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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Can Your Students Read TV?

Author: Kathleen Tyner

Plato disliked the printed word. He was afraid that reading and writing would destroy oral culture and memory -- and he was probably right. Of course, only an elite few could read and write in ancient Greece. It wasn't until at least two centuries after the invention of the printing press, a scant 500 years ago, that ordinary people began to make sense of the printed page. This awareness of print caused tremendous social, economic and cultural upheaval.

We are currently in a similar communication revolution so far- reaching that we have yet to fully understand its significance. We still read books, but information bombards us from films, television, radio and advertising, too.

A recent Roper poll indicates that over 80% of North Americans get their news and information from television. As television becomes the communication form of choice, teachers are beginning to extend their definition of literacy to include electronic forms of communication. They are teaching their students to read tv.

Of course, students already know how to read the highly emotional and symbolic language of television. They learned it informally by clocking in an average of 5000 hours in front of the set before they reach school age -- the same amount of time it takes to jet around the world 148 times, or orbit the moon 30 times. But just because students are sitting slack-jawed and motionless in front of the set, it doesn't mean their minds aren't hard at work. Contrary to popular wisdom, television watching is not a passive activity.

It takes concentration to make sense of contemporary television. Narratives are broken by commercials, flying graphics, rolls and crawls, fast cuts and fades to black. Students may not have the vocabulary to articulate to adults how they make a story out of this hodge-podge of images, but on a rudimentary level, they already have a firm grasp on the grammar of television. In order for them to be fully aware that television is carefully constructed with specific codes and conventions, someone has to talk to them about the way tv works.

The television teacher brings this fast-paced, symbolic and emotional language into the realm of rational discourse so that students can learn to talk about the programs they see in an active and articulate way. This doesn't take a special class in media, or expensive equipment. It can be done every time television is used in the classroom. Since students are saturated with media messages throughout life, teachers practice a formal and structured program of critical thinking about media until students begin to question media on their own. The goal of media education is to make students lifelong learners and critical questioners when the teacher is not around.

Media education can begin at an early age. Minneapolis writer Lyn Lacy teaches Grades 1-3 at Cooper Elementary in Minneapolis. She creates media education exercises for her students that stress visuals and are akin to reading readiness. "Students in lower elementary grades can begin to learn about media languages, how television is put together, and how to distinguish the different kinds of television. Older students can understand more of the social and political elements around television." "Students are reading television like they used to read textbooks," says Michigan teacher Russ Gibb. "This idea that print is superior to television is just plain snobbery. Yes, print is important. The spoken word is important, but so is television. Reading and writing are not the only ways to communicate." His media education classes reach 100 Dearborn High School students every semester.

While some teachers might prefer their students turn off the television and read books, they recognize the futility of blocking a surging wave of electronic communication. Television has been blamed for everything from a rising crime wave to a drop in reading scores, but there is no evidence that students would spend their leisure time reading, if the television were indeed turned off.

Media teachers realize that information is only powerful if students know what to do with it. As students are inundated with media messages, the challenge is not to amass more information, but to access, organize and evaluate useful information from a variety of print and electronic sources. Critical thinking and good, old-fashioned research skills are essential for tunneling through the information glut.

Dave Master teaches 200 students every semester in his media program at John Rowland High School in Rowland Heights, California. "Today's students are citizens of the computer-video age and we have a responsibility to prepare young people for their electronic future. The aware and creative citizen of the future must be an active media viewer and a capable media doer. There is nothing inherently evil about modern technology any more than there is something inherently evil about a pencil. Creative, artistic, critical-thinking young people will help society realize the full potential of new technologies. It's up to them."

If television's increased popularity as a teaching tool is any indication, teachers do not want to turn it off. They want to use it to their students' best education advantage. Teachers of media see television as an opportunity to open up the whole curriculum. Media education teaches students to think critically about all media information, from textbooks to television. As Lyn Lacy remarks, "I don't think in terms of 'bad' or 'good' tv. I only object to television that scares little kids. The rest of it, even ads, are opportunities for critical viewing." Russ Gibb comments, "We watch all kinds of tv and tear it apart to see how they did it. Not all television is great, but tv is a cultural phenomenon, so all of it is useful for our purposes."

Teachers who teach about television note that television exercises work best in tandem with traditional reading and writing skills. Robert Gipe, Education Director at Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, has found that teaching about television can improve students' storytelling and writing skills. He shows elementary students documentaries and asks them to speculate about the questions that must have been asked to elicit the answers they see on the tape. "I tell them that I don't know the real questions, but that they can figure them out by listening to the answers on the tape. They learn good interviewing skills, but also begin to question editing decisions -- what was left out of the interview and why." The Kentucky students go on to use their interview skills by questioning each other's compositions in group work. "I remember teaching composition before and people had no idea how to help each other. I think this works. They just don't know what questions to ask unless you guide them. Using video interview techniques are the catalyst."

Ironically, the method of questioning teachers use to teach about television is not new. It harkens back to ancient Greece. By using Socratic discourse, teachers practice a set of questions with their students until the students begin to question media on their own -- every time it appears in the environment. Questions like "Who produced the program? How was it made? What values were reflected in this television show? How did the director represent the characters? What kind of program is it?" can be practiced with students until they begin to question television on their own, without teacher prompting.

Socratic method is not comfortable for every teacher. It implies that there are no right answers -- only good questions. It does not speak to a standardized test. It takes concentration and focus to guide students to think. Since students often know more about media than their teachers, it works best if students and teachers work together as co-investigators of media. "It is important for students to understand that not all questions have a "correct" answer," says Dave Master. "Many times the quest is for the best answer, given need, tastes and conditions. In media education, the process is more important than the product."

Kathleen Tyner is founding director of Strategies for Media Literacy, Inc., a San Francisco-based organization that promotes media education in the United States. This article first appeared in the January 1991 issue of Cable in the Classroom. Reprinted permission of author.