As media education has effectively disappeared from the government’s prescriptions for English teaching, what are the prospects for the future? An interview with two experts in the field, Jenny Grahame and Steve Connolly.
My previous blog post offered a fairly downbeat assessment of the prospects for teaching media within the current English (mother tongue language and literature) curriculum in England. However, there’s often a big gap between educational policy documents and the realities of classroom practice. So are there still spaces where media education might continue to develop, particularly in the subject of English in secondary schools?
I asked a couple of experts in this field to offer their views:
Jenny Grahame was for many years a media education adviser at the English and Media Centre in London. She has produced countless teaching packs and provided professional development for generations of teachers in this area. I’d say she has done more than anyone to promote and support good practice in media education in this country. You can find some of her publications here.
Steve Connolly is a lecturer in the School of Teacher Education at the University of Bedfordshire. A former secondary school teacher, he was assistant head of one of the UK’s few specialist schools for media, and has a growing track record as an academic researcher. You can find Steve’s profile, and links to some of his publications here.
Fifteen years ago, Steve and Jenny worked together on the only ‘official’ review of media education ever undertaken, commissioned by the government’s Qualifications and Curriculum Authority: it’s still available here, and makes interesting comparison with the current state of affairs.
I asked both of them to answer a set of questions by-email: they had a lot of insightful things to say, and I have struggled to edit them down to a manageable blog post…
DB: It seems to me that media education has more or less disappeared from the English curriculum in the wake of the latest reforms. Do you think I’m being unduly pessimistic about this? Do you see any significant spaces or opportunities that remain in the existing framework?
Steve: No, I don’t think you’re being unduly pessimistic. Media education has been completely removed from the English curriculum in terms of actual content (the requirement to study any media texts, or create anything that has any connection to a media text). However, there are some clever and innovative teachers who are working with media in order to deliver parts of the English curriculum, and some of this work is of a critical and analytical nature. Even so, this is quite a different thing to what we used to have in previous versions of the curriculum; namely, the requirement to study a range of non-literary, non-print-based texts.
In many ways, the 2007 iteration of the National Curriculum was the most forward-looking version of the ‘media-within-English’ approach that we are talking about here: in this document, there is no distinction made between different types of text or between reading and viewing. Today, even the most innovative English teacher has to accept that they can only use media to teach reading or writing – they cannot ask their students to consider the nature of the media text in and of itself. If English is a subject which is meant to equip young people with the tools to make them critically aware of the way that language and images get used in the 21st century, even the most hardened ‘social realists’ should accept that you can’t do this by teaching them more English Literature. They need media education, and all the ‘representative Romantic poetry’ in the world is not going to meet this need.
Jenny: It all depends on your take on the National Curriculum. Is the curriculum a blue-print, outside of which all other content is prohibited – as seemed briefly to be the case in early drafts, which demanded that digital texts must not be taught? Or is it, as Michael Gove suggested when the latest curriculum was published in 2013, a basic minimum structure around which individual schools and teachers can design their own courses?
If it’s the latter, you could argue that there should still be plenty of room for approaches to media study given the skeletal statutory programmes of study. This is the approach media educators have taken over the last thirty years, above, beyond and despite the formal requirements. We’ve learned how to exploit the shifting emphases within the English-teaching community – for example, on spoken language, on the impact of multimodality, on shared concepts such as narrative, genre and the significance of audience – to import media study into the English classroom through stealth. And to some extent we succeeded. After all, in the late 90s and early 2000s, formal professional development on media was provided nationally for English advisors and inspectors at Key Stage 3 (years 7-9); every GCSE specification required students to submit a so-called media coursework assignment; many secondary schools with existing Media Studies expertise were developing whole-school approaches integrating media into the English curriculum.
But let’s get real. It’s arguable how far the teaching of media within English, even in those heady days, has ever constituted ‘real’ media education. There may have been a lot of it, but overall most media study in English remained highly limited, and was subservient to the delivery of conventional English skills. Institutional knowledge and concepts of audience perhaps smacked too much of sociology and economics, disciplines at odds with the more affective aspects of English.
