Media Literacy in a Global Age

Jeff Passe

No one has to be reminded about the massive technological changes in our American and global society. With a mere glance around one’s home and office it is possible to identify a dozen machines that have been invented or modernized over the past decade or two. Unfortunately, because changes in society are slow to translate into curricular change, the social studies curriculum is ripe for a needs assessment.

The Lag In Social Studies Curriculum Development

“Expanding environments,” once the hallmark of elementary social studies, has become outdated because of changes in technology. When the curriculum was developed almost a hundred years ago, the typical third grader was unlikely to have ventured outside his local community. Thus, it made sense to delay the study of one’s state, nation, or the world until the later elementary grades. However, this is no longer the case. Due to technological advances, children of today have immediate access to events all over the globe.

Consider the problems in Bosnia as an example. Fifty years ago, the American public would have depended on the President and the State Department for up-to-the-minute information. Additional background information and perspective would have appeared weeks later in the form of newsreels or magazine articles. Twenty-five years ago, with improvements in communication technology, reports on the major developments in the former Yugoslavia would have appeared just a few hours after they occurred. Television stations, newspapers, and magazines would have had correspondents on the scene reporting back with only a slight technological lag.

Today, via satellite, we can sit in our living rooms and observe events from the streets of Sarajevo as they occur. No more are we totally dependent on Washington for information. Nor do we place as much emphasis on written reports for our first impressions. To a large extent, even the televised oral commentary is ignored as we seize upon the visual image, be it bomb-damaged marketplaces or hospital wards full of injured children. As computer technology becomes more advanced and accessible, we will be increasingly able to bypass even professional cameras and reporters. Using electronic mail, for example, we can hear firsthand descriptions of the events reported by local observers.

Most of us would praise these changes. They are correctly viewed as major steps in citizen awareness, especially on the global level. Those of us who were outraged by the credibility gap during the Vietnam era would value a reduced role for political leaders in the interpreting of events. Critics of the press would applaud a lessened reliance on such biased sources. In essence, the world is finally being reduced to the kind of global village predicted by Toffler (1970), in which each citizen is no longer dependent on a central source for information. Instead, like the villager of the past, we see and hear the events ourselves and make decisions accordingly.

New Challenges for Elementary Social Studies Teachers

1. The Need to Provide Perspective — As the opportunities for independent interpretation of events increase, challenges also arise. One serious issue is the exposure of children to topics that may confuse or disturb them. We cannot assume that a parent is sitting alongside the child to explain matters when a news flash shows some terrorist activity, for example. Children who lack experience in world affairs may need additional explanation of the events and reassurance of their safety. They must be told that the bombs are thousands of miles away, that the Red Cross and other disaster relief organizations will be giving aid, and that steps are being taken to prevent further occurrences of terrorism. This is not to suggest that teachers should convey a situation unrealistically, but they can balance the negative images with an honest appraisal of the larger context.

2. The Need to Move Away From “Expanding Environments” — It falls upon the elementary school teacher to present a social studies curriculum that addresses national and world affairs even if it is not identified in the district’s recommended course of study. Lower grade teachers cannot, of course, put off discussion of Bosnia for sixth grade when Europe is the theme. They must do it when students are interested and concerned. It may be helpful to connect world and national affairs with classroom and school events. For instance, the student use of ethnic slurs can lead to a discussion of ethnic hatred in Bosnia, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

3. The Need to Focus on Important Issues — Another major change that has coincided with improvements in media technology is a gradual but certain loss of respect for governmental leaders. Along with this is an emphasis upon their visual images to the neglect of their positions on substantive issues. Elementary teachers can promote attention to the character of our leaders as opposed to focusing on their images as presented in the media.

4. The Need for a Balanced Portrayal of Leaders — A related problem is the electronic eye’s ever-present surveillance. The politician that can take both sides of an issue before different groups is now a thing of the past, due to the daily national coverage that begins months before the first primary election. Cable networks carry political events live. One misstatement can begin a massive outcry, or even a global reaction. The constant turmoil that results from such detailed attention to the actions of political leaders can be upsetting to young children. Their sense of stability could be shattered if they are frequently exposed to the seeming ineptitude of world leaders. Children must be reminded that leaders have strengths and weaknesses, just as they and their parents do. Social studies teachers can promote this view by avoiding the creation of flawless heroes. The contributions of Washington, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are significant enough without making them into gods. If students see our leaders as human beings, they will develop a more realistic view of the world.

