What is Media Literacy?
Media are powerful forces in the lives of youth. Music, TV, video games, magazines and other media all have a strong influence on how we see the world, an influence that often begins in infancy. To be engaged and critical media consumers, kids need to develop skills and habits of media literacy. These skills include being able to access media on a basic level, to analyze it in a critical way based on certain key concepts, to evaluate it based on that analysis and, finally, to produce media oneself. This process of learning media literacy skills is media education.
The importance of media education in Canada can be seen through the inclusion of media literacy outcomes in provincial and territorial curricula. But defining exactly what media education and media literacy are – and how best to integrate them into the classroom – isn’t always straightforward.
This section has been created to clarify what media literacy is all about, and to offer practical suggestions to help you make media education happen
- What is Media Education?
- Why Teach Media Literacy?
- Key Concepts for Media Literacy
- Tips for Integrating Media Literacy in the Classroom
- Media Literacy across the Curriculum
- Assessing and Evaluating Media Literacy Work
- Media Education in Canada: An Introduction
Media education is the process through which individuals become media literate – able to critically understand the nature, techniques and impacts of media messages and productions.
Media education acknowledges and builds on the positive, creative and pleasurable dimensions of popular culture. It incorporates production of media texts and critical thinking about media to help us navigate through an increasingly complex media landscape. That landscape includes not only traditional and digital media, but also popular culture texts such as toys, fads, fashion, shopping malls and theme parks. Teachers don’t have to be media experts to incorporate media education in the classroom, because it is all about asking questions.
- Who is the audience of a media production and why? From whose perspective is a story being told?
- How do the unique elements and codes of a specific genre affect what we see, hear or read?
- How might different audiences interpret the same media production? Because media issues are complex and often contradictory, the educator’s role isn’t to impart knowledge, but to facilitate the process of inquiry.
Today, the chief challenges are to locate and evaluate the right information for one’s needs and to synthesize what one finds into useful knowledge or communication. Media literacy – with critical thinking, reflection and ethical behaviour at its core – is a key part of what it means to be educated in today’s world.
Why teach media literacy? Here are ten good reasons:
- Media literacy encourages young people to question, evaluate, understand and appreciate their multimedia culture. It teaches them to become active, engaged media consumers and users.
- Media education brings the world into the classroom, giving immediacy and relevance to traditional subjects such as History, English, Health, Civics and the Creative Arts. It serves as a perfect bridge for subject integration and interdisciplinary studies.
- Media education embodies and furthers current pedagogy, which emphasizes student-centred learning, the recognition of multiple intelligences, and the analysis and management – rather than just the simple storing – of information.
- Media education is grounded in the sound pedagogical approach of starting learning where kids are at. The media – music, comics, television, video games, the Internet and even ads – are a part of life that all kids enjoy. Media create a shared environment and are, therefore, catalysts for learning.
- Media education encourages young people to use multimedia tools creatively, a strategy that contributes to “understanding by doing” and prepares them for a workforce that increasingly demands the use of sophisticated forms of communication.
- In a society concerned about growing youth apathy to the political process, media education engages young people in “real-world” issues. It helps young people to see themselves as active citizens and potential contributors to public debate.
- In a diverse and pluralistic society, the study of media helps youth understand how media portrayals can influence how we view different groups in society: it deepens young people’s understanding of diversity, identity and difference.
- Media literacy helps young people’s personal growth and social development by exploring the connections between popular culture – music, fashion, television programming, movies and advertising – and their attitudes, lifestyle choices and self-image.
- Media literacy helps children critique media representation, teaching them to distinguish between reality and fantasy as they compare media violence and real-life violence, media heroes and real-life heroes, and media role models and real-life roles and expectations.
- With most Canadian students turning first to the Internet for research, media education is an essential component of Information Communications Technology education, assisting young people in developing critical thinking skills and strategies for optimizing searches, evaluating and authenticating information and examining issues of plagiarism and copyright.
Media educators base their teaching on key concepts for media literacy, which provide an effective foundation for examining mass media and popular culture. These key concepts act as filters that any media text has to go through in order for us to critically respond. To teach the key concepts to students see the resources in our Media Minutes program.