DB: So why do you think this has happened? And what does it tell us about trends in educational policy more broadly?
Jenny: I’m not convinced that the ‘erasure’ is a result of a concerted decision to downplay the critical and political dimensions of media study. Although government intervention has arguably neutralised Media Studies as a specialised optional subject, I suspect that the vanishing (or banishing) of media from English comes from a different place.
There are obvious pragmatic reasons for the English curriculum not to invest heavily in media education: it’s expensive, requires kit (however increasingly accessible it has become), skills and teacher expertise – all adding undesirable weight to a ’streamlined’ minimal curriculum. And of course the recurrent debates about value and quality epitomise the forms of cultural capital deemed appropriate by a Tory administration.
Structurally, the landscape has been distorted by the institutional uncoupling of specialist Media Studies (and related) courses from their historical home in English. Many English teachers feel unskilled to tackle the theoretical requirements of the new Media Studies specifications, despite their superficiality; while their versions of creativity are of a different order from the industry-led production focus of the more vocational media courses. And vice-versa: 30 years of expansion in Media Studies have resulted in stand-alone Media departments with extended specialist subject knowledge, but they may have little enthusiasm, will or time to collaborate on ideas and shared practices with English teachers.
However, the loss of media is also the consequence of the long-term marketization of education. Accountability, datafication and league tables have systematically eroded the breadth and diversity of approaches to English; narrow academic outcomes are increasingly valued more highly than richness of experience and student well-being. The highly politicised status of English as a measure of a school’s success leads departments to be averse to risk and innovation.
English teaching is now heavily orientated towards the delivery of the GCSE specifications, prescribed by awarding bodies whose main interest is, quite frankly, profitability. Indeed, the GCSE specifications are effectively being taught from Year 7, in the hope of delivering assessment outcomes five years down the line. We know of schools where students have studied Macbeth on a yearly basis throughout Key Stages 3 and 4, in order to prepare them for the constrained schematic approaches required for the examinations. The emerging generation of English teachers has been trained in this climate of death by data-wrangling and accountability, and hasn’t experienced any other version of English. Until that outcome-driven culture changes, the marginalisation of media education will continue – in English at any rate.
Steve: What’s happened is the result of a coincidence of political circumstance and some resurgent trends in educational thinking. We’re currently living under a political administration that believes that educational standards – whatever that phrase means – can only be improved in two ways. One is by adding more content to the school curriculum and the other is by making that content significantly more difficult than it has been for some time. Media education starts from a point of familiarity, namely the student’s own experience. For the people running education in this country (most notably the Schools Minister Nick Gibb), this means it cannot possibly be difficult, and indeed the only way to make it seem difficult is to divorce it completely from the student’s experience. We see the evidence of this in the ‘set texts’ specified by exam boards in the reformed GCSE and A-level.
This coincides with three other trends. Firstly, there’s the emphasis on accountability and measurability. Political administrations like to be able to demonstrate that their education policies have had a visible effect; but for many educators, this preoccupation with measurable outcomes leads to a reductionist ‘what works’ view of education. Because media education is quite a diverse and complex blend of ideas (for example, the idea that critical thinking can be developed through creative media production), it doesn’t fit with this agenda. We can see this in the reformed GCSE and A-level specifications, which don’t really assess what we would think of as genuine learning.
The second trend – what we might call the ‘knowledge rich’ or ‘social realist’ approach – derives from a very particular view of what counts as knowledge. It sees knowledge as fairly fixed, with students being required to learn certain things before they can learn anything else. The borders between subjects are quite tightly defined, and knowledge is regarded as hierarchical. However, media education is a field in which knowledge, by its very nature, is agile and fluid, and largely mediated through media and technology. This ‘knowledge-rich’ approach is influencing the new school inspection framework – although the idea that there will be things that all children must learn will prove problematic for many teachers.
