A way of learning…



Julian Sefton-Green, independent scholar

Like all discussion about learning in general, media education is clearly more than just what happens in schools. But it was in a secondary school – in Tottenham – a socially deprived part of London – where I began the first leg of my sentimental education. In the late 1980s/early 1990s media education meant three very particular things for me.

The first was a wider political project about culture. In the UK at least there is a very explicit demarcation between forms of cultural hierarchy ( I think the same arguments are present in other cultures, from France to the US, for example, but they take different forms). Forms of ‘high’ culture are opposed to forms of popular or low culture. The pleasures of the popular, at that time especially popular TV, soap operas – were proscribed from the curriculum. Building on what was at the time the new audience theory, analysing and valuing the interpretative capabilities of members of the audience, I was interested in a Media Studies that valued forms of cultural experiences, that took seriously pleasures and meanings that my students found in their readings of such forms. I was particularly interested in forms of resistance and identification – how readings of popular culture offered spaces for young people, who, marginalised by their youth, could also engage with other forms of suppressed (and oppressed) identity work around gender, class and race – where young people ‘s pleasure in culture gave voice to and reflected on their worlds, their interests and the spaces available for a developing sense of self.

This focus on the young person, their social worlds and their cultural identity also underpinned the very particular theory of media learning that gave focus and direction to being a teacher at that time. Developing ideas from Vygotsky – especially a notion of progression suggested by his description of the development of ‘scientific’ from ‘spontaneous’ concepts – I was interested in how what I knew, the academic discourse of Media Studies, the language of theory and the framing provided by the literature, offered clear added value to what the students knew. I felt that media education offered a very particular (though not unique) curriculum, that the way it built on students’ knowledge offered both a politics and form of education which meant that teachers and students contributed in different ways to the value of the subject. Key here was the role of practical creative production work. Not only did this allow for forms of expression within the conceptual frames given meaning and value by young people, it made the subject ‘expressive’ in that it gave ‘voice’ to young people as they could make, share and reflect on the process of making and exhibiting forms of popular culture.

This attention to the potential for voice (obviously not a naïve or simple matter – especially given the complexity of working in popular genres and forms) , also offered a model for the role of media education in curriculum debate. The idea of expression and of developing prior knowledge and experience built on older ideas about the role of education as bildung, and a wider neo-progressivist set of pedagogic relationships. Coupled with the subject’s content, its focus on the contested, the popular and the Political (with its attention to a current News Agenda), Media Studies appeared to provide a critical and political curriculum – with self-evidently important and relevant content yet where the kind of knowledge at stake was negotiated and where the way of learning was more widely shared. It also offered a curriculum form that could challenge and unsettle more traditional types of subject discipline. It seemed to provide a route to make the matter of being a contemporary citizen, of developing forms of subjectivity to negotiate the world, the very subject under discussion – a mode of ‘educating for Democracy’ – in the particular conditions of the decay of London’s post industrial, post-colonial struggle for the purposes of Education.

These three principles, a politics of culture, a theory of learning and politics of curriculum, weren’t just isolated ‘in-principle’ reasons. At that time, I felt very much part of a larger community of teachers, researchers and other education policy makers and curriculum reformers. Many of these people have written for this Manifesto project, and one challenge I have for readers of this moment in time is that despite the growth of community in virtual worlds , I wonder whether there is the same level of activism around in this field (what motivates it?) but maybe that’s something else to think about.

Working in schools, long term, on a reform agenda is wearing and just as I thought I had worked out what media education could offer, I became disenchanted with the limits of change in schools. In particular I became vexed by how far a discourse of Media Studies, the values of an academic language, really made a difference (and empirically in what ways, to what degree, to whom) to these ambitions for change. Whilst there is always a challenge to any self-espousing radical agenda, to the self-satisfied smugness of the avant garde, I was troubled by how limiting a field of enquiry, the discipline of this subject could be in the context of the kind of educational changes happening in English schools. The more I investigated any difference Media Studies might be making to young people‘s lives, the less apparent it was that School was doing any more than recuperating a critical discourse and continuing to find ways to exclude those young people to whom that discourse appeared to offer so much. Media Studies became just another way to grade and stratify young people. What’s the point in that?

I then moved into the non-formal leaning sector, working in an out-of-school organisation offering a series of programmes to young people from low-income families at all ages in arts and media. Here, there were no examinations, little interest (originally) in credentialisation but a constant focus on how the kind of knowledge I was interested in and how the development of creative possibilities might in some ways support young people’s learning and growth. Whilst there was less interest in explicit modes of critical expression (essay writing), the kinds of discussion and reflection involved in making, production and other kinds of circulation of cultural products within the community of the institution and online, meant that the idea and importance of values, of engaging in learning and of expressing oneself in cultural forms was at the forefront of this agenda. Whilst academic Media Studies was less fluent in some of the aesthetic and creative discourses, a production based approach and a connection within more open-ended learning agendas within Art education gave this kind of project a unique position within the wider economy of media education possible in the UK at that time. The possibility of employment in the creative and cultural industries gave the idea of production a purpose and value that it lacked within the simulated world of formal education – although the aspirations and individual life-pathways that were really on offer for these young people was not always what they promised.

Clearly, the development of ‘new’ digital technologies allowed this production-centred curriculum to develop. Changing possibilities in the production, circulation and reception of output made some of the hypothesis about the value of this learning plausible. I would also stress that what the institution made available, made a big difference: physical resources, intellectual and creative structure and teaching, the disciplines of iterative reflection and attention to detail. But of course this is an offer to those who chose to attend however troubled and wide ranging their life-experiences – or indeed for those deemed in need of intervention: it isn’t a measure of what the broader society values.

A manifesto implies a programme of change or reform with some ambitions about governance, a clear articulation of need and an offer of an intervention to remediate that need. The three key principles with which I worked in the school system are sound and hold true: and they need support. Not that governments and education policy-makers around the world are committed to such ends. Schooling in general around the world is less interested in diverse and popular understandings of culture; it holds little truck with forms of knowledge that don’t meet instrumental ends; and normative and restricted understandings of learning now dominate the agenda of teachers and other education professionals. Working out of school is great but it seems a bit of luxury to bother with a manifesto. It is already not-school, the interventions are justified on other grounds. It is also a limited sphere of influence. How could one seek to manage a more programmatic intervention?

If I had to choose one key principle to take forward it would be about a theory of learning, not because I think that the politics of culture or even that of curriculum reform is less important but because without a sophisticated, empirically justified, broadly understood model of how learning works in practice, how it makes a difference, what interventions are needed and what kinds of intervention are effective, then we all risk sinking into aspirational platitudes. We will lose the capacity to ‘engineer’ change by losing sight of how change actually works at an individual level, in collective social groups and in key enduring social institutions like schools. I regret most of all the difficulty of working with teachers in ways that they can influence what happens in their classrooms. That may be the oddity of the English Education system at this time; it may be a general point. Unless media education aims to have some effect at that level I can’t see the point.

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  1. Cary Bazalgette says:

    I like all of this but think your penultimate paragraph goes to the heart of the problem. I was recently exchanging messages with a teacher who informed me that “most working teachers don’t have time for ‘debates’”. – see http://themea.org/members/carybaz/messages/view/326. It’s the quote marks round ‘debates’ that depressed me.

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