“It’s a transmitter, a radio for speaking to God….” Belloq, Raiders of the Lost Ark
When we talk about a manifesto for Media Education, it’s tremendously encouraging to me that so many people feel an enthusiasm for the power of media education to change people’s lives. Teachers, lecturers and academics may shy away from that statement , but the Belloq-like enthusiasm with which they talk, write and think about the subject betrays a belief in its Ark-like properties. I’m only being half serious here of course, but stay with me for a moment. When people like Julian Sefton-Green say that Media Education wont change the world, they are of course, in one sense, correct. It can’t stop wars, cure disease – and it certainly wont stop bankers being paid more money. But in some senses it can change the world; by changing the life experiences of individual young people, and consequently the world they inhabit. I would want to make the case that the vitality of media education lies in its ability to change students’ experiences of education and the subsequent lives they lead.
For the past four years it has been my privilege to work in a school where I have been given the opportunity and freedom to attempt to use Media Education to address some of the fundamental problems of an economically deprived area. That area – characterised by low levels of social mobility, geographical isolation and high unemployment – saw its High school in quite a negative light. When the school became a Specialist Visual and Media Arts College in 2007 it was given the opportunity to change that image, by putting Media Education at the centre of its work and subsequently, the school at the centre of its community. This was done in two key ways; firstly, by developing a curriculum that harnessed the power of media education wherever it could in order to raise achievement across the school, and secondly by undertaking a number of community initiatives that sat squarely in the media education tradition but looked to develop various community and social groups as well as students.
When talking about what we have done in the school, I always use the metaphor of the hand grenade. In my experience as a teacher and media educator in London across the last 15 years I have come to see media education as the hand grenade that frequently blows open the doors to learning for many students. I have actively encouraged the idea that media education is a way into not only literacy, which is it is, but also numeracy, oracy, citizenry, rationalism, scepticism, politics, reason and religion (amongst other things). The opportunity to start where students are at, which is presented to us frequently in media education, is something that allows us to build a bridge from what they do know into what they don’t know. This has been my experience with even the most disaffected and hard to reach students. However, it has also been my experience that the most able students have grown in their engagement with Literature, History, Art and Science through their study of the Media. I wonder what Michael Gove would think about that?
So what did we do here? Well, we opened up to other people across the school – teachers, students, support staff – the methods that have worked so well for us in Media Education. The use of still image analysis in Maths, moving image production in PE and History and blogging in Art have all contributed in their own small way to raising attainment across the school. In the last four years the school has improved on all the standard government measures. You might be sitting there thinking “Great. Good for you. But you can’t really prove that it was Media Education that did that” and in some ways you would be right. We haven’t conducted any major research studies into the way individual students have responded to individual techniques. But then I’m not sure we have to. You can see the proof of it when you walk through the door and see more engaged students, excited to go to lessons and talking enthusiastically about their learning.
And what about the local community? We’ve done some great work here, taking our particular view of media education on the road. Photography exhibitions with local disabled groups, video game workshops for the local youth service, animation projects with single fathers and Primary schools. The list is a long one. We could be accused of spreading ourselves too thin at times, but two things are really evident when we talk to the people of our community about what we do. Firstly, that they are engaged with what we are doing; interested in the ideas and possibilities of media education. Secondly, that they are motivated to go on learning about and through the media. This in turn, motivates us to carry on doing what we are doing and keep spreading the ideas. Now our community is becoming known as a place where media education is alive and kicking throughout our area and even nationally. Our involvement in the “Media Literacy: Towards a Model of Progression” research project has seen us work with a range of media education professionals from other parts of the country. These experiences make us even more convinced that media education is vital for allowing young people to access opportunities that they may be denied through their social and economic situation.
The really important thing is that we are not the only ones who think this. Recently, I was invited to speak at the “Animation4Life” Conference about a project that we had done that brought together Primary students from across our area to make a collaborative animated film. I have to admit that I was completely unprepared for the people that I met there; Grief counsellors using production work to deal with people’s bereavement; Probation officers using moving image analysis to help young offenders; Occupational Therapists using animation as a means of tackling the long term effects of brain injury. All these people were as convinced as I was as the importance of media literacy in promoting social inclusion.
I’m not suggesting that Media education is a panacea for societies ills. It isn’t, but it does have a role to play in how we deal with some of the problems that our young people (and others) face on a day to day basis in the way they access education for example. I’m quite prepared to accept that some media educators might not want media education to do this. It’s not what they signed on for, and they might not be in a position to use the tool of media education in the way that I’m suggesting. They might not even consider what I am talking about here as media education. However, all media educators should realise that “this thing they do” is very powerful, and as someone related to the guy in the red and blue suit said “With great power comes great responsibility”.