Posts Tagged media
Choose your terms wisely. Alt title: How I am slowly eliminating the term ‘basic skills’ from my classroom
I’m half way through semester 1 and currently reading my students’ assignment 1 work. They had to tell me, with reference to personal experience as well as scholarly theory, what their philosophy is on English teaching and which pedagogical approach they find most relevant in 2014.
In the weeks leading up to the assignment due date I impressed this message upon them:
If you tell me that you advocate a ‘basic skills’ approach to teaching I will fail your paper.
Now, I wouldn’t seriously fail an assignment on the back of such a mistake (though I will ask students who make the mistake to meet with me and explain why they haven’t been in lectures!). But from what I’ve read so far, the scare tactic worked and the message has thankfully sunk in.
So this is how, one cohort at at time, I am slowly doing my bit to erase the misleading, poorly defined, often destructive term ‘basic skills’ from educational discourse.
Why do I bother with this?
I have a personal beef with the term ‘basic skills’ as it is an affront to the work of educators on many levels.
Firstly, there are the negative connotations of the term basic. If these skills are so basic, as in ‘boring’ or ‘unintriguing’, we should not be surprised that students don’t flock to master them. Nor should we expect teachers to employ pedagogies that drill students on them lest we run the risk of boring everyone to death.
Secondly, it belies the complex task of engaging students with learning in areas such as literacy or numeracy. If the job of teaching reading (for example) is so basic, then buddy, how about you come try it?
Thirdly, I find that when most people talk about basic skills, what they really mean to talk about is something like ‘key concepts’.
A prime example was seen today when national education correspondent Justine Ferrari (who should well and truly know the difference between knowledge and skills) wrote an article comparing how “key maths concepts” are taught in Australia compared to Singapore, then tweeted to publicise her article announcing that it was about ‘basic skills’. I would dismiss this as an honest mistake, except that Justine is no rookie and has been writing about education for years.
I tweeted back to let her know my thoughts:
Am I just being pedantic?
No, I don’t think so.
The terms we use to describe ideas MATTER.
As an English teacher, I know this. As a journalist, Justine knows this. But what I want so desperately is for all my students to know this too.
This semester I personally lecture and tutor all 110 students in English Curriculum Studies 1. They all have a sense that there are such things as ‘fundamental concepts’ (which relate to content knowledge) and they all wanted to advocate learning ‘skills that are important for life’. By taking the term basic skills away they were forced to articulate what it was they actually believed in. Was it literacy? If so, they were empowered to use the wealth of available theory on literate practices and multiliteracies. Was it life skills? If so, I directed them to the general capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, where they could find out about and debate the thing closest to ‘skills’ currently underpinning Australian schooling.
Good bye basic skills!
I know I can’t change the world over night. But I do hope that by banning the term basic skills from my own class that I at least give the 100+ students I teach each semester pause for thought.
My message to them: If you mean literacy or numeracy, then say so. And be ready to explain your definition of such terms.
I’ll end this post by sharing an answer that I gave one student a few weeks ago. She asked: what should we do when people insist on using the term ‘basic skills’? I suggested she might ask such people to list what those basic skills are. I already know from experience that most folks have no such list in mind (which begs the question – if the skills are so basic, why can’t you tell me what they are?). Instead they just have some washed-out notion in their heads that includes spelling and multiplication tables…and that’s about it. I also assured her that most people at dinner parties would be bored by the conversation by that point, so it’ll rarely come up ;)
Parent-teacher interviews are another story. A story for another time perhaps.
I’ve been back from overseas now for a few weeks and have almost (almost) accomplished the Great Assignment Marking Catchup. We’re all faced with one from time to time, but for me having a trip overseas is still always worth it!
Part of my overseas stay was, amazingly, in Cairo. I had never been to Egypt before, or anywhere in the Arab region. Most of my time was spent at the MILID Week meetings at Cairo University, which was the event I was there to be part of.
What is MILID?
MILID stands for ‘Media and Information Literacy and Intercultural Dialogue‘. UNESCO, together with the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) have created a UNITWIN Cooperation Program and Global Chair on ‘MILID’, to focus resources and efforts across partner universities from around the globe on Media and Information Literacy.
To give you an idea of what the group does, here are two of the seven objectives of the MILID network:
- Act as a Observatory for critically analyzing: the role of Media and Information Literacy (“MIL”) as a catalyst for civic participation, democracy and development; for the promotion of free, independent and pluralistic media; as well as MIL’s contribution to the prevention and resolution of conflicts and intercultural tensions and polarizations.