1. Media are constructions
Media products are created by individuals who make conscious and unconscious choices about what to include, what to leave out and how to present what is included. These decisions are based on the creators’ own point of view, which will have been shaped by their opinions, assumptions and biases – as well as media they have been exposed to. As a result of this, media products are never entirely accurate reflections of the real world – even the most objective documentary filmmaker has to decide what footage to use and what to cut, as well as where to put the camera – but we instinctively view many media products as direct representations of what is real.
- Who created this media product?
- What is its purpose?
- What assumptions or beliefs do its creators have that are reflected in the content?
2. Audiences negotiate meaning
The meaning of any media product is not created solely by its producers but is, instead, a collaboration between them and the audience – which means that different audiences can take away different meanings from the same product. Media literacy encourages us to understand how individual factors, such as age, gender, race and social status affect our interpretations of media.
- How might different people see this media product differently?
- How does this make you feel, based on how similar or different you are from the people portrayed in the media product?
3. Media have commercial implications
Most media production is a business and must, therefore, make a profit. In addition, media industries belong to a powerful network of corporations that exert influence on content and distribution. Questions of ownership and control are central – a relatively small number of individuals control what we watch, read and hear in the media. Even in cases where media content is not made for profit – such as YouTube videos and Facebook posts – the ways in which content is distributed are nearly always run with profit in mind.
- What is the commercial purpose of this media product (in other words, how will it help someone make money)?
- How does this influence the content and how it’s communicated?
- If no commercial purpose can be found, what other purposes might the media product have (for instance, to get attention for its creator or to convince audiences of a particular point of view).
- How do those purposes influence the content and how it’s communicated?
4. Media have social and political implications
Media convey ideological messages about values, power and authority. In media literacy, what or who is absent may be more important than what or who is included. These messages may be the result of conscious decisions, but more often they are the result of unconscious biases and unquestioned assumptions – and they can have a significant influence on what we think and believe.
As a result, media have great influence on politics and on forming social change. TV news coverage and advertising can greatly influence the election of a national leader on the basis of image; representations of world issues, both in journalism and fiction, can affect how much attention they receive; and society’s views towards different groups can be directly influenced by how – and how often – they appear in media.
- Who and what is shown in a positive light? In a negative light?
- Why might these people and things be shown this way?
- Who and what is not shown at all?
- What conclusions might audiences draw based on these facts?
5. Each medium has a unique aesthetic form
The content of media depends in part on the nature of the medium. This includes the technical, commercial and storytelling demands of each medium: for instance, the interactive nature of video games leads to different forms of storytelling – and different demands on media creators – that are found in film and TV.
- What techniques does the media product use to get your attention and to communicate its message?
- In what ways are the images in the media product manipulated through various techniques (for example: lighting, makeup, camera angle, photo manipulation)?
- What are the expectations of the genre (for example: print advertising, TV drama, music video) towards its subject?
Although media literacy is now a part of the official curricula of every province and territory, it’s all too often left out or given cursory treatment in classrooms. This is the result of a variety of factors, such as limited access to equipment, teachers’ lack of confidence with the material, and especially the perception of media education as a “frill” in an age of standardized testing and comprehensive curricula.
Here is some advice for making media education a meaningful and integrated part of your classroom practice:
- Exploit “teachable moments”
When students have free time, take an opportunity to listen to what they’re talking about. Most likely, it’s related to the media they watch, play and listen to! Breaking news stories, blockbuster movies, and celebrity meltdowns are all great opportunities for media analysis.
- Give students a chance to create media, not just analyze it
Although there’s more to media education than just creating media, this is a key part of it: there’s no substitute for hands-on experience to help kids understand how things like editing and music can influence the way a movie or TV show affects us emotionally. Camera phones, storyboards and even magazine collages are all affordable and easy options for bringing media production into your classroom.
- Start and end with the key concepts
Media education, and the media world, can feel overwhelming when you start to analyze it. By always coming back to the key concepts of media literacy you can keep from getting sidetracked as you analyze media products or cultural artifacts.
- Recognize that kids – and adults – enjoy media
It’s important not to take a negative approach to media education. Teach kids that critiquing is not necessarily the same thing as criticizing and that we can identify and talk about problematic issues in the media we love without losing our enjoyment of them. Don’t forget to look at positive examples when discussing things like gender, stereotyping and so on.
