The media are the future;Opinion

15th October 1999 at 01:00
The world is seeing the biggest change since Caxton and children's learning must not be left out, says Eleanor Thomson.

THIS CENTURY we have known the world courtesy of images brought to us by the media. That famous and beautiful photograph of the Earth hanging in space, taken from Apollo 17 on its journey to the moon in 1972, is an outstanding example. With one click of a camera shutter, humanity's view of itself was changed forever.

Worldwide, the media have generated many images which have had a lasting impact. We have been informed and deeply moved by scenes of war, famine, pestilence and natural disaster. Opera, theatre and the best music and literature are discussed and brought to us through the media.

Yet in Scotland the thought of young people seriously studying the mass media is viewed with distrust, usually born of a narrow and snobbish belief that all mass media is trashy, philistine and therefore beneath serious consideration as a sensible subject for study. They are missing the point.

Trashy and excessive much of the media may be but, like it or not, it forms a sizeable part of our cultural heritage. There is a new literacy abroad, a revolution in communication far more potent than Caxton's: rapid, immediate and endlessly fluid electronic communications are an integral part of our lives. For this reason media studies should be considered not only valuable as a tool for enlivening teaching but a worthwhile subject in its own right.

With the introduction of a new teaching qualification in media studies, it appears that those teachers who have taken the time and trouble to learn how to teach media studies will be able to put the subject on an equal footing with other subject areas. But I can visualise the arch looks and embarrassed coughs in staffrooms throughout Scotland, for it will take a long time before poking at the entrails of mass media is recognised as a "real subject".

I know this from bitter experience having had a past colleague in a senior post dub me an "enthusiastic amateur". This after spending time and hard-earned money taking a course in media education at Jordanhill which involved evening classes, several weekends and a week of my summer holidays, as well as hours spent structuring media studies lessons, and having written and published a textbook, all without neglecting my other duties, left me, understandably, stung. Although this was many years ago, prejudice still prevails among teachers.

Not surprisingly, the growth of media studies in Scottish schools has been a slow process. But grown it has, largely through the efforts of ordinary teachers who have pursued their belief that media teaching is valuable. Although media studies is taught by teachers from a variety of subject areas, the traditional domain has been the English classroom. In recognition of this, a mass media section was included in Higher English papers a decade ago.

Choosing the mass media question, however, had its disadvantages. Studying a core text in drama, poetry or prose provided an opportunity to answer two kinds of question, whereas spending an equal amount of time studying mass media provided only one opportunity. This could account for the poor uptake, with only about 1 per cent of students tackling mass media questions in the Higher each year.

On the other hand, media studies modules have been popular with schools, the advantage being that they could be taught by informed teachers from any subject area. The disadvantage is that modules are often viewed as inferior to Highers.

The new Higher in media studies, together with the new teaching qualification, appears to offer a bright new future for this subject in Scottish schools. But nothing is ever that simple. Who will teach the new Higher?

There is no guarantee that, after years of discouragement, there will be media studies teachers in abundance, especially in view of the fact that a considerable amount of training is required which could be channelled into other subject areas considered a safer bet. Furthermore, can schools fund it? Equipment is required which can be expensive to buy and maintain.

The General Teaching Council is currently contacting secondary schools through local authorities to establish the possible numbers of teachers interested in the new teaching qualification and to gauge further training needs.

The result will be interesting. Could it be that schoolchildren from the country which gave the world television will be denied the opportunity fully to understand or articulate its applications?

Eleanor Thomson taught English in secondary schools and is now a further education lecturer in English, communication and media studies.

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