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

When Did Names Lose Their Meaning?

I blame it on professional sports. I love it when team names are tied to their city’s identity, like the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Ottawa Senators. But when franchises are sold and moved without changing the team name, fans are often left with oxymoronic appellations like the Los Angeles Lakers (originally the Minnesota Lakers, Minnesota being the “land of a thousand lakes”). L.A. and lakes? Really? Or how about the Utah (nee New Orleans) Jazz?

The thing is, we depend on names to convey meaning, and the more they cease to do that, the more alienated we are from our surroundings and communities.

To be fair, the problem isn’t just sports teams. Businesses were once reliably named for company founders (think Sears or Nordstrom) or products (General Motors, International Business Machines, or American Tobacco). But in a world dominated by branding, it’s common for company names to be eminently brand-able nonsense words that convey no meaningful information whatsoever. Can you identify what companies like Altria, Syngenta, Xcerra, or Novartis do?

Even our civic space has succumbed. Street names once dependably identified residents or location, so River Road was the street that ran alongside the river and Smith Crossing took you over the creek to the Smith family farm. Today, real estate developers (often with no community ties) invent subdivision street names devoid of any real meaning. They attach idyllic-sounding suffixes like “dale,” “wood,” “brook,” or “field” to places that have no valleys, forests, small streams, or open landscapes, geology be damned. We end up with things like a neighborhood in the desert city of Las Vegas featuring streets designated as Ocean Terrace Way and Ocean Front Drive.  It’s branding run amuck.

ocean-drThere has always been reason to ask questions about things like street names. If you live in an older city, chances are that most street names honor the lives or interests of the wealthy white men who controlled the city’s development. That should prompt us to ask, “Whose history is omitted?” Such questions produce important insights and occasionally, really fun things, like the New York City subway map with the stops renamed for accomplished local women that is included writer/activist Rebecca Solnit’s atlas of NYC.

Now that names are more and more about branding, and more public venues (like stadiums) sell naming rights, asking questions about “authorship,” purposes, and effects is even more important. Next time you roam your community, tune in to the names on the streets, parks, buildings, businesses, schools, and stadiums. Who named them? Why did they choose that name? Do the names reflect anything authentic about your community’s history or character?  And what is the effect on the people who live there if they don’t?

Arguably one of the most interesting questions is asking whether or not a name is or has been contested? For example, just this month, UNESCO was widely criticized because, in an affront to  thousands of years of history, they passed a resolution that seemingly erased all Jewish ties to the religion’s holiest site, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. How? By intentionally referring to the site using only the Muslim name, Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif.

It’s not just a matter of language, e.g., using English versus Arabic. Names are used to either reveal or re-write history, reinforce or challenge cultural hegemony. Consider, for example, ongoing disputes over the way the U.S. Park Service identifies a popular Wyoming national monument. Maps and signs currently use “Devils Tower,” even though that name is widely recognized as a mistake made by a U.S. Army colonel in 1875 when his interpreter mistranslated what locals were saying. Attempts by the Sioux and other tribes to correct the error and communicate their sacred relationship to the striking rock formation have faced considerable resistance by local political leaders. Efforts to officially change the name to “Bear Lodge” have failed. The public explanation for rejecting the request is that officials don’t want to waste the time and money spent on a marketing campaign designed to attract tourists to Devils Tower. So branding trumps an opportunity for accuracy, and perhaps a modicum of reconciliation. Hmmm.

Media typically render naming disputes invisible. My own town – Ithaca, NY – is a case in point. In 2006, in response to an initiative by people pursuing social and racial justice, the city voted to add Martin Luther King, Jr. Street as second name to State Street. Yet, Google maps still labels the thoroughfare only as State Street. This is not an entirely outrageous choice. The road has been called State Street for more than a century, and out of habit, many locals still use only that designation. But the result of the choice is that newcomers would never know there is a street in Ithaca named after MLK.

When journalists cover stories involving disputed names, they face even more difficult choices about which terms to use. Should they stick with the status quo? Use multiple names even if it means unwieldy prose? Use a newer name even if it may not yet be in common use? More importantly, once writers have made their choice, do they ever acknowledge that they’ve chosen a side, or do they leave readers/listeners/viewers inadvertently ill-informed because the absence of explanation conveys the false impression that there is no controversy? I wonder what would happen if (at least in online sources) reporters helped the public tune in by hyperlinking disputed names to background on the controversy and the criteria they used to choose terms?

No matter what journalists choose to do, we can tune in to news coverage of communities or conflicts by asking, What role do names play and what do they tell us about purpose, identity, and power? Which names do journalists use and what do their choices tell us about their perspectives and policies? Because, as it turns out, in spite of pervasive branding, names still do have meaning.

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