, technology, industry, audience, and more) through shared viewing or reading, analysis, and production work, are built on constructivist pedagogies and critical realist views of knowledge which adapt and move to meet the changing landscape of media texts and media technologies. For both the critical analytical and civic participation approaches though, it is clear that there are some things that both teachers in training and those who are experienced might need to know.
Media Literacies in Teacher Education
Conceptual knowledge (of media languages and forms, audiences, representations, and industries)
Critical knowledge (tools for the analysis of media texts and content, which might be textual, political, cultural, civic, social, economic, etc., as well as critical pedagogies which promote critical consumption and use of that content)
Technological knowledge (of hardwares and softwares, platforms, and how they operate)
Creative skills (creativity is a problematic concept, but these might include the ability to collaborate, to apply a metalanguage, and to describe a practical task, an inclination toward experimentation and play, and the ability to solve problems in imaginative ways using creative pedagogies)
Production skills (most obviously digital skills of video and photo editing but also coding, web design and animation, as well as more traditional “analogue” modes of production such as writing, editing, drawing, and illustrating)
No beginning teacher (and probably very few experienced teachers) will have strengths in all these areas, so the challenge for both teachers and teacher educators is to see their knowledge and skill development as an ongoing project. As new media technologies emerge, it is highly likely that the teacher will have to seek more training to keep up or have a willingness to teach themselves how to use these technologies in order to successfully deliver and support student learning. The ever-present pressures of a lack of time and money will often make this difficult, so the use of professional networks (local and global, virtual, and face-to-face) is likely to be extremely important in facilitating teacher development among those working in the field. There is also a great need here for the teacher of critical media literacy to think about their own positionality; to what extent is their teaching influenced by their own relationship to the texts and ideas being studied, and how do they draw on (or exclude) this relationship when they teach?
Additionally though, the agile nature of the knowledge and skills required to teach and promote critical media literacy should remind us why its boundaries must remain fluid and contested. Such fluidity requires critical media literacy to be theorized in terms of a critical realist approach, in which teachers accept that there will be points at which the field changes and new knowledge and skills are added, while old knowledge is both challenged and revisited and reorganized. It may also demand that there are points at which the student may know more than the teacher – perhaps making it entirely incompatible with social realist and neo-traditional views of curriculum and indeed education more generally.
However, if young people are increasingly living their lives online, using a range of digital technologies to not only learn but also participate, communicate, protest, compete, etc., the role of the teacher – even one with a good grasp of the knowledge and skills outlined above – is a complex one. Julian McDougall (Andrews and McDougall 2012) has suggested that the best way to view teachers of media literacy is as people who engage in what he terms “a pedagogy of the inexpert,” where the teacher acts as a facilitator who encourages students to critically “curate” their own meaning-making and meaning-taking through their use of digital technologies while at the same time accepting that such curation is an embedded part of the social and cultural lives of the person doing the curating. “Inexpert” here is a deliberate provocation which asks the reader to think about how the teacher exchanges the kind of skills and knowledge they have (of the type outlined above) with those of their students in order to facilitate the critical curation. This view is clearly at odds with many school curricula across the globe where the pedagogies which surround digital technologies tend to be reduced to either teaching young people to code or encouraging them to “stay safe online.” However, the affordance of digital technologies (the qualities which mean that they are easily authored, manipulated, edited, and published) means that such reductions are inadequate, and here, the view of media literacy as something which relies upon “assemblage” events should challenge those who see the field as one formulated as a list of digital competencies which students need to acquire. In this model, critical media literacy becomes more like a kind of politicized, critically aware art production, because of the student’s relationship to the digital technologies and platforms they are using. Such a radical interpretation of critical media literacy pedagogy demands attention if only for the fact that it encourages teachers and students alike to examine how teaching and learning are altered by technologies involved therein. However, it is also worth remembering that other disciplines have perspectives on critical media literacies in their own right, with English language and literature, computer science, sociology, psychology, and political science (to name but a few) all having things to contribute to the debate about what teachers should know about the media and what students should learn about it. To this end, it is probably wise to take a pluralistic view of the problem and suggest that to a greater or lesser extent, in the twenty-first century, all teachers will be teachers of media literacy.
- Andrews, B., & McDougall, J. (2012). Curation pedagogy: Further toward the inexpert. Medijkske Studije, 3(6), 152–167.Google Scholar
- Buckingham, D. (2003). Media education: Literacy, learning and contemporary culture. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.Google Scholar
- De Abreu, B., Mihailidis, P., Yee, A., Melki, J., & McDougall, J. (Eds.). (2017). International handbook of media literacy education. Oxford: Routledge.Google Scholar
- Mihailidis, P. (2019). Media literacies and the emerging citizen: Youth, engagement and participation in digital culture. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.Google Scholar
- Poyntz, S. (2015). Conceptual futures: Thinking and the role of key concept models in media literacy education. Media Education Research Journal, 6(2), 63–79.Google Scholar