- Teach about media, not just with media
It’s not enough to use media in your classroom unless students are learning about media as well. Any time you’re using media in the classroom, look for a media education opportunity: for instance, if you’re showing the movie version of a play or book, have students analyze the differences between the two using the key concepts. How are the commercial considerations of a movie different from those of a book or a play? What technical differences change how the story is told? How are the expectations of a movie audience different from those of a play or a book? How are the film-makers’ values and assumptions similar to, or different from, the original author’s? How do all of these differences affect the explicit or implicit meaning?
- Make media education about asking questions, not learning answers
Even though you may feel strongly about an issue or a media product, give your students room to come to their own conclusions. This is especially important when you’re dealing with issues such as stereotyping or body image, where your students (and you!) likely already have strong opinions: you need to model the practice of keeping an open mind and using a critical analysis, not your emotions, to lead you to a conclusion.
- Fight the perception that “It doesn’t matter”
Students often try to avoid talking about the implications of media products by saying “it’s only a TV show” – or a video game, or a music video, or so on. Remind students that media can have meaning even if the creators didn’t plan it, and that we rely as much on the media as on anything else to tell us about the world. For instance, research has shown persuasively that media consumption can affect how we see others and how we see ourselves, even if we don’t realize it – a condition known as implicit or unconscious bias – and the presence or absence of different groups in media has been shown to affect how people feel about those groups.
- Assess and evaluate media literacy work
“Will this be on the test?” By doing formal assessment and evaluation of the media literacy work students do, you communicate to them that it is valuable and important. Make sure that your evaluations are as well thought-out and objective as they are for all your other assignments, and keep them consistent: when in doubt, return to the key concepts to gauge your students’ knowledge, understanding, insight and skill. See Assessing and Evaluating Media Literacy Work for tips on how to do this.
- Let students bring their own media to the table
To get students more engaged, look for opportunities for them to do media literacy work with their choice of media products. You can deal with concerns about content issues by making your expectations clear and a part of the evaluation scheme (ethical and responsible use of media is a key part of media literacy) and by having students only present excerpts of media products in group or whole-class settings.
- Keep up-to-date with media trends and developments
You don’t have to be a media expert to teach media literacy, but it helps to be current about what kids are watching, playing, reading, wearing and listening to, not to mention what they’re doing online. This is a great opportunity to let kids be the experts and teach you about the latest thing!
Media education has a place in nearly every course and subject. You can see our Curriculum Charts to get specific information on how each of our lessons and resources meets the curriculum of different courses in your province or territory. Here are some ideas just to get you started:
Social Science: In History classes, students can look at how their views of history and historical events have been shaped by media. Studying films, newspapers and even their own textbooks can help students see how the nature of each medium shapes how history is told. In Geography and World Issues classes, students can analyze how news coverage influences how we view different parts of the world – and the people who live there.
Science: How are students’ views of science, and what scientists do, shaped by media? Where does the idea of a “mad scientist” come from, and where do we see this trope today? How do the commercial demands of newspapers and TV news influence reporting of science stories?
Family Studies: How are families depicted in different media? How has this changed with time? Do media portrayals of family follow trends in society, or do they influence them (or both)? What do various media products popular with youth say about gender roles, and how do youth interpret these messages?
Health and Physical Education: What influence does media consumption have on what we eat? How does it affect our decisions about smoking, drinking, and drug use? What kinds of relationships do we see modeled in media products popular with youth, and what messages do youth take from them? How do digital media such as cell phones and the Internet affect our relationships with others, and how can we maintain healthy relationships using these media?
Music: How do the commercial pressures of the music industry affect the creation of music? How are things like gender, class, relationships, or alcohol and drug use depicted in music (and music videos), and how do youth interpret these messages? How do different musical genres and styles (pop, rock, hip hop, R&B, etc.) influence the content of music and music videos? How are musicians portrayed in media, and how does that influence how youth see them?
Law: How do media products popular with youth portray crime and the criminal justice system? How are these portrayals influenced by the values or assumptions of the media creators, by commercial considerations, or by the influence of different genres (cop shows, action games, etc.)? How are digital media affecting our views on issues such as intellectual property, hate speech, harassment and defamation of character?
Visual and Fine Arts: How do artists use, appropriate and deconstruct media products to create new art? What rights and responsibilities do artists have towards the original media creators or owners?
