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Beyond the critical vs. creative debate. New challenges for media education in the digital age

30 September 2010 | Gianna Cappello, Dipartimento di Studi su Politica, Diritto, Società (DPDS), Università degli Studi di Palermo

Summary. Media consumption is the basic ingredient of children’s public and private life. It plays a major role in the construction of their identity and sociality and is mainly experienced through pleasure and play. In this paper I want to argue that unless formal education recognizes this role and this kind of experience, the gap with the out-of-school «life worlds» of students is deemed to widen even further. The introduction of media education (1) can reduce this gap by combining critical analysis with creative media production, that is by opening a space where students can explore the “pleasurable” aspects of their media daily experiences and at the same time engage critically their subject positions (as citizens and consumers), in contemporary media culture and ultimately understand the conditions under which the pleasures they get from the media are socially constructed.

Keywords:media education, pleasure, critical analysis, creative media production.

Introducing the media in the classroom
Over the last decades the socializing function played by traditional educational institutions (namely, family and school) has been questioned by other, more informal, and often more effective, agents: peer and sub-cultural groups, political organizations, social movements, and above all the media. With regard to school in particular, the success of the media has urged serious reflection upon several aspects of the educational processes (Cappello, 2009).
First, the media activate forms of learning that – unlike alphabetical learning – interpellate multiple/multi-sensorial intelligences (Gardner, 1983), proving to be more involving and motivating for generations of students born and raised in a media-saturated environment. They contribute to question the supremacy of the rational dimension of learning (based on logical reasoning) and the parallel confinement of its affective/creative/bodily dimension (based on play and pleasure) to the early years of schooling, to certain disciplines (art, music or physical education), to laboratory activities. What they require is an epistemological and methodological pluralism that redefines education in the light of new cultural expressions and visions of reality as well as new teaching approaches that take into account how the traditional vertical, one-to-many, educational relationship is being integrated (and not simply replaced) by a more horizontal, peer-to-peer one, based on the social network paradigm (Wiki, blogs, Facebook, MySpace, etc.). That implies a radical move from a media education approach aiming at protecting the students from the media to an approach that is more interested in understanding the multiple ways in which young people adopt and adapt, use and interpret the media in their everyday life.
Second, the media challenge the idea of what it means to be «literate» today. They require new forms of literacy that go beyond its traditional application to the writing and reading of verbal language, and to the acquisition of merely functional skills. These new forms of literacy have all to do with the media (visual literacy, television literacy, cine-literacy, digital literacy, etc.). The adoption of a media education perspective questions the continuing dominance of print culture within formal education, and in particular the textual emphasis of much of the teaching. Moreover, it requires to frame the study of the formal codes and conventions of the different forms of communication (not only print) within a broader understanding of the social, economic and historical contexts where those forms are produced, distributes and used.
Third, media education necessarily entails the development of competencies in «reading» and «writing» the media, that is it aims to develop both critical understanding of the media and active participation in a media-saturated society. In a sense, we might say that media education enables people to think about the media and also do things with the media, whether at school, in their workplace, private life or civil society. That’s why media educators are increasingly combining critical analysis with creative production, thanks also to recent technological developments that have made media production much more accessible and easier.
Fourth, media education challenges the techno-utopist rhetoric, often dominating in the contemporary discourses of educators, policy makers, media technology entrepreneurs, about the «revolutionary» introduction of educational technology in schools. Techno-utopists bracket out the historical dimension of technological innovation, abstractly identifying it with social change and «modernization», glossing over the conditions, the conjunctures, the specific uses and interests which concretely lead to certain innovations rather than others. They tend to celebrate digital media as thaumaturgical tools for improving educational processes. Some of them even venture to foresee the future disappearance of all formal education in favor of multiple forms of self-learning (wisely prompted and satisfied by the market). In other words, there seems to dominate a sort of instrumental progressivism (Robins and Webster 1999) which fails to distinguish innovation from mere technological infrastructuring, to recognize that in fact innovation processes are much more complicated, time-consuming and multidimensional; that in the age of informationalism (as Manuel Castells calls it), the crucial factor is no longer information per se (nor the mere access to it), but rather the intellectual capacity to select and process it; that media technologies are neither mere tools for communication and information, nor simply teaching/learning aids. They are indeed «philosophical devices» that shape the life environment people live in, transform the spatial-temporal organization of social life, condition social agency and the ways people relate to reality, to themselves, to others.

