Teaching Media Studies: The Travesty of Theory

This is a defining moment for media education in England and Wales. Last month, as part of its ongoing reform of the curriculum, the Department for Education published its revised ‘subject content’ documents for Media Studies examinations, along with those for several other subjects. The A-level and AS-level document can be found here, and the GCSE document is here.

These documents specify the ‘knowledge, understanding and skills’ common to all examinations in a given subject. They provide the basic framework within which awarding bodies (who actually conduct the examinations) will develop their own, more detailed, specifications. The awarding bodies are already drawing up their new specifications for courses beginning in 2017, which will be published later this year.


I myself was very involved in the negotiations around these documents, acting on behalf of the Media Education Association, along with colleagues from MECCSA (the academic subject association). At one point last summer, it seemed entirely possible that Media Studies would simply be deleted from the curriculum. Our timely intervention prevented that from happening, but the outcome is not without compromises.

The documents that have resulted could have been much worse. They use the established conceptual framework that will be familiar to teachers. They cover a lot of ground, although there is a tendency to include the kitchen sink. Especially at A-level, there is a useful emphasis on the historical and global dimensions of media. Although the element of creative media production has been reduced, it still represents a significant part of the assessment (I had my say about this in a previous post). Most media teachers will probably be relieved to read them.

However, there is one element of the documents that in my view remains extremely problematic. This is the approach to ‘theory’. (I’ll try to drop the annoying scare quotes at this point, but I’ll explain later why they are probably necessary…).

Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister who has been responsible for driving through these reforms, is a well-known advocate of ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum. Like his mentor, the wildly popular former Education Minister Michael Gove, Gibb has been much inspired by the conservative American thinker E.D.Hirsch. Hirsch’s highly prescriptive notion of ‘cultural literacy’ has led him to publish books that are essentially lists of facts that children of particular ages should know. These books have been translated for the UK market by Civitas, the right-leaning think-tank, with titles like What Your Year 3 Child Needs To Know.


This approach clearly reflects a view of the curriculum as a legacy, a body of knowledge fixed at some point in the past, rather as a map or a set of tools for the future. In terms resembling Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind, Gibb argues that what we need is knowledge and facts, not ‘amorphous skills like “critical thinking”, evaluation, reflection, and so on’. He believes that these things can best be delivered through whole-class teaching (that is, lectures), and textbooks containing lists of kings and queens, grammar and punctuation and précis exercises, and especially lots of scientific facts. These are apparently the educational policies that will make the UK a world leader once more.

Accordingly, one key aim of Gibb’s curriculum revisions has been to ‘increase demand’ – a requirement that was not (as we media types might imagine) about getting more bums on seats in examination halls, but rather about difficulty. It has been a recurring lament of Conservative educationalists that education today has ‘gone soft’: it fails to stretch and challenge students, it cultivates mediocrity and indiscipline, and it trivializes proper knowledge.


It’s because of this insistence on ‘increasing demand’ that the new documents have been required to specify, not just particular areas of media theory to be studied, but also particular named theorists. In the negotiations surrounding the new documents, we (the subject associations) were quite willing to accept this insistence on theory and rigour – not least in response to misleading claims that Media Studies is one of the ‘softest’ and ‘easiest’ subjects of all.

Personally, I do not see a problem in specifying areas of theory that most media teachers will know about in any case. However, a problem arises when we begin to identify the names of particular theorists, and then require that the works of those theorists (rather than others) should be compulsorily taught. This removes the professional right of teachers to make their own choices in what are frequently very contested areas. It makes it harder for the curriculum to remain responsive to changing circumstances – not least to changing imperatives and concerns in academic work. It replaces a broad concern with critical thinking – which is surely the point of learning ‘theory’ – with a compulsory canon of approved theorists.

In our negotiations with the Department for Education, we were keen that any named theorists should have the status of examples. So we might have ‘semiotics, e.g. Barthes’ or ‘theories of representation, e.g. Hall’. Somewhere in the process, ‘e.g.’ was changed to ‘including’, in line with the ‘knowledge-based’ approach. Despite several responses to the public consultation challenging this (including that of the MEA), the Department was not prepared to shift. And so we have a de facto canon of Media Studies theory, set in tablets of stone, that all students at this level will be required to study.

