Media practitioners and theorists have sustained for many years a debate between the analytical/critical and the technical/practical approach to teaching media education. Because traditionally, production and analysis have been understood in opposition, there are many tensions between the two approaches to media education’ curriculum design. Even though in research articles, policy documents, and books, media education aims have started to acknowledge both analysis and production, in reality the two approaches remain separated and in conflict. There are several tensions among them due to their different conceptions of student agency, their different academic status, and their different epistemological supports.
The pleasure, enjoyment, and emotional investment of creating/writing/producing media texts constitute opportunities of agency for the students that do not necessarily involve or develop critical thinking and analysis. Scholars and researchers that condemn practical production have criticized this kind of expansion of students’ agency. As Buckingham explains, critics have argued that production work is “politically suspect and educationally worthless” (123). This negative view of media production is motivated by the fear that students are merely “imitating” dominant media texts in their productions. According to Buckingham, this position was common among scholars and researchers in the UK during the 1980s. “Imitation was seen to be an inherently unthinking process, through which the ‘dominant ideologies’ of media products would be simply internalized and reproduced.” (Buckingham, 124-125)
Since media production curricular approaches have encounter fertile ground for application in vocational courses, criticisms about their lower academic status, its mere technicism, and its economic motivations have been raised by some media educators. As Buckingham noticed, “vocationalism was seen as a recipe for reducing media education to a form of technical training, in which the ‘critical’ dimension of media theory would be lost.” (98) Scholars also criticized the economic logic behind vocational courses because in order to prepare students for industry jobs the courses had to emphasize the mastery of technical skills and the grammar of dominant media forms. Although the popularity of these classes reflects the believe that industries are offering job opportunities to people skilled in new media production, some media education scholars continue to be skeptic of it.
Furthermore, there is the issue of the low status of vocationalism in the school world. As Hobbs describes, “historically, in some schools, video production has been used as the lowest track in the English or vocational-educational curriculum (…) Low ability students are allowed to “play” with video-based and computer technologies, whereas high-ability students get more traditional print-based education.” (21) Regardless of its low status, vocational media production has been valued by educators who recognize “the value of collaborative teamwork, the growth of media production as an industry, and the ways in which many nontraditional learners may excel in tasks related to visual thinking, planning, editing, performing, or directing.” (Hobbs 1998, 20)
Although it could be said that almost all the tensions between the production and analysis approaches to curriculum design in media education are rooted in the different epistemological supports that each have, the one between rational and creative thinking is the one that best illustrate the opposition. The modern and rational structuralism framework that supports critical analysis and the decoding of media texts differs from the postmodern poststructuralism one that acknowledges the capacities of individuals to be productive and creative with language. As Dezuanni has argued, “structuralism underestimates individuals capacities to be productive and creative. It assumes that using language necessarily involves repeating and reinforcing the social and cultural norms established with language.” (126) Being creative, productive, and playful with technology generates fears and anxieties among modern media educators because this kind of agency operates under a poststructuralist logic that values freeplay in processes of signification. And because signification is not a stable process under this framework, meaning is never complete and remains always in a process of becoming. When the creative work with media technologies and the process of skills acquisition are understood as a form of language experimentation and play, they tend to collide with the acquisition of critical and conceptual understandings that usually consists on a mechanistic and abstract acquisition of metalanguage centered in the authority of a teacher.
Despite the multiple tensions, the potential for integrating the two approaches of production and analysis in the curriculum design for media education, has been recognized by several scholars and practitioners such as Buckingham, Tyner, Masterman, Livingstone, Goodman, and Hobbs. For instance, according to Tyner, “the most effective way to accomplish sophisticated analysis, critical literacy, and metacognition of various discourses is to encourage students to produce their own media, in a reprisal of the symbiotic relationship between alphabetic reading and writing.” (200) Buckingham has also called attention to the complementary aspect that analysis and production have. He points out that creative production can contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of how the media operate and “be a means of generating new and more profound critical insights,” (122). In a similar fashion, Masterman has argued that, “what media education aimed to achieve at its best was a fusion of practical criticism and critical practice.”(87) Although there are very few concrete examples of curriculum designs that integrate the two approaches, several strategies for innovating media education’s curricula have been identified by researchers and practitioners.
