The Need to Actively Teach Critical Media Literacy

by Toni Bruce

Today I want to reflect on why teaching media literacy is so important that it can’t be left to chance. And why all levels of schooling must see it as a central component of education.  Certainly, many teachers and schools around the world believe in the value of media literacy and examples of excellent practice are increasingly accessible online. But its lack of centrality in the curriculum means that media educators find themselves having to argue for why it needs to be actively taught.  However, before exploring this issue, it is valuable to define what we’re talking about so I have included some of the ways in which media educators have defined media literacy.

  • …the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms. Aspen Media Literacy Leadership Institute (1992)
  • …provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet …builds an understanding of the role of media in society [and] essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy. Center for Media Literacy, USA (nd)
  • …is concerned with helping students develop an informed and critical understanding of the nature of mass media, the techniques used by them and the impact of these techniques. … aims to increase students’ understanding and enjoyment of how the media work, how they produce meaning, how they are organized, and how they construct reality. …also aims to provide students with the ability to create media products.” Ontario Ministry of Education, Canada (1989)
  • The purpose …is to help individuals of all ages develop the habits of inquiry and skills of expression that they need to be critical thinkers, effective communicators and active citizens in today’s world. National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE)
  • …a set of competencies that enable us to interpret media texts and institutions, to make media of our own, and to recognize and engage with the social and political influence of media in everyday life. (Hoechsmann & Poyntz, 2012, p. 1)
  • …is cultural …. critical…. transformative and creative (Burn & Durran, 2007, pp. 1-2)

Generation M - Media Literacy, Education & Choice If video is your preferred format, the following 6-minute video is a useful primer to media literacy and the key questions that it asks, from the video: Generation M – Media Literacy, Education & Choice

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ As a result, it is UNESCO’s position that media (and information) literacy is necessary to equip “citizens with competencies needed to seek and enjoy the full benefits of this fundamental human right” (Wilson et al., 2013, p. 16).

Ten years ago, media scholar Felix Stalder pointed out that “We are in the midst of a deep, long, muddled cultural transition, profoundly related to the incorporation of networked media technologies, wired and wireless, into virtually all aspects of our daily lives” (2005, p. 4). The point that he and many other media educators are making is that we can’t avoid the shifts in the media landscape that are transforming social life and education. And nor should we.  Instead, we need to embrace and grapple with what these shifts mean for the ways that we educate, for how young people interact and learn about the world, and for how the education system can ‘produce’ citizens who are equipped to effectively engage in social and political life.  UNESCO’s 2006 Media Education toolkit for teachers made the strong statement that:

  • “Rather than ignoring the media – as many educators still try to do – we need to begin by recognising that they are an established fact of life. Whether we believe that the media play a negative or a positive role in children’s lives, we do them little service by pretending that they do not exist” (p. 21)


  • recognizes the important role media education plays in preparing young people who would facilitate the free exchange of information and knowledge by participating and appreciating the diverse uses of media. The free and equitable access to information and knowledge is an essential component for empowering people and ensuring their participation in knowledge societies. This is possible through a systematic teaching of media education as part of the curriculum in schools (2006, p. 6).

Other media educators worldwide use terms like “highly irresponsible”, “urgency” and “imperative” to highlight the need for schools to teach media literacy, which is usually defined as teaching about media rather than the more common approach of using media sources (e.g., YouTube videos, online news articles, or educational websites like Khan Academy) as resources for teaching. This is known as teaching through media and, although it is an important approach to teaching, it does not teach
critical media literacy.

The following quote is one of many that argue that schools must teach media literacy and, indeed, have an important responsibility to do so: “The new technologies of communication are powerful tools that can liberate or dominate, manipulate or enlighten, and it is imperative that educators teach students how to critically analyse and use these media” (Kellner & Share, 2007, p. 9).

Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 12.06.33 amUNESCO sees teachers as key agents in the aim to educate the citizens of the future, when it promotes its open-access curriculum for teachers as “launching a catalytic process which should reach and build capacities for millions of young people” (Wilson et al., 2011, p. 11).