Beyond the critical vs. creative debate
Traditional views of media education’s role often place the primary emphasis on the semiotic deconstruction of media ideological manipulation and the development of critical attitudes. The key concern here is with locating and evaluating meaning. Yet, as innumerable studies and surveys have shown (ISTAT 2008; Livingstone and Haddon 2008; Buckingham 2000; 2003; Morcellini, 1997), children do not experience the media as devices for conveying meaning, but rather as symbolic resources providing images, fantasies and opportunities for imaginative self-expression and play. As such the media are cultural forms that raise complex questions about taste, pleasure, identity, sociality and cannot be reduced to narrowly rationalistic/ideological formulas. Most of the times, young people’s uses of the media have to do with pursuing hobbies and sports, with chatting and exchanging instant messages with friends, with playing games (possibly online according to MUD modalities), shopping and downloading pop music and movies, etc. Critical analysis does not help understanding the experience of «immersion» and «flow» that is frequently evoked by computer gamers (Carr et al., 2006); or the emotional intensity and intimacy of some forms of online interaction (boyd 2008); or the ritualizing fascination of fandom practices (Lewis, 1992).
The privileging of critical analysis has led to a radical depreciation of practical activity as politically incorrect and pedagogically worthless. Animated by a general frankfurtian suspicion of the deceptive pleasures of popular culture, media educators have long believed that any kind of media production in the classroom was a form of «technicism», of «cultural reproduction», of «deference and conformity» to dominant media practices (Mastermal, 1985). However, they have lately questioned this approach, recognizing that, in order for critical analysis to be pedagogically valid, it is necessary to situate it, to channel abstract thinking into the flux of the emotions, pleasures and creative action enacted during practical activity.
In other words, media educators have come to recognize that critical analysis and creative production should dialectically feed each other, originating a kind of reflective practice (or, if you will, of practical reflection). Taken alone, reflection risks to be merely abstract knowledge.
In a seminal article written in 1981 – «How does girl number twenty understand ideology?» – Judith Williamson talks about this risk. «Girl number twenty» is student Sissy Jupe in a popular episode of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (Chapter 2). During a class, she is summoned by the authoritarian rationalist Mr. Gradgrind to define a horse. Totally unsatisfied with her stumbling, timid answers, he outrageously exclaims «Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!». The problem is that Sissy’s knowledge of horses is not based on «facts» (i.e. rational knowledge), it is situated and experiential, embodied in the activities she carries out in the circus where she lives in.
Exactly like Gradgrind’s obsession with «facts» – as Williamson suggests – media educators’ preference for ideological analysis fails to recognize the value of students’ lived media experience and hence makes no difference to them. As a consequence, when deconstructing for instance, women’s representations in advertising, they may end up «“doing” images of women as an English student might “do” medieval poetry, or a history student “the Tudors”» (1981/2, p. 84). Moreover, by focusing on feminist ideological deconstructions of media representations as the only «politically correct» move, media educators fail to connect with contemporary forms of gender politics – as enacted, for instance, in the notion of «girl power». Analyzing female «stereotypes» and «body objectification» does not help us to understand the appeal of media phenomena such as the Spice Girls, Lara Croft or Sex and the City that seem to combine «objectification» with a powerful celebration of agency. Media educators run also the risk of prompting the students to give «politically correct» answers playing the part of being «mature and responsible» (Buckingham, 2006).
In sum, critical analysis, taken alone, ends up either silencing students (just like Sissy Jupe) or prompting them to give pre-packaged answers. In order to avoid that, critical analysis must be connected with the knowledge/experience they already have and «acted out» through some kind of creative practical activity. It is through this connection that media educators can prise open already existing contradictions, thereby «renovating and making «critical» an already existing activity» (Gramsci, 1971, p. 331).
However, if critical analysis, taken alone, may amount to abstract knowledge, creative practical activity too, if taken alone, is severely limited, since it may turn into a mere self-referential and highly subjective play. The term «creativity» is increasingly being used among teachers, educational and cultural policy makers, and of course media educators too, «acting as a kind of «magic ingredient» that is assumed to produce all sorts of transformative effects» (Buckingham, 2003, p. 127). Creativity is romanticized as the individualistic emanation of an «authentic» self who finally finds «free» expression; as such, it an unmediated and spontaneous process escaping all kind of over-determining rules, conventions or structures. This notion is indeed quite influential and at the same time problematic, especially in educational settings. It implies that creativity is just an innate talent and hence cannot be taught, analysed, assessed and evaluated. When it comes to education, this idealist notion of creativity collides with the social, collaborative dimensions of creative production, ignoring the complex relationships between «creative expression» and «technical skills» as well as the importance of reflection and self-evaluation. Moreover, it could be argued that creative production is inherently social, both in the sense that it is collaboratively governed and negotiated through different social, cultural and economic agents and processes, and in the sense that it uses socially available symbolic resources (cultural and social capital) to make meaning (Bourdieu, 1984; Griswold, 2008).
