Asking the (Improbable?) Ask: Critical Media Literacy Training for Teachers

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

By Allison Butler

In observance of back-to-school, the Onion reported: 

Admitting they were a little reluctant to put their faith in the same flawed bureaucracy that, for decades now, has failed to close the ever-widening achievement gap and cannot fix painfully apparent budget inadequacies, the nation’s K through 12 pupils told reporters that what eventually sealed their decision to return to school was a deep, unshakable faith that the richest, most powerful country in the world would be able to meet the highest global standards for education.

In this era of “fake news” and misinformation, it may be irresponsible to use mockery to make a point about the public school system. However, a kernel of truth is found in satire: Young people have every right to be angry at a school system that touts intellectual strength and academic success while seeming to be on the brink of collapse. Perhaps students are angry because their teachers have not been thoroughly trained or prepared for the dynamic demands of the classroom. 

Students in American schools live in the most deeply media-saturated society, yet have little, if any, training in critical literacies. Prospective teachers in the United States need to be well-trained in critical media literacy—trained in how to analyze and produce media, with an emphasis on the process of continuous critical inquiry, especially regarding questions of ownership, production, and distribution. Teachers and prospective teachers trained in critical media literacy can weave the concepts of media education into any subject matter, giving youth a strong foundation in critical analysis.

As students return to school, millions of new and returning teachers are also preparing themselves for a new school year. Some new teachers will have recently completed their teacher training; this will be the first time they direct a classroom by themselves. It is far from guaranteed that they will be prepared with comprehensive knowledge of their subject matter, plus the ability to manage their classrooms. 

There is no single, clear-cut path to becoming a teacher in the United States. There are over one thousand teacher training programs, most of which are overseen by individual state standards. The training and certification of prospective teachers requires four weeks to five years, depending on the program. Training programs are run by private, for-profit businesses, non-profit organizations, or, most traditionally, are affiliated with schools and colleges of education at public and private universities. The argument in favor of alternative teacher training invokes market ideology:  Traditional teacher training programs are burdensome, cost too much money, present too many obstacles for prospective teachers, take too long, and do not provide any guarantees that graduates will be “good” teachers. These arguments rest on the belief that teaching is intuitive and the best training is found on the job. (Never is it mentioned that the test-cases for on-the-job training are children.) 

Traditional teacher training does take a long time and costs a lot of money, it poses many obstacles and no guarantees—but it is still the best option In a traditional teacher training program, affiliated with a university, prospective teachers are immersed in theory and pedagogy, are able to practice teaching under the guidance of both the faculty at the university where they are enrolled and the teachers where they do their in-school training.

It’s time for teacher training to stake a new claim: Include a comprehensive study of critical media literacy. Long-gone is the common belief that teaching is an act of transmission with the teacher as possessor and giver of knowledge and the student as passive, willing recipient of said knowledge. As the largest producer and exporter of media around the globe, the United States is woefully behind in educating its youth on how to make sense of media content; how it ends up on their TVs, computers, and smartphones; or why they see people who look like them in the media—or not. If educators and parents want young people to make “better” choices—in their use media and with their time—then young people deserve opportunities to learn about the content, ownership, and motivation of the media they consume. This knowledge cannot simply be inserted in classrooms under the assumption that, as an adult, the teacher possesses the knowledge needed to critically evaluate sift through media messages. Media literacy in classrooms will not be successful until teachers are trained in its theories and practices. 

Teachers do not need any more work added to their already full plates, especially teachers in a country with so few social services that the school becomes the primary place for support. If teacher education programs require prospective teachers to take courses in critical media literacy, those programs will provide the next generation of teachers with the skills and perspective necessary to make the analysis and production of mainstream and independent media a part of, not an addition to, their curriculum. For example, with training in critical media literacy as part of their preparation, prospective teachers can infuse analysis of statistics into math classes, making better sense of how to read polling data; analysis of scientific theories to better understand arguments for (or against) the reality and severity of climate change; critical reading of texts in order to make better sense of history, as a way of understanding the present; and an understanding of algorithms and market forces so young people can be more clear on why particular advertisements appear in their social media feeds.

Organizations including Mass Media Literacy, the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME), the Global Critical Media Literacy Project, and Project Censored provide crucial resources for teachers and students alike. 

If for no reason other than to force the Onion to look elsewhere for source material next August, it is time to provide prospective teachers critical media literacy training. The media are not separate bits of our lives, why should education about them continue to be compartmentalized?

Allison Butler, PhD, is a lecturer, chief undergraduate advisor, and director of the Media Literacy Certificate Program in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She teaches courses on representations of education in the media and media literacy. She co-runs Mass Media Literacy, serves on the board of directors of the Media Freedom Foundation, and is the co-president of ACME.