Perhaps the most classic strategy, especially popular during the 1980s in the UK, has been the subordination of production to analysis in order to demonstrate critical understanding. Advocates of this strategy used production exercises in order to systematically “deconstruct” the conventional norms of mainstream media. Hence, the curriculum consisted of exercises in style designed to apply critical readings and demonstrate understanding of the codes of particular genres. According to Buckingham, “this approach explicitly sought to oppose and subvert dominant forms of professional practice; and in the process, the ‘expressive’ or ‘creative’ potential of production was rigorously subordinated to the demonstration of critical understanding.” (125) The rationale behind this strategy, clearly based on the notion of “demystification,” is that knowing about production is useful for questioning the naturalness of the media texts.
Buckingham has conceptualized a compelling and innovative strategy that uses a dialectical and recursive approach. Dialectic in the sense that there is a dialogue between doing and analyzing, and recursive in the sense that there is a cycle of action and reflection that continuously repeats. According to him, “students might be able to learn by doing; but if they are not enabled to reflect upon what they have done, it will be impossible for them to generalize from their experience to future situations.” (138) In this strategy, reflection becomes an indispensable aspect of practical work, and it is built into the process of production, rather than simply enforced at the end. Students are constantly encouraged to distance themselves from their creations and are motivated to reflect upon the consequences of the choices they are making. In order to achieve that, students could have regular production meetings with the teacher, or could also do an ongoing self-evaluation and review the project as it unfolds. As Buckingham explains, in the context of media education “production must be accompanied by the systematic reflection and self-evaluation; and students must be encouraged to make informed decisions and choices about what they are doing. (84) As students evaluate their own production work (and the one of their peers), and the responses of the audience, they are “encouraged to consider the relationship between intentions and results, and hence recognize some of the complexity of meaning making.” (Buckingham, 84) In this strategy, debriefing at the end and during the process becomes a regular exercise of evaluation of the practical production work.
Another strategy for combining the curriculum approaches of analysis and production in media education is based on the use of genres. This strategy recognizes the value of working with a giving genre that the students are already familiar in order to facilitate imitation and intertextuality. The idea here is that students are allowed to follow generic models from existing media forms in order to facilitate the understanding of key analytical concepts such as matters of language, production, audience, and representation. Buckingham has exemplified this strategy with a classroom project developed in the UK by scholar and practitioner Julian Sefton-Green. In this project, students used the soap opera genre to practice media production and develop critical analysis at the same time. Because the students were aware of the conventions of the genre, they were able to use them in a self-conscious manner that facilitated processes of self-reflection. In the process of imitating the production of a familiar genre (soap opera), students discovered key aspects about meaningful narrative structures, character motivations, realism, and the representation of social issues. The differences between the limited resources that students had available in their classroom and the ones that could be identified in the models available on broadcast television, were used to facilitate reflections and analysis. The rationale behind this approach is based on the work of advocates of “genre theory” who have argued that imitation is an important aspect of learning and have claimed that students need to access dominant language genres.
Some of the best examples of curriculum strategies that combine theory and practice, reading and writing, analysis and production, come from the world of informal education, and in particular, from the contexts of community-based programs. The strategy of the Educational Video Center (EVC) documentary workshop in New York City is, for instance, an exemplary model of a learning experience that fosters at the same time analysis and production. According to Goodman, the leader practitioner behind this model, the creation of students’ own media is one of the most effective strategies for teaching critical literacy. For him, media production allows students to understand through their own experience how information is organized in media texts. As Goodman explains, students “can see for themselves how words can be deleted or added to sentences and made to seem as if they had originally been spoken that way; how causes and effects can be made into the opposite; and how perceptions of time, space, power and history can all be altered without seeming to be.” (6) Integrating pedagogical strategies such as cooperative learning, portfolio and performance-based assessment, student-centered learning, writing process and video-inquiry, the EVC model has been able to foster, at the same time, student engagement in production and analysis work.
