George Lucas Educational Foundation

Students Evolve from Consumers to Critics and Creators

Critical-thinking skills -- and fluency in multimedia production -- are integral to media literacy.
Ken Ellis
Former Executive Producer, video , Edutopia
Related Tags: Assessment, All Grades
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VIDEO: Media Smarts: Kids Learn How to Navigate the Multimedia World

Running Time: 8 min.

For many students, what happens in the traditional American classroom is boring. Small wonder, when you compare such relatively inanimate stuff as pencil-and-paper-bound reading, writing, and math drills to the media mix of mind-bending imagery and hair-raising sound that consumes most of their waking hours outside school.

A recent study, "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds," found that students in grades 3-12 spend an average of six hours and twenty-one minutes plugged in to some type of media each day. Accounting for multitasking, the figure jumps to about eight and a half hours including nearly four hours of TV viewing and forty-nine minutes of video game play. Comparatively, homework gets slightly less than fifty minutes of attention.

For this digital generation, electronic media is increasingly seductive, influential, and pervasive, yet most schools treat the written word as the only means of communication worthy of study. Therefore, most American students remain poorly equipped to think critically about, and express themselves through, the media that defines them.

Credit: Edutopia

Cue the herald trumpets, and enter the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), an organization that promotes media literacy as an essential life skill. Consisting of more than 500 educators and media experts, the NAMLE believes that "as communication technologies transform society, they affect our understanding of ourselves, our communities, and our diverse culture. By applying literacy skills to media and technology messages, by learning to skillfully interpret, analyze, and create messages, media literacy empowers people to be both critical thinkers and creative producers of messages using image, language, and sound."

Credit: Edutopia

Media literacy means various things to different people, encompassing everything from the basics of graphic design to critical analysis of advertising images and news broadcasts. "One of the radical ideas behind media education is to make school more student centered," says Robert Kubey, director of Rutgers University's Center for Media Studies. "That isn't to say that we pander to whatever students are interested in so that the whole curriculum is about video games and rap music. But we want to understand a little better about the pleasures and interests that students have and use that as an avenue to have intellectual and analytic discourse about these products. Could they be better? What makes this one good? Are there moral values being taught? In other words, reach kids where they live."

One place kids live is the multiplex, where they indulge in popcorn and eye candy. "We were educated to read actively, yet we're conditioned to view visual images passively," notes Steve Apkon, executive director of the Jacob Burns Film Center, in Pleasantville, New York. Serving over five thousand elementary, middle school, and high school students, the nonprofit organization seeks to change passive viewers into active ones with several curriculum-based visual-literacy programs.

In the See, Hear, Feel Film program, for example, third graders watch feature film clips to learn basic moviemaking techniques such as how various camera angles heighten dramatic impact and how emotional content can be conveyed without words. After the screenings, students work in small groups with their teachers to compose short scenes they then act out.

Credit: The Jacob Burns Film Center

In an animation workshop, fourth graders collaborate to write, storyboard, direct, and shoot their own animated stop-motion films. The goal is to have students begin to view films, TV shows, and Web sites with more analytical minds. Former New York Times movie critic and center board president Janet Maslin believes young people "don't often understand the choices that are made with each shot, the propaganda value, the subliminal value. If we do nothing else here, we're going to teach kids how to see more deeply into that and how to be able to speak for themselves in the same kind of language."

Several other groups are making important contributions to the advancement of media literacy in and outside the classroom. The Web site of the Media Education Foundation offers some fifty videos and free educational materials that foster critical examinations of mainstream media and advertising. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Youth Radio conducts after-school programs offering classes in radio-broadcasting skills, including engineering, DJing, journalism, and Web production. Working as interns at area radio stations, students produce pieces that air on local and national outlets such as NPR.

For the classroom, Just Think offers several programs and curriculum packages such as "Flipping the Script: Critical Thinking in a Hip-Hop World," designed to help educators teach media-literacy concepts and production skills around the theme of hip-hop culture. "With this curriculum, kids who normally don't show up at all come to class every day," says Just Think founder Elana Yonah Rosen. "They either love hip-hop or they hate it, but they have opinions about it, as opposed to some piece of nineteenth-century literature they get in English class."

The NAMLE and Just Think are collaborating on a three-year research project to study the efficacy of teaching media literacy in the classroom. Study director Nellie Gregorian says the early results show promise. "Interviews of participating teachers strongly indicate that the program has resulted in increased interest and engagement of students in core curriculum subjects as well as improved overall academic performance."

