By the time today’s children in the United States reach age 75, they will have spent nine years of their lives watching TV, including two years of ads alone. Yet media literacy education in the U.S. still lags behind that of every other English-speaking country in the world, according to a new report commissioned by Cable in the Classroom, the cable industry’s education foundation.

When you add the number of hours students spend watching movies, listening to radio, and surfing the web, they easily spend one-third to one-half of their time awake involved in the consumption of electronic media. Yet “many schools still treat poetry, short stories, and the novel as the only forms of English expression worthy of study,” the report says.

Educators discuss media literacy at Oct. 15 forum. As a result, most children are not media literate, so they are poorly equipped to think critically about the messages they see, hear, and read every day.

“Thinking Critically About Media: Schools and Families in Partnership,” actually a series of six essays by media education experts, is intended to raise awareness of the issue and promote a dialog among educators and policy makers about how best to incorporate a broader emphasis of media literacy skills in today’s classrooms.

Although all 50 states have incorporated media literacy education into their standards for instruction, too few graduate and professional development programs train teachers to implement media education effectively, the report says. This fact—coupled with the enormous pressure educators are under to meet basic accountability standards in the core areas of reading and math—mean too many students aren’t getting the type of media literacy instruction they need to interpret information correctly and evaluate its credibility.

Robert Kubey, director of the Center for Media Studies at Rutgers University, explains why media literacy is an increaingly necessary skill for today’s students: “The Jeffersonian ideal of an informed electorate necessitates media literacy education. … With the incredible rise of the internet and the unedited nature of many web sites, students need more than ever to learn how to assess the validity and credibility of the information to which they are exposed.”

The report offers several strategies for addressing these shortcomings:

  • Schools should incorporate media literacy education throughout the curriculum, not just in English classes, and at all grade levels.

    Social studies, science, and even health education are all areas where media education can occur, the report says. Science classes, for example, can teach about the science and technology of radio, TV, and the internet; social studies classes can study the history and development of the media and its influence on world events; and in health class, students could produce a short, videotaped public service announcement for their peers on a topic of their choice: drug abuse, healthy eating, safe sex, etc.

    Such an assignment would force students to think about how their writing, editing, and production choices affect the impact of their message on viewers, Kubey says.

  • Technology, and its use by students to produce their own media, is a key component to media literacy education.

    Pointing out the meaning of terms like “bandwagon,” “glittering generalities,” “foreshadowing,” and “irony” is a necessary part of media education—but even better is having students become involved in making editorial decisions of their own, deciding for themselves what to leave in or out as they create a television commercial or a radio documentary.

  • School districts and colleges of education should increase professional-development efforts to reflect the importance of media literacy education.

    “Teachers and parents must become media literate themselves so they can guide the development of media literacy in their students and children,” said Lynda Bergsma, an assistant professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona.

    Schools should hold workshops, and graduate programs should incorporate greater emphasis on media literacy education for preservice teachers, the report says.

    • Parents should play an important role in media education, too. School districts can encourage their participation by holding workshops for parents and conducting other outreach efforts.

    Movies, TV, and the internet should be studied alongside books, plays, and poetry, Kubey said. But that’s not to say the study of electronic media should replace traditional instruction in reading and writing. On the contrary, the two can go hand in hand.

    “One way to integrate media literacy with traditional literacy is to emphasize writing skills in students’ scripts and in their critical reviews of films, TV programs, advertising, and web sites,” Kubey wrote. “One way to increase students’ interest in literature is to help them recognize that many of the same storytelling techniques used in the classics are also used in the popular programs and films with which they are already familiar.”

    Education experts discussed the report’s challenges and recommendations at an Oct. 15 forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Cable in the Classroom and moderated by Peggy O’Brien, the group’s executive director.

    Representatives from local school districts, the Maryland Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), National Education Association, AOL@School, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, American Institutes for Research, and other groups participated in the forum.

    “It is not an accident that Canada, Great Britain, and Australia have been working on media literacy for the past 25 years,” said David Considine, a report contributor and coordinator of the graduate program in media literacy at Appalachian State University.

    These nations are very aware of the impact media literacy has on their national identity, he said.

    “Too often, the concept of technology literacy is becoming the focus rather than media literacy,” said Kathy Swann, director of professional development at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Schools should place as much emphasis on how to evaluate and interpret information as they do on using technology to access it, she said.

    Many teachers don’t teach media literacy because they are uncomfortable with the concept, said Greg Malling, a teacher at Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md.

    “The kids are more media-savvy than the teachers,” Malling said.

    Douglas Levin, of the American Institutes for Research, agreed. “Teachers and parents are no longer the sole source of information for kids, and I don’t see that getting any better,” he said.

    Teachers need to stay on top of how students use technology, Levin said, and perhaps there needs to be more interaction between teachers and students during professional development.

    “The way students are doing their work is changing, and teachers need to keep up with that,” he said.

    Principals need better training on the issue, too, said Ann Walker, assistant executive director for the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

    “We have to look at elementary school principals and their changing roles as instructional leaders,” Walker said.

    Media literacy should be interdisciplinary, said Jason Adsit, technology program coordinator for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

    Teachers already need professional development in a number of areas, including character education, technology, and critical thinking. It won’t be effective to add media literacy to that list, especially with how few professional development days teachers have, he said.

    “I agree. I think you need an integrated interdisciplinary model if this is going to work,” Considine said.

    But “if we try to do it in isolation [from] parents … nothing is going to happen,” said Elizabeth Crosby, president of the Maryland PTA.

    Educators must define media literacy carefully for parents, so parents will know what they mean when they refer to the issue, said Bonnie Frazier, director of public affairs for the nonprofit group Communities in Schools.

    The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, another nonprofit group, plans to release two charts for educators that will help them address media literacy education.

    The first chart will define what 21st-century skills are and will describe the different stages toward achieving those skills. School leaders will be able to find out where they fit on the chart and what steps lie ahead. The second chart will focus on the technology literacy component of the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires every eighth-grader to be technology proficient.

    The charts are scheduled to be released at next year’s National Educational Computing Conference in June.

    Links:

    Cable in the Classroom
    http://www.ciconline.org

    “Thinking Critically About Media: Schools and Families in Partnership”
    http://www.ciconline.org/uploads/CIC_Media_Literacy_Report.pdf

    Partnership for 21st Century Skills
    http://www.21stcenturyskills.org