It Can Be Done: Teaching Media in a Small Country

Geoff Lealand, Associate Professor, Screen and Media Studies, University of Waikato, New Zealand

I live and teach in a small  South Pacific nation (4.2 million) where, with surprising ease, Media Studies has found a valuable and valued place in the national curriculum.  The war is over and the battle has been won but these may be the wrong metaphors to employ as various approaches to media teaching have been in New Zealand schools since the 1970s and we have had more allies than enemies along the way.  We  now we have Media Studies as a specific area of study in  the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA); the portfolio of qualifications most New Zealand students  leave school with.  During their school years, students can opt to do three years of Media Studies (Years 11 to 13), as a blend of theoretical or analytical courses (or Achievement Standards) such as ‘Demonstrate understanding of the relationship between a media product and its audience ‘ (AS 2.1) or ‘Examine the media representation of an aspect of New Zealand culture or society’ (AS 3.3), and production-oriented courses such as ‘Produce a design and plan for a developed media product, using a range of conventions’ (AS 2.5) or ‘Write developed media texts for a specific target audience’ (AS 2.8).  The best students can also go on to do Scholarship in Media Studies,.

Once they leave school, students can go on to a proliferation of tertiary-level media  degrees  or training courses, or take the  analytical and practical skills they have learnt in secondary level Media Studies into other areas of study or employment.  It is quite possible now that all this activity is leading to a significant slice of young New Zealanders becoming media literate and media confident and this is particularly significant  for the general health of a nation which has earned the dubious distinction of having one of the least regulated, overly-commercial broadcasting environments in the world.   It is equally important that such media-literate students play a role in the nation’s life, as it increasingly re-shapes itself as a multi-cultural society but also holds to the moral and legal obligations of the country’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi.

So, New Zealand media teachers their role as multi-faceted: most of them teach media because they  love their subject but also because it allows an engagement with the enthusiasms and prior knowledge of students.  It is education as it should be: teachers come with a specialist knowledge, but match and mingle it with the knowledge students bring to the classroom or the editing suite. Teachers also find that media teaching can motivate and excite the reluctant or difficult  learner, and students learn to work cooperatively, in addition to acquiring the analytical and problem-solving skills so desired in the modern workplace.

But media teaching (Media Studies in particular) also has political implications and, quite rightfully, warrants a Manifesto.   A great deal of analysis critiques the status quo and taken-for-granted (the ‘conventions’) of the media; from issues around media ownership (the concentration of ownership into global corporates),  placing a value on the local in an increasingly globalised economy,  to issues of media representation (such as gender and ethnicity), to issues  around media ethics (privacy issues in social media, for example), to issues around marketing (the targeting of children by fast food advertising).   But media analysis is not  about conspiracy theories nor about consumer helplessness;  it is about understanding processes, revealing structures below the surface, and developing strategies for resistance (if that is needed) and change.

It is this fear of political agenda which prompts the popular press and populist politicians (especially in the UK) to periodically go on the attack against  Media Studies—as David Buckingham and others have noted here.  A common taunt is that it is a ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject.  But of course it is; any media teacher worth his/her salt will study Mickey Mouse as a cultural icon, Disney Corporation as a prime example of a global media corporate, the role of Disneyland as a dominant leisure activity, the tie-ins between Disney movies and toy marketing etc etc.

Media teaching in New Zealand is in good health in New Zealand, firmly imbedded in schools and continuing to find support from higher authorities (such as the Ministry of Education and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority). We rely less on the imported models of teaching and content rationales  (such as the British Film Institute framework or the Ontario Association for Media Literacy model), which prevailed in the early days.  New Zealand teachers and academics have developed their own approaches and teaching resources , and a growing self-confidence about the importance of the task.   Burt this is not the say that they don’t continue to share a sense of comradeship  with media teachers in other countries and other circumstances, for increasing student knowledge about the media,  providing them with a language for analysis, giving them with opportunities to create their own media, boosting their optimism and acknowledging their media pleasures and ultimately making the world a better place is an international cause.

Why media education?   Because it is there, at the centre of our lives, and like all important things in our lives, we need to understand it, be fully-informed about its ways and meanings, and have the language to describe what we see and hear.

As David Buckingham suggests, most of us could rehearse these and other reasons in our sleep.  The trick is in finding the perfect balance between over-estimating the power of the media (and thus fall into the practice of protectionism) and under-estimating its power (and aligning ourselves with who argue that media is not a fit topic for education).   Another  objective is finding the right mix between practice and analysis ( or between theory and production, as some put it). I am a mind that you can’t separate the two and although I am drawn to David Gauntlett’s  arguments for DIY, ‘creative’ engagement, my experience also tells me that students don’t get very far unless they have a good knowledge of how things have been done in the past, and how the majority of media is made now.   I am also mindful of the fact that even though students may have technical proficiency, that don’t always have much to say with it, for they lack the life experiences which allow them to move beyond their familiar reference points.

They often need to be given guidance in constructing interesting media products and stories for audiences wider than themselves and their friends.  This implies developing and pitching ideas, rather merely creating stuff.  As Cary Bazalgette suggests, this should begin at the earliest stages of education, when children are often more open to new ideas and inventive ways of seeing the world ; at a point in their lives when, as Albert Einstein  declared,

“Imagination is more important than knowledge’.  Obviously such early intervention will have implications for teacher training but we should put more effort into this area.

Lastly, for the sake of clarity and for an united front when we go out and promote our subject, we need to have a clearer idea about the ways we refer to it.  I prefer to speak of Media Studies, which is a dynamic and ever-growing discipline of research, writing and teaching (and  one which justifies an upper case status).  There is also media education, which implies teaching about media or using media components across a wide range of other subjects, and is also a noble endeavour.  But now we have media literacy, which is favoured in North America but is a concept which lacks a clear, unequivocal definition.  To me it suggests that we are teaching literacy to the illiterate, which  is really the wrong approach. I am all for Henry Jenkins’ call to ‘complicate things’ but let ‘s not make it too complicated.

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