Tuesday 13 July 2010

Where's the critical literacy?

Spotlight has a recent comment on critical media literacy which I like because it emphasises the need for education in critical reading - of all kinds - as well as functional access to information. I would link this with the observation in my last post that in educating people to use technology we mustn't fail also to help them understand and critically appraise the ends for which technologies are offered as the means.

However, I wonder if there is any evidence for this assertion:
'integrating digital media into the classroom will not only improve digital literacy but is the key to improving traditional literacy as well, especially reading skills'

I can see that this might be the case from the perspective of multiple literacy practices. i.e. if one is literate in several modes - in text, visual images, moving images, etc - one might have a better chance of grasping each mode as only a partial and particular representation of 'the truth'. Better perhaps: each mode becomes a resource which one uses, rather than a way of being occupied by the messages of another.

Also I can see that different individuals might find it natural to creatively produce, and critically read, in different media, and that there might then be opportunities to transfer those capabilities. More opportunities to grasp the nature of media per se - of audience, production, genre, rhetoric, stance etc - can only be better.

Both these presuppose that 'criticality' is not a generic attitude towards media in general - or not originally so - but a set of practices acquired in relation to media in particular over repeated exposure and reflection. That's a reasonably plausible assumption and could be tested empirically.

But... I am very sceptical of the reason actually given in the posting: 'These [digital] media teach students to master the production of knowledge, not just the consumption of knowledge'. Wha??? First, media teach nothing. Photographs don't teach photography, though arguably cameras can teach some elements of photography to people with existing skills in 'reading' the designs technology has on its users. On the whole, though, learning to take good photographs requires extensive practice, ideally in the company of skilled others, if not direct instruction. Photographs themselves, as Sontag among others has argued, occupy the viewer: they command belief rather than critical reading or creative reproduction.

But second, why should digital technologies have a special capability to 'teach' production of knowledge? If media can teach, books can teach us to write. If tools can teach, pencils can teach us to draw. It's this kind of sloppy thinking about the 'digital' which undermines good thinking and research into the difference that digital technologies make to our world and our understanding of it.


Doug Belshaw said...

I certainly agree that exposure to media by itself doesn't teach criticality. However, I'm not sure you're being fair to the author, Helen. The whole quotation is:

"In the classroom, digital media also have other major advantages. These media teach students to master the production of knowledge, not just the consumption of knowledge. Kids learn to create videos, write blogs, collaborate online; the also learn to play video games, do digital storytelling, fan fiction, music, graphic art, anime and even more."

My son, for example, who turned four at the weekend, is learning (albeit in a nascent form) that just as he can compose images in Daddy's camera, so what he watches on the TV has gone through the same process.

There's certainly some procedural knowledge bound up in this thing we call 'literacy', just *how* much is probably open to debate.

A final point: what I really appreciated about the sentiment behind the Spotlight article is that discussion about literacies (plural) acknowledges the multiple and varied ways it's possible to view the world. Promoting this is a refreshing change from the usual Daily Mail-style moralising we often see in the traditional media!

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