Media education – where does the rhetoric end and the reality begin?

Jenny Grahame, Editor of Media Magazine, a magazine for A level students in the UK, based at the English and Media Centre in London

For the past 35 years, the English and Media Centre, where I work, has engaged with ideas about media education, taught, trained and published resources about it, evangelised about its role, and defended its position in the curriculum. Yet, at a time when we know that its future is more important than ever before, it seems no longer possible to be entirely confident about what media education is, could be or should be, nor what possibilities and challenges the next generation needs to take on. So I want to start with some personal assumptions I thought I had, and take a look through my own diary for the first four weeks of this term, to help me audit what I do now think about media education at this moment in time, and how our own recent EMC experience reflects or challenges this.

Some assumptions, in no particular order: Media education should be

. . . at the heart of how children learn, and how we teach them

. . . an entitlement for all learners – an inclusive, empowering pedagogy

. . . an interdisciplinary underpinning for the whole curriculum

. .. a fully integrated aspect of literacy with the potential to transform subject English and the wider curriculum

. . . about more than Media Studies

So how do these ideals shape up in practice? Where does the rhetoric end and the real world begin? And how can we ensure that the rhetoric and practice converge and interact?

An interdisciplinary underpinning for the whole curriculum

I’m part of a cross-curricular project advising on an online resource to commemorate a major global news event, generously funded by an anonymous private benefactor of unclear provenance. Co-ordinated by a major commercial educational resources provider in conjunction with an HE institution, a diverse range of subject specialists spend the day brainstorming the concepts and principles which should underpin the website, and the learning outcomes each subject might contribute. It is immediately clear that the common thread which runs through each group’s discussion is the role played by the media in constructing representations of, and responses to, global events. It is exciting to imagine that this might become the focus of the project – a rare opportunity for genuinely cross-curricular media education; but there is a risk that the proposed wireframe for the site might not allow for the kind of holistic media-centred approach that would have been possible in the past. I grappled with precisely this issue when trying to develop a Whole-school Curriculum for Media Education; despite the rhetoric and a literally new world of communicative practices and technologies, there is little evidence that things have changed.

An entitlement for all learners – an inclusive, empowering pedagogy

My Centre is working with a school on a short-term project to raise the aspirations and attainment of Year 7 pupils on free school meals – the current target group for addressing under-achievement. 25 diverse, demanding and delightfully mouthy 11-year-olds are developing video resources for the school intranet to encourage their peers to consider higher education as an entitlement. They’ve researched the benefits, social and economic implications of HE, visited a university campus, interviewed alumni and undergraduates. Ideally the processes of research, information retrieval, interview and documenting the visit with podcasts and video should generate purposeful analysis, editorial decisions, PLTSs and problem-solving skills, as well as a ‘finished’ media product of which the pupils would be proud.  But funding for the project has come from a budget for ‘narrowing the gap’ and, inevitably the focus is not so much on media skills as on improving talk and raising expectations. As a result, there is not time for the students themselves to be fully engaged in the producton process, and the media ‘writing’ skills  involved in producing and editing the video will be undertaken by staff and technicians. Is this media education by way of Speaking and Listening skills – or, more accurately, vice versa? Or does the media element of this project function in the service of other laudable but rather different aims?  And does it matter? If it does, my dilemma is how to reframe the project to restore media to the heart of this process as the powerful stimulus for talk skills I believe it to be.

A fully integrated aspect of literacy with the potential to transform subject English and the wider curriculum

The media education work that EMC has celebrated for 35 years has been increasingly challenged both by the encroachment of the aggressive marketing strategies of Awarding Bodies and educational publishing conglomerates, and by assessment requirements that reduce the spirit of the National Curriculum programnes of study and opportunities for creative exploration to paper-based outcomes. The massive expansion of access to free online resources – in itself of course a tremendous potential asset –together with changing funding priorities and new financial arrangements in schools have inevitably impacted on our training and publications. To take just four examples from my diary:

i)  I take a group of English and Media PGCE students through four classroom media activities on Shakespeare, oracy and writing which go down a storm and revive their flagging spirits. There is the potential for a world of imaginative media work around literature, poetry, non-fiction, and talk across the secondary English curriculum; but at EMC, as elsewhere, we can no longer recruit enough qualified teachers to our media-related CPD courses, even where they are sufficiently disguised by buzz-word box-ticking titles. The word ‘media’ is now replaced by ‘multimodal’ Teachers’ spirits would be willing; but the  need to ‘measure outcomes’ makes the flesh of Senior Management weak. Yet creative media education and improved attainment are clearly not incompatible; the challenge here is how to demonstrate this.

ii)  Meanwhile I’m preparing a training day on storyboarding and no-tech production for English and Media teachers in a consortium of schools. Until recently this sort of work was my bread and butter; it comes most often now from schools which previously neglected media education, but now under pressure to hit GCSE targets, acknowledge its relevance and appeal for under-achieving boys and recalcitrant writers. Given that I know I will be expected to promote storyboarding as a substitute for creative production experiences, am I promoting a defecit model of media education? How can this perceived need be built on to make it a good news story rather than a token gesture?