As with any subject, it’s important that work students do in developing their media literacy is assessed and evaluated. Students need regular feedback to be able to reflect on their progress and develop mastery, and this also tells them that the work they’re doing is an important part of the course. However, teachers sometimes find it more difficult to create assessment and evaluation tools for media education than for other subjects. This may be because they feel they lack the technical knowledge to evaluate work in the medium in question; it may also be that since media education is all about finding the right questions to ask, rather than learning previously determined answers.
There are two important steps to creating objective, comprehensive and meaningful assessment and evaluation tools for media literacy work. The first is to use an evaluation tool such as a rubric that allows you to assess work in more than one way and that makes expectations clear to students. The second is to frame the expectations within the rubric in terms of the key concepts of media literacy.
In general, media literacy work can be evaluated in three ways:
- Based on how well the student understands the key concepts of media literacy and the specific concepts and ideas being explored in the lesson or assignment.
- Based on the depth and quality of the student’s inquiry and analysis of the questions raised in the lesson or assignment, as well as the student’s thoughtfulness in identifying issues and questions to examine.
- Based on how well the student applies specific technical skills associated with either the medium being studied (movies, TV, video games, etc.), the medium used in the evaluation tool, or both.
Within each of those four areas, you can create expectations using questions based on the key concepts:
Media are constructions:
Does the student show an understanding of how the media product was created? (Few media products are made by a single author. What were the different contributions of different creators to the final product?)
How well does the student analyze how the creators’ beliefs or assumptions are reflected in the content?
Audiences negotiate meaning:
Does the student show an understanding of this concept, and of what elements in a medium or a particular product would be relevant to it? Can the student identify the intended audience of a media product, as well as which other possible audiences might view it differently?
How well does the student identify and analyze the ways that different audiences might view the media product differently?
Media have commercial implications:
Does the student show a knowledge and understanding of the commercial factors influencing the creation of this media product? Does the student show a knowledge and understanding of how the media product was financed and who owns it?
How well does the student analyze how the content of the media product was influenced either by commercial factors or by who created and/or owned it?
Media have social and political implications:
Does the student show an understanding of this key concept? Does the student show a knowledge and understanding of how this medium communicates ideas and values? (For example, what kinds of characters are present and which kinds are absent? Who is shown in a positive light, and who is shown in a negative light? Who is shown as having control over their lives, and who is not?
How well does the student analyze the significance of the conscious or unconscious, explicit or implicit messages identified in a media product?
Each medium has a unique aesthetic form:
Does the student show a knowledge and understanding of the technical elements of the medium and the tropes, clichés, codes and conventions of the medium (TV, movies, video games, etc.) and genre (situation comedies, documentaries, role-playing games)?
How well does the student analyze how the use of these technical elements and genre tropes influence the conscious or unconscious, explicit or implicit messages identified in media product? (How are elements such as music, costuming, and shot composition used to influence our opinion of a character in a movie? How are characters given or deprived of agency, control and power in a video game?)
For all of the key concepts, you can evaluate any work according to the following terms:
How well does the student apply knowledge of the key concepts and of the medium being studied? How well does the student apply knowledge of the medium of the evaluation tool? For instance, if the student is writing an essay about a TV show, he or she would be expected to apply an understanding of how TV shows are created and how they convey meaning, both explicitly and implicitly, and also to apply their knowledge of how to write a successful essay by using an effective structure, well-developed and supported arguments, correct spelling and grammar, and so on. (Successful use of process steps such as editing, checklists and pre-evaluation assessment can be included here as well.) If the product being studied and the evaluation use the same medium – a mock print ad being used to deconstruct magazine advertising, for instance – the student would still be evaluated separately on how they apply their knowledge to analyze magazine ads and how they apply their knowledge to create the mock ad.
Now that you’ve figured out the expectations of your evaluation tool, you need to determine how students will show achievement. This is often done on a scale of one to four (sometimes represented as “Insufficient” and then numbers one to four). To create a scale, start by writing what you want your students to do in Level Three and work up and down from there. This can be done in two ways:
- By using exact, quantitative expectations. For example, if you want a Level Three student to successfully identify four ways in which the product communicates messages about gender, then a Level Two might successfully identify three ways, a Level One two ways, an Insufficient one or zero ways and a Level Four five or more ways.
- By using qualitative descriptions of the work you want to see. If you define Level Three as being competent work, for example, you might define Level Two as developing work, Level One as beginning work, Insufficient as failing work and Level Four as confident work.