When we consider the particular theorists that make up this canon, the list is quite strange, to say the least. The following are named theorists at A-level and AS-level: Barthes, Todorov, Neale, Levi-Strauss, Baudrillard, Hall, Gauntlett, hooks, van Zoonen, Butler, Gilroy, Curran and Seaton, Livingstone and Lunt, Hesmondhalgh, Bandura, Gerbner, Hall (again), Jenkins and Shirky. At GCSE, there are two (extremely odd) references to particular theorists, namely ‘theories of narrative… derived from Propp’ and ‘Blumler and Katz’s Uses and Gratifications Theory’.


These lists reflect the haphazard ways in which they were drawn up, and some of the contradictory imperatives in play. But what we now have, in my view, is a motley collection of:

  • classical or canonical names that most media academics would probably expect (Barthes, Hall, perhaps Levi-Strauss);
  • writers who by any estimate would be much too difficult for most Master’s students, let alone 17-year-olds at A-level (Baudrillard, Butler);
  • work that might have been de rigueur in the 1970s, but now seems sadly outdated (Propp, Blumler and Katz, Bandura, Gerbner);
  • secondary texts that should undoubtedly feature on a current undergraduate reading list, but don’t develop much original theory (Livingstone and Lunt, Hesmondhalgh, van Zoonen);
  • and some names that most academics would find hard to take seriously (Gauntlett, Shirky).

We could probably spend a long time debating the merits of including particular ‘theorists’, but that isn’t really my point. The questions this list raises are much more fundamental: What is (and is not) ‘theory’? What is the point of it? How do students learn it, how do we teach it, and (in this context) how do we assess that learning?

I will come back to some of the teaching and learning questions in a later post. My main concern here is with the actual content – and specifically with the question of what content should be compulsory.

I don’t have any problem at all with a list of suggested reading – although I would prefer that it was provided by the awarding bodies rather than by the government, and updated on a regular basis. I would also agree that there are certain areas of theory, and certain theoretical traditions, that should be studied at this level. Students should know about theories of political economy or representation or semiotics, for example.

Rather more tentatively, I would agree that there are certain highly influential writers that students should be familiar with: even at A-level, they should probably have heard of Roland Barthes and Stuart Hall, and they should be able to say something about their key ideas. I’m not sure where such a list should stop – would it include Marx, or Foucault, or Adorno, or Raymond Williams, for example? Should we be required to include people other than Dead White Men? Even so, any canonical list of this kind would probably be pretty short, and it probably wouldn’t include anything written in the last ten or even twenty years. (And if that makes me a dinosaur, then so be it.)

However, I don’t think that studying such texts – or, much more likely, third-hand potted summaries of them, in the style of Coles Notes – would in itself promote theoretical understanding or critical thinking. It might provide students with sufficient cultural capital to play the academic game, but that’s not the same thing. The problem with the canonical approach is that it implicitly represents theory as knowledge – or, more specifically, as sets of facts that need to be ingested and reproduced on demand.

An alternative approach would regard ‘theory’ as something that is diverse and contested, rather than fixed and authoritative. It would see theories as sets of ideas to be debated, set alongside empirical evidence, and critically evaluated. From this perspective, theories are seen as intellectual tools that might help to explain the world – but if they fail to do so, then they should be open to challenge.

This approach implies a much less prescriptive approach to theory, but also a more ‘demanding’ one than is envisaged in the government documents. However, I very much doubt that Nick Gibb would favour this kind of critical thinking. In the meanwhile, readers of this blog should look out for my forthcoming publication Twenty Top Media Theorists That Every Year 12 Student Needs To Know.


(NOTE: Probably only fellow senior citizens will recognize that my title is an adaptation of E.P.Thompson’s 1978 book, The Poverty of Theory, a trenchant critique of what we might call ‘theoreticism’ in Marxist analysis. Now that really was a proper debate about theory…)

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  1. Pingback: Learning Media Theory: What Is It Good For? | David Buckingham

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