Acquiring Media Literacy and Using Technology

I described three teachers integrating film into their lessons in the previous post. The content of each film was connected to the unit that each teacher had developed and, presumably, the content standards that California wanted teachers to follow. The hardware they used were DVD players or teacher laptops connected to LCD projectors.

What they did not do was investigate the assumptions and biases in the films themselves or question the accuracy of the sources that writers, directors, and actors used in creating and making the film. Although California curriculum standards call for media literacy skills in English/ language arts and history/social science in K-12 grades, current high-stakes state tests contain no items that examine media literacy. With state and federal officials pressing teachers and students to score well on tests media literacy lessons are down low on most teachers’ “to do” lists. So I do not criticize these three teachers for not helping students analyze the films they watched to acquire skills in media literacy. For the past half-century, most teachers have not integrated media literacy into their lessons even as little and big screens have come to dominate the lives of children and adults outside of school.

Having students become media literate across school subjects has been talked about since the early 1960s but has hardly made a dent in lessons that most teachers teach. In Britain, Canada, and European nations there has been far more talk and even some action (media literacy Europe/Canada ). Much less so in the U.S.

What do I mean by teaching children skills of media literacy? I offer two examples of lessons using new technologies, one in a Canadian elementary school on analyzing candy ads after students had read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and a Providence (RI) high school social studies lesson on World War II.

Watch on YouTube the Canadian elementary school teacher, using an interactive white board, teach a lesson on candy ads.

For the high school lesson, journalist Dana Goldstein describes a lesson where the teacher had students use laptops to analyze sources–her example of students working on media literacy skills.

I sat in on Jennifer Geller’s 10th grade Contemporary World History class at the Providence Career and Technical Academy. That day’s state-mandated lesson objective was to “trace patterns chronologically for events leading to World War II in Europe.” But Geller, a 12-year veteran in the district, used technology to layer a more ambitious and contemporary media literacy skills-building session on top of the dry history.

First the sophomores read the following paragraph in their Prentice Hall World History textbook:

With the [German] government paralyzed by divisions, both Nazis and Communists won more seats in the Reichstag, or lower house of the legislature. Fearing the growth of Communist political power, conservative politicians turned to Hitler. Although they despised him, they believed they could control him. Then, with conservative support, Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933 through legal means under the Weimar constitution.

Geller asked the kids to go to the back of room and pick up individual laptops, which had been borrowed for the day from the school’s library. Their task for the rest of the period was to search online for additional accurate information about Hilter’s rise to power that had not been included in their textbook, and then present it to the class.

Geller engaged the kids in a conversation about how search engines work. “Does anyone know how the first link on Google becomes the first one?” she asked. “It’s not the best — it’s that the most people linked to or clicked on that site. You should not always trust the first thing you see!”

Geller encouraged the students to look at Wikipedia, but skeptically. “Anyone can write these articles,” she explained. “The fact that anyone can change them or fix them means if something is wrong, it can be fixed. You have to be careful with it, just like you have to be careful with your textbook.”

Geller continued, “Who do you think gets to write a textbook? And how often is it updated? Maybe a downside is the textbook doesn’t change much from year to year.”

After searching online, the students learned that it wasn’t just “conservative politicians” who supported Hitler. In fact, a full third of the German public had voted for the Nazi party. “That’s why you use two sources!” Geller proclaimed.

The lesson was relevant to both historical research and day-to-day fact finding online. It also gave the students something pretty disturbing to think about regarding the relatively broad support enjoyed by Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1933. This struck me as an ideal classroom use of technology — and all it required were laptops and a wifi connection.

In both lessons, new technologies were used to get students engaged in tasks that built and used critical thinking skills to parse a textbook paragraph and candy ads. But as Bill Ferriter pointed out, the technology didn’t spur students, it was the teacher’s questions about candy ads and a textbook passage about Hitler becoming Chancellor that mattered. Laptops and an interactive white board didn’t motivate students to become media literate, the teachers did.

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18 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

18 responses to “Acquiring Media Literacy and Using Technology

  1. Larry, I’ve been trying to point this out to you on many of your postings about the use of technology in schools. But I gave up after you didn’t seem to listen.

  2. Dr. Cuban,

    I teach high school Social Studies in an International Baccalaureate school with a 1:1 laptop program. In IB History, students must become familiar with a source analysis technique called OPVL, where students must examine the Origin, Purpose, Value, and Limitations of a source. While my 10th grade students were reading primary sources related to the US Preamble, many of my students asked if they had to do an OPVL for each source. I responded they might as well not read the source if they did not understand the origin, purpose, value, and limitation. For instance, a speech given by Patrick Henry against ratifying the US Constitution to the Virginia legislature means more IF you understand who Patrick Henry was as part of the Revolution and why he was an Anti-Federalist. Yes, the source can have value without understanding the OPVL, but the value will be limited.

    Thanks, as always, for your insights into education.

    • larrycuban

      Justin,
      Congratulations on your imminent Ed.D. Thanks for commenting on the examination of historical and non-historical sources in your IB history course.

      As to my research on 1:1 laptops in one high school over nearly a decade (and the school’s use of computers in labs before 1:1 since 1998), I am uncertain whether my description and analysis would be helpful. My book is called: Inside the Black Box: Change without Reform in Classroom Practice and the first chapter is about Las Montanas high school over the 14 years it has used computers. It will be published by Harvard Education Press in Spring 2013.