iii)  I’m developing ‘multimodal resources’ to support Creative Writing for Key Stage 3 and 4 English. My centre is committed to the idea that ‘Media writing’ and production should be at the heart of the process, but despite lip-service to the importance of relevant and engaging textual experiences, in practice the ‘GCSE English’ definition of the term ‘writing’ rarely extends beyond the conventional meaning of putting words down on a page. The ‘creative’ part, in this context, varies according to different awarding bodies, and might include anything from argument, editorial and factual prose, to personal writing, original fiction or poetry. The titles for set assessment tasks include  ‘Writing From the Moving Image’, and on paper encourage ‘multimodal approaches’, but I sense that my proposed exercises – researching and making a video narrative, screenplay, electronic storyboard or moving image montage, as the springboard for a piece of writing – may be too time-consuming, scary, or tangential to be useful preparation for the demands of the assessment process. And there is a widespread assumption that if it isn’t assessed, it won’t get taught. Again, the challenge is how to demonstrate to English teachers that engagement with media production can not only meet the demands of conventional controlled assessments, but also be the pedagogy through which students’ writing can be developed.

iv)  At EMC we’re trialling new ways of supporting teachers and new publishing formats. I’m writing a downloadable resouce on Talent TV which might cross-over between English and Media Studies at Key Stage 4. Familiar rich territory for both English and Media, where examples, critique and clips are easy to find for the initiated; but the copyright and financial constraints of providing accompanying digital resources for less experienced teachers are crippling. This may become a resource which appeals to media specialists but feels too risky for a broader cohort of English teachers. Yet these are the very people we should be encouraging to see freely available online material as accessible, rather than overwhelming, and supporting to ensure that their technology is up to it – another challenge for MEA perhaps?

About more than Media Studies

I’m editing two issues of MediaMagazine – a journal targeting 16+ students of Media and Film Studies – back to back this term. I want both to raise ‘Bigger Picture’ ideas, as well as sign-posted resources which will support student work in various A level contexts. The submissions for our ‘Culture’ issue – which I’d expected to include a diverse range of sub-cultural articles on aspects of youth, music, style  and popular culture – seem surprisingly heavyweight and dominated by debates about High and Low Culture, why there is no Media Canon (actually I rather think there is, judging by recurrent references to New Wave cinema, horror and Tarantino) and where these ideas have come from. The ‘Collaboration’ theme, intended to foreground digital participation, is providing a different set of perspectives; but as editor I’m feeling uncomfortably stretched between competing pre and post 2.0 models of Media and Film Studies, and unsure what this tells me about the state of the nation’s media education and the schisms opening up between different versions of the subject. I am also torn between wanting to offer as open a platform as possible for young people’s voices in the magazine, and the more teacherly aim of well-modelled, clearly argued articles which extend students’ repertoire and introduce them to new texts and ideas – aims which are not always entirely compatible.

At the heart of how children learn, and how we teach them

OK, after all these conscience-wrestling dilemmas and challenges to the next generation, here’s the good bit. I have spent several challenging days developing resources for use in the Media Literacy and Learning Progression project led by David Buckingham at the Institute of Education. The work so far has adopted standard classroom practice derived from media studies, much of it from our EMC back catalogue, within the conventional conceptual framework of media languages, audiences, representations and institutions, to accommodate both the wide variations in expertise of the teachers on the project, and the logistics of constructing open-ended research activities that will work with children from Year 2 to Year 11, in institutional contexts wildly diverse in terms of social class, expectations and ethos. For the first time we start looking longitudinally at the outcomes. We do this backwards: starting with evidence of institutional understanding from outcomes of the news simulation researched last term, and linking it backwards to the previous unit on representation and the construction of celebrity identity, and further back still to explorations of narrative and media language. This process reminds me of why I call myself a media educator, and why my own Centre’s work is so important; for the first time in months I am able to focus exclusively on the actual processes of teaching and learning, trashing a whole range of pedagogic assumptions about ages, stages and the accessibility of particular concepts – and realising how little we know not only about the ways children learn about media over time, but also about the tried and tested strategies and interventions we have adopted over the last 3 decades.

So what price my media education assumptions now? Ever the optimist, I think they’re still worth holding on to. This manifesto needs patience, to ride out the long dark Coalition winter; more research, to keep teaching and learning at the heart of it; advocacy for a different kind of English curriculum; lobbying against the stranglehold of restrictive assessment practices; and perhaps an awareness that, as Cary Bazalgette suggests, it may ultimately be less about rethinking Media education, and more about rethinking Education. Not much to do then….

The views expressed in this manifesto are my own.


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  1. Geoff Lealand says:

    Good stuff, Jenny but I would like a little more about the notion of “about more than Media Studies”. I recognise the call for cross-curricular initiatives but the beauty of MS is that it developed out of the borrowing and synthesis of longer-established traditions (Sociology, Geography etc), the refinement of such borrowing, and ever-expanding horizon for teachers and students (computer technology, digital creativity, social media). Indeed, in my more inflammatory moments, I have advocated for Media Studies to replace English in the pantheon of privileged subjects in teaching.

  2. Cary Bazalgette says:

    I think Geoff doesn’t recognise Jenny’s positioning of Media Studies as OPTIONAL specialist courses for post-14 year olds in the UK context. Her argument is closer to Geoff’s than he has recognised: an illustration of how tricky it is to do this internationally. It’s brilliant to read Jenny’s piece because it is really grounded in face-to-face work with some of the millions of kids in mainstream schooling as opposed to the few doing Media Studies.

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