5. The Need for a Realistic Portrayal of Society — The divisiveness afflicting American society is exaggerated as a byproduct of technological growth. Special interest groups have mushroomed in recent years. All of them seek a place in the public forum in the hope that their causes will be transformed into legitimate movements. New technology now allows even obscure groups to have immediate access to the public. Through fax machines and modems, we are bombarded with information on every conceivable issue. The average citizen, observing what appears to be a constant clamor of complaints, senses societal disunity as differences are accentuated and our national character is distorted. Elementary social studies teachers can promote a balanced portrayal of American society to counteract the exaggerated view of societal discord that children may inadvertently acquire.

6. The Need for Positive Experiences with Democracy — With so much information available through so many different media, there is constant competition for the public’s attention. The result is sensationalism and quick snippets of news that deprive citizens of the in-depth discussions of serious news that are needed to make policy decisions. This development is disturbing to anyone who believes that a democratic system of government can work effectively. As elementary social studies teachers, it is essential to promote a positive view of democracy. This goal may best be achieved by creating democratic decision making in the classroom. Allowing students to decide classroom rules and routines enables them to construct a realistic view of democracy’s strengths and weaknesses based on concrete experiences.

7. Promoting Decision Making Skills to Cope with Technological Changes — Decision making, if done well, can create a better society, but if it is done poorly, it can create newer and bigger problems. Students must be reminded that the right to make decisions brings with it important responsibilities. Some of the decision making skills that have become more important in our technologically changing world can be developed in elementary social studies classrooms. They include: gauging the reliability of sources; analyzing causes; developing alternative solutions; predicting consequences of alternative solutions; comparing alternative accounts of the same event; examining media reports for inaccuracy, slanted portrayals, and credibility of sources; and recognizing and respecting objectivity.

Classroom Activities for Media Literacy

Many of these challenges suggest activities that can be both effective and enjoyable. Students can compare and critique news reports from such sources as CNN, the nightly news, C-Span, and local television and radio. Additional activities might include having students write or record news stories with an intent to deceive. As a follow-up, the class can focus on techniques that were used by their classmates. Eventually each teacher will have an impressive file to use with other classes and a roomful of students with high media awareness.

Activities that involve the use of media technology address a need that may not be met by the traditional language arts curriculum. With the power of visual images supplanting written and even spoken communication, viewers need to develop their skills in interpreting, evaluating, and appreciating different types of messages. Political advertisements, commercials, and television film clips must be carefully analyzed if viewers want to avoid being manipulated. As students move away from traditional written book reports and research projects, their media productions can be analyzed in the same fashion. Thus, a student-produced videotape or computer-based presentation can be assessed for its use of visual imagery and accuracy. The obvious integration between social studies and language arts is essential and beneficial.

The study of current events may be the best way to develop skills in analyzing causes and predicting consequences and developing the increasingly important generalization that events have multiple causes and a complex set of alternative solutions. Classroom debate and discussion may also heighten awareness of the complexity of today’s world. Hearing one’s proposed solutions to problems being critiqued by classmates will emphasize the difficulty of providing simple answers to societal issues.

Not only should students be aware of technological advances that have led to cultural alterations, they should be anticipating further changes that will be coming along. An old Chinese proverb states that it is too late to dig a well when the house is on fire. Our society is depending on its schools to help children deal with a changing world. We in elementary social studies are among the first line of well diggers. We must work effectively.

Toffler, A. (1970) Future shock. New York: Random House.

About the Author
Jeff Passe is Associate Professor of Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is a former elementary school teacher who now teaches courses in social studies methods and curriculum. He has published three elementary level textbooks for D. C. Heath and numerous journal articles related to current events instruction and social studies teacher development. His new book, Elementary School Curriculum will be published in 1995 by Brown & Benchmark.