The work of Anne Haas Dyson (1997) and Donna Grace and Joseph Tobin (1998) provides interesting examples of how children may use elements of their media experiences in their creative productions in the classroom (2). Dyson describes a classroom practice of creative writing where the children are asked to write a play enlisting their classmates to act out their stories. As expected, all children drew their inspiration mainly from cartoons stories (such as The Three Ninjas and Power Rangers) bringing the informal play in the schoolyard into the classroom, including all the complex race, social class, age and gender negotiations that go with it. Surely enough, this activity furthered children’s skills in interpreting, analysing, comparing and contrasting texts, as well as their skill in writing more elaborate texts. But more importantly, it provided children with a participatory forum where the pleasures of the media and the informal play of the schoolyard enter the classroom and become a means for defining their social identities as well as a site for negotiating the potential tension between the official curriculum of the school and the unofficial culture and practices of everyday life.
Similarly, Grace and Tobin (1998) show how video production in an elementary school in Hawaii gave children the possibility to transgress the policing norms and conventions of life in school, drawing inspiration from popular media culture, not only children’s programs or family movies, but also horror films and «off-rated» programs such as Beavis and Butthead. Like the Rabelaisian «carnival-goer» evoked by Mikhail Bakhtin, they shot their videos using play, irony and laughter, bodily functions, horrific violence, bad taste and manners to reverse the official order and authority.
In sum, these examples, albeit briefly described here, show that by combining critical analysis with creative production, media education can open a space in the classroom where students can explore the «pleasurable» aspects of their media daily experiences and at the same time engage critically their subject positions (as citizens and consumers) in contemporary media culture and ultimately understand the conditions under which those pleasures are socially constructed. They also show that, when it comes to media production, teachers must learn to step back and cede to students part of their authority and control, both because youngsters frequently have far larger technical skills and also because production is precisely about students expressing their own personal thinking and creativity. Although this may appear as a form of relinquishing the centrality of teachers’ authority, it is in fact a way to radically redefine it, concentrating on its mediating, “scaffolding” function. Crucially, it is still up to teachers to orchestrate classroom activities according to a sound pedagogical project. It is still their task to help students set their own targets, resolve disputes, allocate and manage responsibilities and resources, conduct an effective intra and inter-group communication, work within the deadlines, evaluate processes and products, etc.
But most of all, it is still up to teachers to integrate production work with the broader pedagogical and critical questions the activity is intended to explore. While «having fun» and «playing» with their favourite media characters and narratives, students should be constantly encouraged to take a distance from them, to evaluate them critically, to reflect upon the motivations and consequences of their production choices. In other words, media educators should not see production as a pedagogical goal per se. Of course, they should enable students to use the media to express themselves creatively and to communicate, but that must be always accompanied by systematic reflection and self-evaluation in order to make informed decisions and choices.
Ultimately, that is, I think, what (media) education is all about: students reaching their own conclusions on certain issues by going through a self-determined process of deconstruction/reconstruction of knowledge, learning and social action, a process constantly acted out through creative activities, and thoughtfully scaffolded by the crucial, authoritative and  yet anti-authoritarian, intervention of the teachers in class.

Gianna Cappello, teaches Media Sociology at the University of Palermo. She is co-founder and current president of MED, the Italian Association for Media Education.

(1) Following Buckingham (2003), I define media education as the process of teaching and learning about the media, while media literacy is the outcome of it, that is the knowledge and skills students acquire through that process.
(2) For more examples and a critical discussion about them, see Buckingham 2003, chapter 10. See also Sefton-Green and Buckingham, 1998.

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