Media Literacy Checklist

A lesson, activity, project, curriculum, or initiative is likely to meet the goals of media literacy education if it:

___ Goes beyond merely using media to teach; media are used to help students acquire new or improved critical thinking skills. 

___ Includes media representing diverse points of view (e.g., does not reduce complex debates to only two sides and/or actively seeks alternative media sources).

___ Teaches students to ask their own questions about media messages rather than just responding to questions that the teacher asks.

___ Teaches students to ask questions of all media (not just the things that they find suspicious or objectionable, and not just screen or digital media but also printed media like books or posters). 

___ Teaches students to ask questions when they are making, as well as viewing, listening, reading, or playing with media.

___ Encourages students to see themselves as media makers, putting communication tools in their hands and inviting them to consider applicable ethics before sharing their works publicly.

___ Encourages students to use multiple means of expression (using image, sound, and word) and helps them determine which ones will best achieve their goal(s).

___ Engages students in discussions or reflection about decision-making and their choices at every stage of creating media messages.

___ Requires students to justify opinions or interpretations with specific, document-based evidence.

___ Respects that people interpret media through the lens of their own experiences, so different people might interpret a media document or message in different ways (e.g., a student might disagree with a teacher without being wrong).

___ Encourages students to seek multiple sources of information and helps them learn to determine which sources are most appropriate or reliable for any given task.

___ Does not replace the investigative process with declarations about what a teacher or a cultural critic believes to be true.  

___ Seeks rich readings of texts, rather than asking people to arrive at a pre-determined “true” or “correct” meaning.

___ Incorporates into analysis (including semiotic or aesthetic analysis) an examination of how media structures (e.g., ownership, sponsorship, or distribution) influence how people make meaning of media messages. 

___ Focuses on a media document’s significance (including who benefits and who is disadvantaged) or what people might learn from it rather than trying to determine whether a particular piece of media is “good” or “bad” or whether a student likes it.

___ Helps students move through anger and cynicism to skepticism, reflection, and action.

___ Encourages students to act on what they’ve learned without determining for them what actions they should take.

___ Provides for assessment of media literacy skills.

adapted from Scheibe and Rogow. The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in a Multimedia World (Corwin, 2012)

Sixties Wisdom for the Digital Age

As a student in the mid-1970s I roamed my college campus with a button attached to my backpack, intentionally pinned upside down. It said: “Question Authority.”

question-authorityThe popularity of the slogan was, in part, a reaction to Watergate and the Pentagon Papers – each of which revealed substantial reasons to stop accepting the government version of events at face value. Added to that, one cultural upheaval after another – civil and women’s rights, the “sexual revolution,” a burgeoning environmental movement – led many of us to question the value of conforming to the largely racist, sexist, homophobic, materialistic reality that had been constructed by parents, employers, clergy, teachers, and media.

The button was actually a shortened version of a quote from psychologist and counterculture guru Timothy Leary: “Think for yourself and question authority.”  And though it wasn’t exactly his intention, Leary identified what would soon become the essence of media literacy education in the United States.

There were two major strands of early media literacy education. The film analysis side was focused on integrating and analyzing films in schools in ways that paralleled the study of literature. The other strand focused on viewing mass media through a critical lens in the hope that students would understand that very few real families looked like the Cleavers (on Leave It to Beaver), that real life heroes weren’t always violent or white men, and that buying the stuff in the ads wasn’t necessarily a great way to stay healthy or happy. In the U.S., it was this latter focus that came to dominate.

Through the Eighties and the decades that followed, media literacy educators developed a practice based on asking questions about the media we consume, use, and create. When most people’s media landscape consisted of a handful of national television stations, a couple of local newspapers, a smattering of magazines, a dozen radio stations, some billboards and store signs, along with dime novels and library books, it was easy to identify the media “authorities” and our questions were fairly simple:  “Who produced this?” “What was their purpose?” “What techniques did they use?” “Who is the target audience?”

Fast forward to the digital world – interactive and offering individuals unprecedented access to larger audiences and more information than at any time in human history. Lines between advertising and other content are frequently blurred, citizen journalism is intertwined with traditional journalism and propaganda, and participation often requires the surrender of privacy. In this world, identifying media authorities is much less clear cut. The sophistication of our questions and questioning needs to match the increasing complexity of the media at our fingertips. We can’t just question authority; we have to figure out how to question everything and still stay sane.

A decade ago, NAMLE made an initial attempt to address the changes by shifting from recommending the teaching of specific questions to recommending the teaching of key categories of questions for analyzing media. Shortly after, Project Look Sharp developed a corollary grid for production activities. Future posts will explore the importance of the shift to categories. Today’s post focuses on how we teach, no matter what questions we use.

One of the major challenges is that even though many U.S. media literacy educators have been very good at teaching students to “question authority,” we haven’t always been very skilled at teaching students to become independent thinkers. Many media literacy lessons, either explicitly or implicitly, simply train students to replace acceptance of media authority with the views of selected cultural critics or teachers. Students learn to parrot what may be a more socially conscious perspective, but they never learn how to do the work necessary to develop their own informed opinions.