- Enhance intercultural and cooperative research on MIL and the exchanges between universities and mass media, encouraging MIL’s initiatives towards respecting human rights and dignity and cultural diversity. (http://www.unaoc.org/communities/academia/unesco-unaoc-milid/)
How did I get involved?
Across the globe there are eight universities involved as Chairs in the MILID program. My institution, Queensland University of Technology, is the Chair from Australia. Other countries represented are: Spain (Autonomous University of Barcelona), Egypt (Cairo University), China (Tsinghau University), USA (Temple University), Brazil (University of Sao Paulo), Jamaica (University of the West Indies), Morocco (Mohamed Ben Abdellah University).
This semester QUT has run a pilot course in Media and Information Literacy and Intercultural Dialogue, using the UNESCO Curriculum for MIL. Along with Michael Dezuanni and Hilary Hughes, I’ve been teaching the course to students online, for free, from over 70 countries.
MILID WEEK is a space to promote contact and cooperation between international organizations, associations, NGOs, universities, media, research groups, researchers, teachers, and students from around the world working in media literacy and information and intercultural dialogue. (http://milidweek2013.blogspot.com.es/p/presentation.html)
This year Cairo University was the host of MILID week, which ran from 22-25 April. Last year the week was hosted in Barcelona, Spain; next year the week will be hosted in Beijing, China.
What I liked best about my first MILID week was the opportunity it provided to speak in depth with colleagues in this specialised field. Over the days of debates and presentations we shared information about how media is being used (and subverted) in our countries and regions, as well as the politics of information literacy in schools and communities. This event gave us space to find common interests and develop shared strategies for promoting the concept of MIL.
What did I learn?
It was eye opening to consider such questions during the MILID week as: How can we plan collaboration via social media in a group that includes members from China? How can we share media texts across national boundaries to promote intercultural dialogue? How can media and information literacy support social justice initiatives?
Mostly I was interested to learn about how other universities worked and how much attention is given to media literacy and/or information literacy in different places. I came away with the impression that Australia is relatively well-placed in terms of access to traditional and new media, connection to the internet, and use of social media. But I wonder whether Australian students are exposed to practices of citizen journalism as much as they might be? It struck me that in a place like Egypt, citizens currently have a lot of motivation to produce their own stories and information…by contrast the culture of media consumption in Australia seemed complacent to me.
And, as always when spending time with folks from a range of countries, I was reminded of how monolingual my world is. I speak next to no words in other languages; most of the people around me from Anglophone countries were in the same boat.
If I can’t go in person to the MILID Week in China next year I’ll be disappointed now, as I feel like I only just got to know this group and my place in it! However with the week falling in April/May, right in the middle of semester 1 in most Australian universities, I can’t say I will be able to take this kind of a break away from classes again for awhile. Either way, I’ll be continuing to promote the new MILID journal and contribute online to the Clearinghouse.
Soon the MIL Curriculum will be available via an interactive module-based website, to complement the existing PDF of the Curriculum. I’ll be sure to post again with details once the site is launched!
Thanks to QUT Faculty of Education and UNESCO for supporting this travel and development opportunity.
“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. (from Wikipedia)
The more I think about this issue of medium, the more unsatisfied I am with the way that medium of production is dealt with in the English curriculum.
While English teachers continue to be led by debate over the definition and role of Literature in English, and over the best way to teach language, questions of medium have been significantly sidelined.
It also seems clearer to me now why subjects like Drama and Media (content areas that technically sit under the umbrella of English, if you accept that English is a study of how meaning is made through language and texts) go off and take up their own space in many curriculum. It’s not just because those fields have their own traditions and pedagogies that need space, or because they have industries that create an economic drive for the subjects to continue. It’s also because those field require keen attention to production elements, including issues of medium.
Little wonder that Drama, which often deals with live performance of language, dies a slow death in English classrooms where the curriculum is still dominated by print literacy.
Little wonder that we still can reconcile the gulf between ‘literary’ and ‘digital/electronic’ texts in the Australian curriculum (medium is not a genre!)
To move anywhere with this line of thinking will require some careful thought about the overlap between the words:
- media as-in-the-artisitic-means-of-production and
- Media as-in-the-field-of-media-studies.
James Franco *swoon*
Did you make it to the bit in the interview with Stewart when Franco talks about doing a PhD in English Literature? What a hero!