The rationale behind EVC model relies, on the one hand, in Goodman’s understanding of critical literacy as “the ability to analyze, evaluate, and produce print, aural, and visual forms of communication.” (3) On the other, the rationale is based on video-inquiry as a methodology for teaching and learning. As Goodman has argued, “taking a video camera into the community as a regular method for teaching and learning gives kids a critical lens through which they can explore the world around them. It helps them to defamiliarize the familiar taken-for-granted conditions of life.” (109) Because under this rationale, learning about the world is directly linked to the possibility of changing, civic engagement and youth empowerment become also part of the motivations for integrating analysis and production.
One of the very few examples of integrative reading/writing curriculum designs from the formal education context that I was able to find in my literature review was the one elaborated and practiced by Dezuanni. This curriculum was created for a classroom-based video games project at an Independent Boy’s College (IBC) in Brisbane, Australia. As Dezuanni describes, the curriculum was “a combined media and technology studies unit that included a range of online and classroom-based activities focused on designing and producing video games and critically reflecting on some of the social and cultural issues associated with this popular medium.” (124) In the course of four weeks, students were able to engage both in decoding analysis activities that developed critical thinking, and production work and technology skills acquisition that fostered creative thinking and freeplay. Students not only were able to learn about video game genres, conventions, and design principles through design activities, game play, and decoding work, but also considered issues related to games such as game violence and gender representation in games. Furthermore, students conducted a survey in the school to find out the preferences of younger students, and then worked in teams to design a concept for a game targeted to a specific audience. In addition, students were trained in the use of professional software such as Flash, Game Maker, Bryce, and Wings 3, at an off-campus multimedia training institution.
The curriculum combined, as Dezuanni has explained, “the development of knowledge associated with media education with the type of technology training undertaken in multimedia courses.” (125) Such innovative combination allowed students to engage in a process of critical analysis and creative production that not always occurred at the same time. Reflecting about how the production processes focused on skills acquisition did not necessarily developed students critical capacities, Dezuanni has been able to point out that despite not being critical, rational, and modern, those processes provided student voice and led to empowerment. The rationale, for this kind of innovative approach is, therefore, somehow contradictory. On the one hand, it relies on a poststructuralist mindset that understands work with digital media and skills acquisition as a form of freeplay. It recognizes the work of students as digital bricoleurs, and values experimentation with both technological processes and generic norms. On the other, it also takes into account the structuralism stance of rational and analytical thinking.
In my literature review I was not able to find many examples of concrete curriculum designs that integrated reading and writing of media successfully. Innovative pedagogies such as the one of Connected Learning environments, therefore, might open the space to overcoming the tensions that characterize the analytical and practical approaches to curriculum design for media education.
In conclusion, integrating the analytical and production approaches in practice has turned out way more difficult that what has been so far discussed and theorized in paper. However, the increasing recognition of its possibility in both academic and policy contexts is a sign of what the future of media education and curriculum design has to offer in terms of innovation and experimentation. Embracing the multiple tensions between the two approaches, and experimenting with the integration of analysis and production, even if it seems sometimes contradictory, is the way to go. Multiple pedagogies and strategies such as the ones integrated in the Connected Learning model support this kind of endeavor.
Buckingham, D. (2003). Media education: Literacy, learning, and contemporary culture. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Dezuanni, Michael. “Youth Media Production and Technology Skills Acquisition: Opportunities for Agency.” In Fisherkeller, J. International Perspectives on Youth Media: Cultures of Production and Education (Mediated Youth). Peter Lang Publishing. 2011. 121-137
Goodman, S. (2003) Teaching youth media: a critical guide to literacy, video production & social change. New York : Teachers College Press
Hobbs, R. (1998). The seven great debates in the media literacy movement. Journal of Communication, 48(1):16-32
Hobbs, R. (2011) The State of Media Literacy: A Response to Potter, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 55:3, 419-430
Livingstone,S.(2003).The Changing Nature and Uses of Media Literacy. Working paper. London: London School of Economics. Retrieved in February from http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/13476
Masterman, L. (1992) “The Media Education Revolution.” (1992) Canadian Jounral of Educational Communication. VOL 22. No.2. pp. 5-14.
Perez Tornero, J.M. and Varis, T. (2010) Media Literacy and New Humanism. Published by the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0019/001921/192134e.pdf
Tyner, K. R. (1998). Literacy in a digital world: Teaching and learning in the age of information. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.