This is reinforced by a third trend, which seeks to define learning in purely cognitive terms, as a change in long term memory – and assumes that cognitive science will provide all the answers to better teaching and learning. As a media educator, I am quite interested in the cognitive, and I’ve written about the role of the brain in watching film and TV. However, I also believe that education is social, cultural, economic and many other things as well as cognitive – and media education also needs to reflect that.
DB: All the talk about media literacy and (more recently) digital literacy would seem to suggest that English is the natural home for media education. Do you see any mileage in using the idea of ‘literacy’ in this context, and what would you see as the problems with it?
Jenny: ‘Literacy’ is such a contested word, and defined so differently by all the different stakeholders. We spent decades trying to make the case that reading, writing and talk should be seen as equivalent to media analysis, production and discourse; we developed software and resources (like the English and Media Centre’s Picture Power) to explore the relationships between sentences and moving image sequences, with the notion of editing as a shared process that operates across media. But we largely failed to convince curriculum advisors that the concept of literacy should be broader and more inclusive than its conventional definitions: it was very difficult to apply media concepts to a government Literacy Strategy based on narrow ideas of skills and knowledge.
Of course literacy is the term we should be using, in its broadest sense of reading, understanding, interrogating and creating meaning across the widest possible range of types of texts. And of course its natural home is English – although it also has a place in Art, the humanities, the social sciences, and so on.
Steve: Historically, English was the natural home of media education, and in some ways, I still think this is a ‘safe berth’ for it. However, I also understand that some people within media education have always been uncomfortable with this, because of some of the cultural baggage that English tends to carry. Mark Readman and I have written about how literacy is used as a kind of shibboleth to stand in for a whole lot of other stuff that is supposed to cure society’s ills, and media or digital literacy is no exception to this. In my research (in this book) into the way that media education was built into the first National Curriculum, in the 1980s, I found that people thought very carefully about what they wanted it to do. They had a very particular understanding of the relationship between media and English, and while we might not agree with this conception, we have to respect it on the grounds that at least they bothered!
DB: Of course, creative teachers will always do things despite the constraints. Could you point to some interesting practical examples of media education that are going on in secondary English right now? Do they offer us hope for the future?
Steve: There is some good work going on around the use of media texts to teach English. While one might argue that this sort of thing isn’t directly media education, it can encourage pupils to ask questions about texts that we would ask as media teachers. One really good example of this is at Boroughbridge High School in Yorkshire. Their Head of English, Anthony Cockerill, has a website that shows a teacher and his school trying to make a good fist of using media texts to make some of the more problematic bits of the English curriculum accessible. It would be quite easy to say ‘It’s media, Jim, but not as we know it’, but it goes to show you can work within constraints and at least make students think about the impact that media texts might have on them through their relationship to printed ones.
Jenny: I know schools in a consortium in South London that are doing exciting practical work with iPads, documentary and TV genres, focusing on concrete media knowledge and skills rather than as a vehicle for delivering spoken language or information writing. I’ve seen some great units on magazines, short film production (often linked to current social/pastoral concerns, like Mental Health Week, anti-bullying, and so on) and animation, and of course the ubiquitous poster-making and storyboarding. I’m sure there is more of that out there. But even these islands of good media education practice seem – as they always were – uncoordinated, fragmented, and non-recursive. Until there is acknowledgement that media education in English requires its own parallel curriculum, this is unlikely to change.
However, I am cautiously optimistic. Firstly because, as we all know, what goes around comes around, and the cyclical nature of change in education gives me hope that the creative spirit of English and Media teachers will resurface at some point in the near-ish future. The new Ofsted Framework for Inspection seems to reduce the dominance of GCSE assessment as the ultimate benchmark, which means that there might be more opportunities in years 7-9 for richer, more diverse and potentially more media-focused content. To be categorised as ‘outstanding’, schools will also have to address ‘fake news’ and disinformation, and the broader concerns about the impact of social media on young people’s well-being, sense of identity and aspirations. Media educators have developed many ways of addressing issues like this over the years, such as simulation, group role-play, practical work and audience research, which also connect with good practice in English teaching.
So yes, here is hope for the future. Well, there has to be – it’s that or the cyanide…