Indeed, UNESCO describes “empowerment of people” via media (and information) literacy as “an important prerequisite for fostering equitable access to information and knowledge and promoting free, independent and pluralistic media and information systems” (Media and Information Literacy, para. 1).

Sut Jhally MEF Why does media education matterAnother media scholar, Sut Jhally of the Media Education Foundation (MEF), makes a strong case for why media education matters. In his 14-minute discussion he argues that media education is about “making sure people understand exactly what effect the media has” because “then people are really free to make choices based on what their own ethical and moral positions may be.” In his view, one aim of media education is “to get people to see the world clearly so they can be active participants in that world.”

Overall, the argument focuses on the fact that we can’t just expect young people to become critical media users and producers; the skills that enable them to safely, effectively and creatively interact with media aren’t absorbed by osmosis; they must be taught. Henry Jenkins and colleagues make this point very clearly:

Some defenders of the new digital cultures have acted as though youth can simply acquire these skills on their own without adult intervention or supervision. ….To say that children are not victims of media is not to say that they, any more than anyone else, have fully mastered what are, after all, complex and still emerging social practices “(2007, p. 12).

In an increasingly mediated world, educators must take a leading role in ensuring that young people are aware and adequately prepared to safely, effectively and creatively interact with it. And although the following quote is now more than 20 years old, I think it identifies one of the key reasons that critical media literacy is so important.

  • When we are able to evaluate media messages with confidence and respond critically to them, we are much less likely to rely on the opinions of others and more likely to become autonomous rather than automatons. In learning how meaning is made in the media, we can gain more understanding of the world in which we live” (Hart, 1991, p. 1)

This is not to say that teaching critical media literacy is easy. Indeed it is not. As cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall once argued: “Representation is a complex business and, especially when dealing with ‘difference’, it engages feelings, attitudes and emotions and it mobilizes fears and anxieties in the viewer, at deeper levels than we can explain in a simple, common-sense way” (1997, p. 226).

Next time, we’ll look at why many teachers don’t feel equipped to teach media literacy, even though they believe it is important. However, in terms of thinking about what taking critical media literacy seriously means for education today, Jenkins et al. (2007) lay down a challenge and provocation to teachers and schools, which I provide here as the parting thought:

  • Much of the resistance to media literacy training springs from the sense that the school day is bursting at its seams, that we cannot cram in any new tasks without the instructional system breaking down altogether. For that reason, we do not want to see media literacy treated as an add-on subject. Rather, we should view its introduction as a paradigm shift, one that, like multiculturalism or globalization, reshapes how we teach every existing subject. Media change is affecting every aspect of our contemporary experience, and as a consequence, every school discipline needs to take responsibility for helping students to master the skills and knowledge they need to function in a hypermediated environment” (p. 57).

What do you think?


Burn, Andrew, & Durran, James. (2007). Media literacy in schools: Practice, production and progression. London: Paul Chapman Publishing

Hart, A. (1991). Understanding the media: A practical guide. London: Routledge.

Hoechsmann, M., & Poyntz, S. R. (2012). Media literacies: A critical introduction. Malden, MA, USA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Jenkins, H., with Purushotma, R., Clinton, K., Weigel, M., & Robison, A. J. (2007b). Why we should teach media literacy: Three core problems. In Jenkins et al., (eds.), Confronting The Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 2lst Century (pp. 12-18). Chicago, IL: MacArthur Foundation.

Kellner, D., & Share, J. (2007). Critical media literacy, democracy, and the reconstruction of education. In D. Macedo & S. R. Steinberg (Eds.), Media literacy: A reader (pp. 3-23). New York: Peter Lang.

Stuart Hall (1997). The spectacle of the “Other”. In S. Hall (Ed.), Representation: Cultural representation and signifying practices (pp. 223-290). London: Sage.

UNESCO. (2006). Media Education: A toolkit for teachers, students, parents and professionals. Paris: UNESCO.

Wilson, C., Grizzle, A., Tuazon, R., Akyempong, K., & Cheung, C-K. (2011). Media and Information Literacy Curriculum for Teachers. Paris: UNESCO.


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