Looking at literacy

17th February 1995 at 00:00
Cultural Studies Goes to School: Reading and Teaching Popular Media By David Buckingham and Julian Sefton-Green, Taylor amp; Francis, #163;13.95 O 7484 O2OO 4

There may not be many things in education about which politicians, parents and teachers agree, but one of them is surely the importance of literacy for today's students.

The trouble starts when we check with each other our definition of "literacy". One of the many attractive features of this important and provocative book is that the authors both recognise the complexity of the debates about literacy in relation to popular culture and remain diffident about their own contribution to them. They should be reassured that their arguments are based on much more solid evidence, and are much more cogently expressed, than is often the case in academic talk about popular culture.

The book gives fascinating insights into critical and practical work in media studies at GCSE and A-level undertaken over four years in a London comprehensive school. It sets this work in a detailed and balanced context of recent debates about the relevance of media education to English teaching. The authors argue that a current definition of literacy must acknowledge that much contemporary culture is electronically mediated, that students bring to their experience of media considerable knowledge (more, often, than their teachers), and that the aims of media education should enable students in discussion with teachers and fellow-students to make their existing knowledge explicit, to learn to generalise from it, to encourage them to question the basis of that knowledge and thereby to extend it and ultimately move beyond it.

After careful analysis, the authors reject as inadequate theories of media education which stress the teacher's role as a missionary required to rescue children from ideological manipulation, or indeed from cultural deprivation. It has been clear since the work of Hilde Himmelweit 30 years ago (a tradition of research which cultural analysts, including the present authors, often fail to acknowledge) that the image of young people passively and uniformly soaking up the disposable trivia of popular culture and thus being deprived of access to the timeless values of "proper" art does not square with research findings or teachers' practical experience in the classroom.

There have been many attempts to construct a more realistic theory, including those based on dubious distinctions between a "genuine" folk-culture and a "false" commercial culture. What is important about Buckingham and Sefton-Green's work is that they base their arguments, tentatively and self-critically, on their observations of students' practical work in classrooms over a period of time. The development of media education has been impeded in the past both by the extravagant theoretical claims of its evangelists and by the lack of any sense of planned progression or continuity in students' learning. Faced with so many competing demands for curriculum time, most primary and secondary schools have not integrated media education into their curriculum; some have tolerated or even encouraged the enthusiasm of individual teachers for this work, many have concluded that such is the prevalence of popular culture outside school that schools should offer something different.

With detailed examples of practical work undertaken by students in popular music, photography and in the production of "Slutmopolitan", a parody on the glossy monthly magazine, the authors begin to create a framework for effective teaching and learning in media education, based on the constant interplay of student action and reflection, practice and theory, language use and language study. The authors' conclusion is that such practical work offers students the potential for a more active and enjoyable relationship with popular culture, a relationship which envisages the media as providing a range of symbolic resources which young people can use in making sense of their experiences, in relating to others and in organising their daily lives.

The broader issues are also raised honestly. The authors are surely right to argue that this approach is in part political education, though they are perhaps unwise in arguing for political education to make their own political views so explicit. They will be relieved that media education has a much stronger role within the new version of the national curriculum than they anticipated. But are we ready, as a society or as teachers, to ensure that all school pupils have some opportunity to explore, as part of a broad political education, the fast-changing culture of which they are a part?

This book offers much encouragement and practical guidance to a wider group than its intended audience of researchers and students of education. Its evidence makes a powerful contribution to the debate about what it will mean to be literate in the 21st century.

James Learmonth was formerly an HMI with an interest in media education and is now an educational consultant.

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