Each of the approaches has its own strengths and weaknesses: quantitative expectations are generally better because there is little or no ambiguity, but using them too much can change the emphasis from thinking and analysis to following procedure and “checking all the boxes.” Most often you’ll use a mixture of the two, using quantitative expectations to evaluate knowledge and application of specific skills and using qualitative expectations to evaluate inquiry and analysis.
For example, a rubric for the “Design a Video Game” assignment in the lesson First Person might look like this:
Knowledge and Understanding
Game design shows an insufficient understanding of diversity issues in video games
Game design shows an insufficient understanding of video game genres
Game design shows a beginning understanding of diversity issues in video games
Game design shows a beginning understanding of video game genres
Game design shows a developing understanding of diversity issues in video games
Game design shows a developing understanding of video game genres
Game design shows a competent understanding of diversity issues in video games
Game design shows a competent understanding of video game genres
Game design shows a confident understanding of diversity issues in video games
Game design shows a confident understanding of video game genres
Inquiry and Analysis
Game design does not successfully identify any ways in which video games communicate messages about diversity
Game design demonstrates little or no analysis of how commercial pressures and medium and genre characteristics influence meaning
Game design successfully identifies one way video games communicate messages about diversity
Game design demonstrates a beginning analysis of how commercial pressures and medium and genre characteristics influence meaning
Game design successfully identifies two ways video games communicate messages about diversity
Game design demonstrates a developing analysis of how commercial pressures and medium and genre characteristics influence meaning
Game design successfully identifies three ways video games communicate messages about diversity
Game design demonstrates a competent analysis of how commercial pressures and medium and genre characteristics influence meaning
Game design successfully identifies four ways video games communicate messages about diversity
Game design demonstrates a confident analysis of how commercial pressures and medium and genre characteristics influence meaning
Application of Skills and Knowledge
Game design successfully uses one or fewer elements of the medium and genre studied in class
Game design elements do not successfully communicate the student’s understanding and analysis
Game design successfully uses two elements of the medium and genre studied in class
Some game design elements are chosen to effectively communicate the student’s understanding and analysis
Game design successfully uses three elements of the medium and genre studied in class
Game design elements are mostly chosen to effectively communicate the student’s understanding and analysis
Game design successfully uses four elements of the medium and genre studied in class
Game design elements and other elements are chosen to effectively communicate the student’s understanding and analysis
Game design successfully uses five or more elements of the medium and genre studied in class
Game design elements and other elements are chosen to successfully communicate the student’s understanding and and analysis are used to create an appealing and creative product
A final tool that is extremely helpful in evaluating media literacy work is giving students exemplars. These are examples of evaluation pieces that show students what you’re looking for in a competent work. Annotate the exemplar to make clear what it does right and go through it with the class when you give out the assignment. (Make sure the exemplar is different in some key way from the assignment – an analysis of a different movie, for example – to avoid having students simply copy it.) The easiest source of exemplars is your own students’ work, but if you are doing an assignment for the first time you can either create one yourself or have a peer helper or a more senior student create one.
Canada is considered a world leader in this field. But there’s still a long way to go before the subject is integrated fully into Canadian classrooms.
Media education is “on the books” with outcomes for media education included across the curriculum and media education programs being implemented in pockets and districts throughout the country. Still, the quality and practice are uneven and media education is not yet widely taught in all provinces and territories or at all levels.
Research findings support the notion that media literacy needs to start at the very early stages of learning. At the elementary level, media literacy education is often “hidden” in the Language Arts strand. It may be referred to as “viewing and representing” or “oral and visual communication”. Although it is a mandated curriculum area, teachers at the elementary level have very few resources available to them and very little in the way of professional development to support them. With the disappearance of the school librarian and other specialists in most elementary schools, classroom teachers have become “generalized specialists” in many areas, one of which is media education. Teachers and parents are eager to help their children become media wise, and they are open to new ideas, skills and strategies that will help them in this regard.
Media educators have identified an urgent need to increase professional development opportunities, to update the approach to reflect the digital wireless landscape, and to integrate the disciplines of media analysis and media production across the curriculum in Canada’s education system.
PROVINCIAL AND TERRITORIAL OVERVIEWS AND MEDIA EDUCATION OUTCOMES
Media education initiatives vary across Canada. This section provides detailed information on the status of media education for each province and territory, information on provincial/territorial media education organizations, and a listing of media education curricular outcomes, by grade, with links to supporting MediaSmarts resources.