To teach students to think for themselves and question authority, the process of engagement is as important to success as the questions themselves.  Here are ten key practices for media literacy analysis in the digital age:

  1. The wording of questions should be plural. Not “What is the purpose?” but rather, “What are all the likely purposes?” This calls for more complex thinking and provides a path that leads beyond the notion that “there’s only one right answer.”
  2. It’s never about single questions, but rather, strings of questions. We probe to encourage students to expand or clarify their thinking: “What else did you notice?” or “Tell me more.”
  3. Evidence, evidence, evidence. Require evidence-based answers. Make friends with questions like, “How do you know that?” or “What makes you say that?” or even the obvious, “What’s your evidence?” Rather than looking for one “right” answer, look for strong evidence.
  4. Infuse teaching with the knowledge that every person interprets media through the lens of their own experience. That means your job isn’t to convince students to accept your interpretation. You can present your evidence and explain why it’s persuasive to you, and require students to do the same. You can even make a case that some readings are dominant and some are less common.     As long as interpretations are reasonable and evidence-based, respect them. Doing so will open space for diverse and authentic student voices. And modeling respect will demonstrate that it is possible to engage in civil discourse with – and maybe even learn from – people who see the world differently than you do.
  5. Reach outside the binary, especially when media don’t. Most significant issues have more than two sides, or they have two dominant sides each with a variety of important nuances. Guide students to think about why media – especially news media – so often present issues as two-sided.
  6. Remember that the goal is not for teachers to ask questions that they train students to answer. It’s about teaching students to ask sophisticated questions for themselves and to have them incorporate those questions into their routine processing of the media world (what NAMLE calls “habits of inquiry”).
  7. Ask questions about all media, not just the ones you don’t like. If you don’t, students may come to believe that you have an agenda that you’re trying to impose on them, and they’ll stop listening.
  8. Ask reflection and analysis questions about the media we make, not just media that others have created. That includes media we make for personal purposes, like a Facebook page or Snapchat post.
  9. Make implicit power relationships explicit. “Whose voices are privileged and whose are absent?” could be an excellent starting question. Follow-up with “Who benefits from privileging or silencing the voices you’ve identified?”
  10. Help students identify the origins of their ideas. Even the youngest children come to you with preconceived ideas about their world. If they get in the habit of identifying sources, they can learn to evaluate the quality and validity of those sources.

I don’t use a backpack much anymore, but I still have that Question Authority button, it is still pinned upside-down, and I still cherish its message. These days I also appreciate that my ability to question authority in public is a product of white privilege and living in a democracy, however flawed.  I hope that others will take delight in thinking for themselves as much as I do; it nourishes creativity and keeps democracy messy and strong.

You’ll find a deeper discussion of these ideas in The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in a Multimedia World (Scheibe and Rogow, 2012)

May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use with the credit:  From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., InsightersEducation.com 2016

Responding To Resistance: Why We Should Mandate Media Literacy in Early Childhood Education

Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics grudgingly recognized the diversity of activities available using electronic screens and they have acknowledged that minimal screen time for toddlers and preschoolers might not ruin children for life and, in some cases, might even have some benefit. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that part of me wants to say, “I told you so”; I’ve been arguing for at least twenty years that, unless you are talking about very heavy users, what children do with screens is more important than counting the minutes they spend with the devices. If the content or activity is harmful, then the amount of acceptable screen time should be zero. But what if they are doing media literacy?

The thing is, you can’t teach media literacy skills without allowing children to engage with media, including some electronic screens. If it were up to me, I’d mandate purposeful use of digital media as a requirement for credentialing, but I understand why many early childhood professionals resist.

Whether they are

  • getting push back from well-meaning (but ill-informed) parents,
  • limited by administrators who shun screens as if doing so earned their programs some sort of merit badge,
  • subject to evaluations using antiquated quality rating scales that designate screens as a waste of time, or
  • simply lack confidence in their own tech skills,

too many early childhood professionals reject media literacy because it involves use of screen media.

We should always look at screen time relative to other activities, using media mindfully and with intention and ensuring that it is part of a balanced day of rich and varied activities. That said, here are my top 15 responses to those who continue to resist integrating media literacy into early childhood education:

  1. We live in a digital world. A quick look at a favorite website, online news source, or social network reveals that the digital world routinely merges print, image, and audio.  The only way that children will thrive in this world – and harness the power that has traditionally accrued to those who are literate – is to learn how to “read” and “write” with pictures and sound, as well as with text.
  1. Young children are already using media technologies, and they will continue to use them with or without us. Better that they use them with us. Otherwise their technology habits are likely to come from marketers, peers, or others who don’t care about children as much as we do, and who may not share our values or expertise.       By the way, early childhood professionals are also already using media technologies, both in their personal lives and with children.  Media literacy provides the guidance they need to use that technology well and avoid modeling bad habits that children have to unlearn later.
  1. It’s our job to prepare children for the world we live in, not for the world that existed when our education system was designed. When the U.S. school system was developed, books, magazines, and newspapers – all forms of mass media – were the primary method of disseminating uniform information to a lot of people. So every year that a child is in school, they are required to spend a considerable amount of time learning read and analyze print media. It’s time to update our efforts by recognizing that access to digital media technologies changes our relationship to information. Media literacy education gives educators a way to help children develop the judgment and ethics they need to navigate their online lives.
  1. A commitment to equal opportunity demands that we address the “digital divide.” Digital media technologies are central to the worlds of learning, work, and citizenship; that, alone obligates us to use classrooms, libraries, and child care sites to provide tech opportunities for children with limited home access. But the digital divide isn’t just about access; it’s also about whether or not children use devices productively. Media literacy education methods help early childhood educators model effective technology use, give children carefully scaffolded opportunities to practice, and encourage youngsters to share what they know with one another.
  1. The digital world does more than combine modes of communication; it also merges the means of communication. As today’s preschoolers grow into adolescence, they won’t be choosing between computers, televisions, radios, music players, game consoles, e-readers, or phones; everything will routinely be accessed through a single device.   That means the things we want children to do will be hard to separate from things to which we would prefer they not have access. And in a world where traditional adult “gatekeeping” of media content is less and less possible, it is essential to teach children how to analyze and evaluate content for themselves.
  1. Communication with image and sound is a natural for preschoolers who don’t yet have text-based language skills. Digital cameras (including those in phones and tablets) allow young children to escape the limits of their existing fine motor skills and nascent vocabulary by enabling them to communicate ideas, create art, interact socially, and recall events, in rich and complex ways.
  1. Media literacy education approaches technologies as tools, not learning outcomes. The goal of media literacy education isn’t technology use; it’s to prepare children to thrive in a media and technology-rich world. That approach keeps the emphasis where it should be: on sound pedagogy and learning. So media literacy lesson planning starts with the question, “What do we want children to learn?” Only then do we look at how digital devices and media literacy methods can help accomplish the goals.
  1. Education is never a game of “keep away. It may be easier to ‘just say no’ to screens than to help children (and their teachers) learn how to use media tech in healthy and productive ways, but just as we can’t teach children to read by keeping them away from books, we can’t teach them to be media literate by keeping them away from media, including screen media.

keep-away

This is especially true because young children don’t typically apply learning from one domain to another. So even if we talk with preschoolers about books and consciously teach critical inquiry skills in the process, they won’t necessarily use those skills in relation to electronic media. If we want children to apply reasoning and reflection to all the media they use and create, we have to model that habit and provide opportunities to practice. That doesn’t mean allowing hours of daily screen time – media literacy is not an “anything goes” approach to technology. But it does require that we use screen media with children on a regular basis.

  1. Children don’t gain critical inquiry skills by osmosis just because they use technology. That’s why media literacy education infuses technology use with thinking and reasoning in developmentally appropriate ways. Those who are most concerned about negative media effects should be the first to adopt media literacy because the essence of the method is analysis, reflection, awareness, and action.
  1. We should believe the research, not the headlines. Research has unquestionably shown that screen time can have negative effects, but in the vast majority of cases the concern-worthy findings apply only to “heavy” users/viewers. Most parents and educators don’t actually read the research, so they miss that nuance. Instead, dramatic news headlines (intended to sell, more than inform) mislead us into questioning any screen use. However, going back to at least the 1980s (e.g., the California Assessment Program studies) research indicates that moderate use of high quality educational media results in better academic performance than no exposure at all, especially for children from under-resourced communities. We need to stop guilt-tripping people who use screen media in thoughtful, intentional, and balanced ways.
  1. Media literacy helps children develop healthy habits in personalized ways.  Because media literacy educators acknowledge that everyone interprets media through the lens of their own personal experiences, they don’t dictate one “right” approach for every situation. Rather, they provide guidance that colleagues and families can use to find their own pathways to healthy and balanced routines that integrate digital media technologies as part of a rich array of daily activities.
  1. Children are excited by digital media. Reports from classrooms across the country indicate increased engagement and participation by reluctant learners when media technologies are integrated into learning environments. Students who feel marginalized often find their voice when teachers use media literacy education methods.
  1. Media literacy education offers a way to meet children where they are. It provides a way to question media influence and choices while also respecting the media aspects of family and youth culture in the same way that we would respect children’s ethnic identity or religion.
  1. Media literacy is included in current professional standards. See, for example, Standard 15.4 on Computer and Information Technology in the PA Pre-K Learning Standards for Early Childhood or the NAEYC/Fred Rogers Center Joint Position Statement: Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 .
  1. If not in early childhood, then when? We rightfully expect high quality childhood education to lay the foundation for traditional literacy; it is also the logical time to lay the foundation for digital and media literacy.  Because behavior patterns aren’t yet firmly entrenched, early childhood is an ideal time to develop good habits. By modeling intentional and balanced use of media technologies, media literacy can help children develop healthy and productive media use habits that will last a lifetime.
May be reprinted for educational, non-profit use with the credit:  From the edublog “TUNE IN Next Time” by Faith Rogow, Ph.D., InsightersEducation.com 2016