If media education is worth having, then everyone should have it. That’s my starting-point for advocacy, and I admit it’s an ambitious one.
To start considering media education as a general entitlement for every learner, from their earliest days of schooling, changes everything. The starting-point cannot possibly be the formal curricular content of the 14-19 sector or the disciplinary boundaries of higher education. We have to take into account what very young children might be capable of understanding, and what might be politically feasible, when our ambition is to ensure that every primary school can offer media education, and that a huge sector of the teaching profession could be trained to provide it.
Faced with such demands, a common response from specialist media teachers is that such an enterprise would have to be all about dilution and compromise: the key concepts of media education would have to be “made easier” and the classroom strategies of the A Level teacher would have to be “watered down”. It would be assumed that entrants to “proper” media courses would have to be tediously re-educated to rid them of the half-baked notions they’d acquired in their primary and lower secondary years. Such is the sad state of our divided and embattled profession.
So the “general entitlement” project is even bigger than I have suggested so far. It has to encompass new thinking about pedagogy and professionalism, about disciplinary and age cohort boundaries, about career paths and the comparative value of different kinds of knowledge. In sort, it can only succeed if we are all ready to conceive of all education – not just media education – as centred on the learner’s needs, capabilities and aspirations.
Ever the optimist, I’m prepared to believe that we may now be at the kind of historical conjuncture that could allow and indeed encourage such thinking. We’re far enough away now from the 70s not to assume that any switch away from a top-down, target-driven educational bureaucracy must involve a return to the “anything goes” culture, which may have produced some brilliant work but it also allowed appalling abuses to flourish. We have enough respect now (I hope) for high-quality classroom research that gives us insights, many unexpected, on teaching and learning. And increasing numbers of people now recognise that the authoritarian policies of the last 20 years have not got us to where they were supposed to get us. Despite being in the most frequently tested pupil population in Europe, many UK children and young people are still failing; many of those who do not fail still perceive their education to have been irrelevant to life in the real world; and employers still complain that school-leavers don’t have the imagination, flexibility and enthusiasm that they’re looking for.
So this could be a good time to be making a manifesto for media education, but only if it avoids chewing over the debates of the last thirty years and arriving at a compromise so vague and generalised that nobody could disagree with it. If we want a manifesto for media education then it has to chime with the most progressive current thinking in education as a whole and to foster alliances with others thinking along the same lines. With a resurgence of fundamentalist (we might also say “simplistic”) views in the religious, political and scientific fields, we have an important basis for a common cause with other educators.
In trying to resolve the differences over what media education is really about and what it is for, two understandable impulses threaten to overturn the project from the outset. Firstly, there’s the apparent need to “brand” what is still – unfortunately – perceived as a new subject. Is it all about challenging the high culture-popular culture divide? Is it all about protecting young people from, or arming them against, the media’s endemic violence, sexuality, moral turpitude, cultural superficiality or ideological conspiracies? Is it more about vocational training to encourage talent and sustain our creative industries? Or is it now just all about getting on top of the new digital technologies and learning how to use them effectively? My response here is to ask: why shouldn’t media education do all of these? Good teaching in any subject should enable these outcomes to emerge, but on their own they would not suffice to define any subject. We need to come up with something a bit more substantial if we want to define the purposes of an educational provision that everyone would be entitled to.
Secondly, there’s the impulse to stake out the curricular ground, to make sure that all the “key concepts” are addressed and the relevant theoretical underpinnings are in place. I’m sympathetic to this impulse, but approaching it as though we were writing a syllabus or colonising a territory ends up with a manifesto that no policy-maker, primary school teacher or parent is ever going to read, let alone understand. The answer to this is not, as is often assumed, to abandon theory, but to consider theory more rigorously: to “boil it down” until we can get back to the tough questions that form its irreducible core. We will then find that most if not all of these questions are already being asked, in some form, by children as soon as they can talk – which probably means that they have been thinking about them before they could talk.
To take one example: we all know that the questions “is this true?” or “is this real?” can lead us into all sorts of philosophical mazes and traps. But this is not a reason for not asking them, or for dismissing them as “too simple”. Indeed, at one level or another we all spend a good deal of our thinking and discussion time in figuring out whether things are true or not, or often, more interestingly, assessing how true – or how real – they are. The pre-verbal toddler, recognising a face in a photograph and looking from the person to the photographic image and back again, is not wondering whether the photo is the same as the person. But she is comparing the two, and considering the similarities and differences. Like all of us, she is intrigued by the phenomenon of representation – perhaps the most important concept in media education.
And yet “representation” as a concept is not a teaching requirement in primary schools. Instead, teachers are burdened with the injunction to ensure that children learn to make the distinction between fact and fantasy. Dickens famously pilloried this injunction in Hard Times, but it’s still widely accepted as one of life’s moral certainties: if we can’t tell the difference between fact and fantasy, then dreadful consequences will ensue. Admittedly, in the case of, for example, Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, this proved unfortunately true: but that is hardly an argument for quashing the theoretical reflections of four-year-olds. If all children were asked to explore the interesting and subtly inflected ways in which we can make judgements about how real or true texts are meant to be, and to return to these explorations regularly through their schooldays, media teaching for 14 or 16 year olds might be a lot more interesting and challenging, and future “dodgy dossiers” might not have such an easy ride. And those who are campaigning for philosophy teaching in the primary school would be our enthusiastic collaborators.
One of the findings that is starting to emerge from recent research on learning progression in media education, is that children are capable of addressing some of the key theoretical questions in media education at much earlier ages than had previously been assumed. Representation, narrative, authorship and audience are all concepts that very young children can start to explore when they are given the opportunity to do so through serious engagement with the types of text they already know: visual images, films and games. The implications are exciting – or alarming, if you are in charge of training budgets or PR at the Department of Education. If children have learned to understand complex media texts by the age of six, surely we owe it to them to take that learning further? And are we unfairly “failing” some children because we don’t recognise or develop their talents with non-print media?
These questions also have profound implications for those who may be seeking to produce a manifesto for media education based largely on what is already taught to young people of 14 and older. While I agree that there’s plenty of room for change in how specialist media courses for the 14+ sectors are conceptualised and examined, these would be forced to change if children were getting high quality media education throughout their primary years. But that’s not the only thing that would look different. By undertaking media education from Early Years/Foundation Stage onwards, we would be acknowledging that our textual environment has changed, and that as a consequence, our definition of what it now means to be literate must also change.
This is why I would have limited enthusiasm for a campaign aimed merely at establishing the importance of media education, if it were to compete with other progressive campaigns. Lack of attention to media education is a symptom of a much larger malaise in our education system: its failure to take account of children’s and young people’s lives as they are lived now, and may be in the future. Media education won’t save the world, as Julian Sefton-Green said (to the great irritation of many of our comrades) at the 2004 Media Education in Europe Conference. But a radically reformed education system just might.