Should we add “media literacy” to the list of must-teach topics for schools?

The perspective of a parent produces a different reaction to URI’s Media Education Lab study of “media literacy” in Rhode Island schools than the perspective of a policy theorist, although they can come together for a conclusion.  An interview with lead researcher Rene Hobbs by Alexa Gagosz in The Boston Globe gives a good overview, but in brief, according to the study:

“Media literacy” means the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and communicate using a variety of forms including print, visual, audio, interactive, and digital texts.

In other words, it covers just about everything having to do with communication through technology — from spotting “fake news” to leveraging new opportunities for media creation.  Nine school districts in Rhode Island receive an A, with West Warwick receiving the only A+: Burrillville, Cumberland, East Providence, Foster Glocester, North Kingstown, North Providence, Portsmouth, Scituate, and Smithfield.  Notably, those aren’t the obvious schools by ordinary top rankings or income level.  East Greenwich scored a B-, while Barrington only received a C+.  The only two Ds went to Exeter West Greenwich and Warwick.

Perhaps technology has been a way that middle-of-the-pack schools have sought to gain advantage, or maybe it has more to do with the chance hiring of a technology advocate in certain districts.  The parental perspective might also factor into it, by which I mean a hesitance about more tech.  Hobbs marvels that schools aren’t leveraging trends like YouTube and TikTok, but testifying as a parent, I’d say that increased reliance on technology was one of the worst parts of the pandemic lockdowns.  Before COVID, we had a pretty good handle on controlling our children’s consumption of media in our household, but schools’ requirements for taking photographs of homework with cell phones, for example, on top of needing quiet space to be alone on a computer simply blew that up, and it’s a struggle to reestablish the rules.  Particularly with government schools, I also can’t say I trust their judgement on appropriate material.

From the perspective of a policy theorist, I’m starting to wonder whether education is falling prey to the human tendency to respond to measurements and lists.  How many topics do we expect schools to teach?  Do kids need the basics most of all, or do they need certain specialized topics, like civics and “media literacy”?  And what do we do about the apparent priority that schools are increasingly putting on social engineering topics like race and gender?  These various priorities may not be mutually exclusive, but we tend focus on the one that some academic or special interest puts in front of us.

What we need is a thorough, rational, and adult public discussion about what education should be for, with a rank order not of districts but of priorities.  Then we ought to pay more attention to things at the top of the list.  If districts are utterly failing to teach math and basic literacy, then high scores in media literacy are only of passing interest, and we also must resist the urge to try to teach tech along with every other subject if non-techy solutions are better.

More radically, we might decide to mix things up completely.  Maybe ordinary schools should be strictly limited to core subjects while other schools, clubs, and organizations take on ancillary and/or more mutable topics like “media literacy.”  Perhaps, that is, our demand that schools be one-stop-shops for child development is at the center of their problems.


Featured image by Ludovic Toinel on Unsplash.

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