  3. As an English teacher, I was always under the impression it was my job to teach children critical skills, whatever the media, because language use pervades all other media. In my teaching career that was how most of my colleagues thought… and acted. I still think that.

    I recall teaching a lesson on television news during the 80′s when an odd incident occurred during the Iran Iraq war, and some jet fighter pilots fled to Iran… with their planes. It just so happened, I had recorded the national TV news on the two major national channels that evening for the class to compare. Both channels showed exactly the same footage of these planes, taken by a Japanese news crew in the area at the time. One channel said, showing something like a close up, that the planes were “unarmed.” The other, showed exactly the same Japanese close up but said, “You can see clearly from these shots, that the planes were fully armed.” Job done as far as learning critical skills goes!

    In the UK, “Media Studies” as a GCSE school subject exemplified the kind of dumbing down of the curriculum in order to get more children through exams, which has been endemic for a long time and finally reached crisis point here this summer with the exam results scandal. It was created not because it was a separate subject discipline requiring new or different analytical methods or skills: but purely to cater for those children unable to gain a pass grade (C) in GCSE English and give them a sense they could pass something.

    • larrycuban

      I had learned about “Media Studies” in UK through the work of David Buckingham and subsequent efforts to revitalize the subject. All to no avail apparently. Thanks, Joe.

      • David’s is arguably the most lucid, insightful voice on this entire issue and his book, “Beyond Technology” one of the most intelligent commentaries on the current climate I’ve read.

  4. Cal

    But aren’t we really talking about indoctrination, without regard to media?

    For example, my first year of teaching at Oceana High School, the administration converted March 4th to a “save the schools” day. For two weeks ahead of time, the students were reminded to get permission slips signed that allowed them to either form an SOS on the beach or go to a shopping center to hand out pamphlets encouraging people to vote for Democrats. Then on that day, the students who didn’t have permission slips watched “Walk Out” (the same one as shown at Mission High and a more blatant piece of propagandistic hogwash I’ve never been forced to endure), while the rest of them went about forming the SOS or handing out pamphlets, off campus, followed by media who were encouraged to present the kids as dedicated activists, as opposed to kids who had been largely required to get the permission slips signed.

    I was a freshman humanities teacher, and only one of my kids got the slip signed. I told them it wasn’t required. We had an interesting discussion. One of the students argued that this whole efffort was propaganda, and another pointed out that all students weren’t *required* to participate, even if some kids were told they’d get an F for the activity.

    But I pointed out that there was one more view not accounted for. The school was allowing students to engage in activities, and the school was (theoretically) allowing students to remain neutral. I let them mull it over for a while and it didn’t occur to any of them that the school was making no allowances for students OPPOSED the activities. Wasn’t it possible that some students might think it a bad idea to spend more money on schools? This sparked a real debate, as several boys spoke up and said they did think it was a bad idea to spend more money on schools when “the state was broke” and others were genuinely in favor of it.

    No other class had this activity, because every other class required the students to get the permission slip signed or take an F. Some teachers told me I had to require the permission slip, but they were quickly corrected by administration.

    I’ve written about this before, I know, but it remains the most shocking case of overt politicizing I’ve ever heard of on a school campus, and it was arranged and supported by the administration. As a teacher, I saw it as my job to help my students see the assumptions and biases in their own school activity. Here’s an article on it: http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/Day-of-Action-evinces-disdain-for-education-3270684.php

    I see the sort of propagandizing you describe as one and the same as this–that is, the teachers are not simply failing to point out the biases. They *share* the biases, and in most cases, they want the students to think as they do. In California, those biases are liberal; I’m sure in other parts of the country the biases are more conservative. It’s not the direction of the tilt that concerns me, but the genuine inability I see in most English and history teachers to distinguish between their own views and their responsibilities as teachers.

    • larrycuban

      Well, Cal, you pointed out the larger issue that goes beyond “media literacy” or the use of films in class: toward what ends? What do teachers seek to have students learn? Champions of media literacy would argue that teachers looking to give students the skills of analyzing sources, identifying biases, and drawing conclusions based on evidence would avoid the kinds of political indoctrination you describe. I would certainly hope so. The example you gave of the SOS permission slips and the lack of examination of the purpose and means of fulfilling that purpose surely suggest unexamined and deep biases among teachers and administrators to the point where political, almost mindless, indoctrination does occur confusing both teachers and students about what they are doing in school.

  5. As I am sure you are aware, media literacy has been part of the Ontario curriculum since 1986. It’s goal then and now, is to make students more thoughtful consumers of media. To paraphrase Marshall Mcluhan, we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us. Every aspect of media has an impact on society, including the use of laptops or any other technology in the classroom. How can you avoid indoctrination? The school system itself is a form of such. All we can hope for in media studies is to make students aware that in very subtle, unforeseen ways, they are being shaped by the media and the world around them. The first step has to be the awareness itself. As someone who has taught media as part of the English curriculum for many years, I can say that it is not easy to convince students of this because they easily recognize the obvious methods of persuasion and feel they are immune to it. Our job as teachers is to give them the tools. It’s not possible to avoid bias; it’s built into everything that we do.

    • larrycuban

      Actually, Cathy, I did not know that media literacy has been part of Ontario’s curriculum since the mid-1980s.Your point about bias being inevitable is, of course, on the mark. Knowing what our biases are–or as a colleague once reframed the word–”our commitments”–is the task facing us as adults and as teachers.

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