Media Literacy in Schools: Practice, Production and Progression

Author(s) Andrew Burn, James Durran
Publisher Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd
Published 2007
Pages 208
Price £19.99
ISBN 9781412922166
Reviewed by Dr John Butcher
University College Falmouth
Review published 29 May 2008

This intriguing and timely book is based on the interrelation between research and practice at Parkside Community College (and partner schools) over the decade since Parkside became the first specialist Media Arts school in the UK. Its authors are well placed to reflect on the current position and future possibilities for media literacy as exemplified by work at the school, since one is currently Reader in Education and Media at the Institute of Education and a former long-serving teacher at Parkside, and the other is currently Advanced Skills Teacher (AST) for Media and English at the school. Their book is divided into ten chapters of roughly equal length, with the practical activities described, and the value of such activities analysed, in chapters 2 – 9.

The book offers plenty of food for thought for the educational researcher through the discursive and contextualised preface, the dissection in Chapter 1 of “What is Media Literacy” and the consideration in Chapter 10 of the future possibilities and pitfalls for media literacy. The practitioner may be drawn more immediately to the substantive chapters 2 – 9, which describe pupil work in areas as diverse as comic strip literacy, critical creativity in hospital dramas and game literacy (Year 8), horror genres (Year 9) and representation in advertising (GCSE). It is especially helpful to have described examples of media literacy across the curriculum in chapter 8, including work in Dance, Geography, Maths, Science, English, French and various extra-curricular activities. Given the book’s subject matter, it is entirely appropriate that extensive examples of the media texts produced by pupils related to each of chapters 2 - 9, and some associated schemes of work, are included on a DVD. This is to be applauded; offering as it does a range of pupil-led media productions including moving image, animated films and game design. These serve the purpose of encouraging teachers to experiment more with authentic examples (I can’t wait to try the Playmobil road safety animation) while avoiding the danger of an over-polished “professional” quality product which teachers may fear they will never be able to emulate in their own settings. The DVD also allows colour reproductions of pupil work, and playable video clips with accompanying audio, which enliven the work significantly beyond the black and white versions embedded throughout the book. ROM accompanying the book. The inclusion of the

The authors position themselves quite explicitly as English teachers working in the cultural analysis paradigm, acknowledging most media teachers in the UK in 2005 were English teachers. However, they are honest enough to admit the recent shift in media education in schools from its traditional home in English departments towards the other Arts subjects, and as such: “We hope [the chapters]...will suggest ways for teachers to think beyond instrumental models of the curriculum”. I note that in HE, the media literacy they persuasively advocate is far more likely to be found in art rather than English degrees.

While recognising the problem with the very term “media literacy”, which they describe as unsatisfactory but useful, they advocate media literacy as a subset of multiliteracy, and position it as a creative engagement by pupils with media practice, and as such distinct from media education (teaching about the media) and what they understand as e-learning (learning through the media). Media literacy for them reclaims the old argument about the place of popular culture in schools.

The book is unafraid to recognise the government’s espousal of the creative industries over the same decade, which the authors equate with a curriculum of creative problem-solving. Indeed, they helpfully point out the tension between the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s promotion of media literacy, while the Department for Education and Skills continue to confine media education to a narrow and conservatively preserved English curriculum. In contrast, the authors seek to conceptualise creativity in media literacy as serving “dissent, critique and subversion” rather than appropriated models of social and economic cohesion. I am not quite convinced the examples described, and in turn illustrated on the DVD always rise to that challenge, but the book certainly offers extensive evidence of exciting possibilities for engaging pupils with contemporary media forms.

Each of the chapters exemplifying practice begins with a cultural rationale for the approach to be discussed, raising the important distinction that: “Creativity...carries rather different meanings in art education and media education”. By this, they mean art education privileges intentionality and aesthetic properties, whereas media education highlights production. Such thinking is supported by a coherent discussion of the semiotic of such production, drawing variously on iconography, representation, critical understanding and cultural value/cultural experience. I enjoyed the reflective nature of much of the discussion, for example in their advocacy of authentic tasks in advertising simulations, contrasted with a recognition of the near impossibility of getting such pupil products broadcast in any meaningful sense. Equally, I enjoyed the discussion of the narrative design of games (drawing on what critics might consider formulaic approaches, whereas others perceive ancient oral narratives) and the introduction of ideas around ludic design, in which structured rules are paramount to the narrative possibility.

A small caveat is the book does not include discussion of the post-16 possibilities in this area (progression to A level Communication Studies or Media Studies would enable the work described here to be further developed), and the absence of any mention of the possibilities afforded in the future through the 14-19 diploma in Creative and Media (albeit this would need to be predictive rather than descriptive). However, I wholeheartedly recommend this text to teacher educators and their trainees, certainly across English and the Arts, but arguably to all engaged in considering critical pedagogy across the curriculum. As the authors point out, the advent of digital authoring tools and the ubiquity of online gaming has provided the means to a far more realisable approach to negotiated learning in the classroom. The book argues schools need to become “more porous” in engaging with Cultural Studies, Social Semiotics and cultural psychology, and as such this provides a clarion call for pedagogic experimentation in the context of practitioner research.