Credit: The Jacob Burns Film Center

Filmmaker and George Lucas Educational Foundation chairman George Lucas thinks it's time to change "English" class into "Communication" class, where students learn the grammatical rules of graphic arts, film, and music along with English grammar. "It shouldn't be taught as some esoteric, arty thing. Communication skills should be taught as very practical tools that you use to sell and influence people, to get your point across -- especially in this age, where kids are, more and more, using multimedia."

Until then, teachers will spend less than an hour each school day teaching "English," leaving students to their own devices -- cell phones, TVs, iPods, PlayStations, and laptops -- to enjoy their eight-hour independent-learning adventure in the fun house of digital media.

Ken Ellis is the former executive producer of Edutopia video.

Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Oh no! I just read this about changing English classes into Communication classes! What will become of my job? Will I have to take more courses to become "highly qualified" in Communication? :) Seriously, though, what a concept. It is so true about the lack of media literacy in our classrooms, yet, this is exactly what interests our students. I love the idea of becoming active watchers, too. Why are we passive watchers and active readers? Why shouldn't our students learn to watch and listen actively? Great points, and definitely something I want to try.

Veda Neumann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We know that students learn best when they are fully engaged, so it's vital to recognize and build on their engagement with media and technology. Who would have envisioned a time when kids who love YouTube snippets devour hundreds of pages of HARRY POTTER? Engagement is the key, whatever the form. The activities described in the article encompass a number of higher level thinking skills, and it's clear that the students benefit from cooperative learning. Incidentally, I'm pleased to see that Janet Maslin is involved in promoting media literacy, because her movie reviews are great examples of critical thinking, academic knowledge, cultural literacy, and masterful writing.

Virginia Cox's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love this idea for literacy. I believe this would help students be more interested in literacy. This would help the students that hate to read and love doing hands-on activities. The media literacy would teach students so many things they need to know. Students love to see themselves on television so this would be great to impliment in your daily lessons.

Marcelo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The world has changed. So have our students. So must we.

I've been a teacher of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) for 25-plus years. I'm now also a professor of ESOL reading and (non-ESOL) developmental writing at a community college in Dallas. Over the years, I've notice how technology and communication media have molded different generations of students.

Many years ago, I used "Three's Company" episodes to teach ESOL. The series' simple plots and then-current language helped students understand the story, learn vocabulary, and discuss aspects of American culture. Students loved being able to understand more deeply what they were already doing at home--watching American sit coms.

Today, students spend hours being exposed to information on some type of screen from their computers, cell phones, and iPods to movie screens, outdoor signage, and ATM machines. I'm lucky enough to teach in classrooms fully-equipped with multimedia equipment that make the VHS player I brought into my classroom back then laughable.

Come to think of it, what has really changed? The technology has changed. Taking advantage of what is available hasn't changed. Adapting to the world students must be prepared to operate in hasn't changed. Perhaps what must change more quickly is the ability of educational institutions to equip their teaching staff with what they need to be successful instructors.

Are instructors going to use multimedia as a means to have fun and hip classes? Are they going to sacrifice content for medium? Or are we going to use technology to maximize our ability to reach students withing their own worlds so that they can enrich their lives with knowledge, the ability to think critically, and the gift of approaching real life situations with ingenuity?

These are tough questions. But they are identical to the questions I used to ask as a fledgling instructor many years ago.

dandu's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The problem with this is that schools still teach classes in their old fashioned manner. The argument is that media literacy should be stressed as much as any traditional subject. This article outlines many programs that have been instrumental in getting kids from passively learning to active learning through technology. The idea is the start teaching the kids where they are which is absorbed by media. By meeting the kids here, learning becomes more fun and more productive for the students. By teaching with media, fun learning will replace boring learning resulting in better involvement and growth for the students.

Eric H. Roth's picture
Eric H. Roth
university lecturer and English teacher

This engaging article, originally published in 2005, identified several possible approaches and valuable resources to teach media literacy and recapture student focus. Seven years later, deploying social media tools and educational videos from YouTube, Hulu, and, have become mainstream in many high schools and universities - across the curriculum.
Therefore, we don't need to abolish English classes to bring new media tools into our classrooms. We must, however, focus on helping students go from passive consumers of images and ideas and become both critical thinkers and creators. Allowing students to select and share resources as part of their classroom assignments seems like an effective way to help them become autotelic learners and 21st century students.

Autumn Crosby's picture
Autumn Crosby
Second Grade Teacher, Colorado Springs, Colorado

I need to start collecting and compiling these articles into a forum to provide my parents and colleagues with something to read besides the good old "doctor recommended two hours a day of screen time" line. That two hours a day refers to inactive, non-conversational, couch-potato consumption, and I wish I could get others to understand that. The amazing problem-solving, critical-thinking, and creativity skills that technology (when used as a teaching tool) can provide is amazing. Media literacy should be included in outcomes for state standards, such as financial literacy is.

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