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November 22, 2009

‘Primary Schools Need to Make Children “Media Savvy”

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This is the title of an article that appeared in today’s Observer by Anushka Asthana, in which I was interviewed on the topic. Until the current ESRC project on ‘mimetic processes’ (i.e. how and why behaviours are imitated), in which I collaborate with several Warwick colleagues, I have not really published much in this area. However, it is an interest that I have nurtured over the years through teaching a variety of courses and lectures here at Warwick, at a summer school in Sweden and a liberal arts college in Germany. I have come to believe that media literacy ought to be introduced at the primary school level in the same spirit as reading, writing and numeracy are normally taught – insofar as they still are!

And what is that ‘spirit’? It’s simply that people should understand as well as possible the means by which they send and receive information. While much of media literacy may be regarded as technologically enhanced versions of traditional literacy and numeracy, there is clearly much more to it that is not normally covered in the traditional courses, especially in terms of the processing of visual and aural information – not to mention the blending of information channels (e.g. fonts as non-neutral displays of writing).

As I said in the interview, I believe that children already develop many of the relevant critical skills spontaneously because of their constant exposure to marketing campaigns, commercial and political advertisements and other forms of public relations through television, the internet, etc. However, the point of school, after all, is to provide systematic training, which means passing on some intellectual tools for dealing with these matters.

An interesting feature of the Observer article is the reaction that Anushka elicited from Cary Bazalgette (former head of education at the British Film Institute) and Tim Bell, one of the masterminds behind Margaret Thatcher’s successful election campaigns in the 1980s and nowadays the PR advisor for Belarus (If nothing else, the man certainly enjoys a challenge!) Bell’s comment was priceless PR spin. Here’s his criticism of my idea:

But Tim Bell, one of the best known figures in the communications industry, said that teaching children how to be critical in this way was a waste of time. Lord Bell added: "What we need are people who are educated and have open minds."

‘Open’, as in an empty vessel – or a blank slate, perhaps?

In any case, the workshops connected to the ESRC project on mimetic behaviours will continue on Monday 14th December. One of the speakers will be one of the UK’s leading social historians of advertising, Liz McFall, from the Open University.

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