Media Literacy

Media Literacy: Critical Thinking and Culture in the 21st century

By Rhoda Sims Molta, M.Ed

“. . . Analyses of contemporary media should be undertaken vigorously. {and the teacher should} call attention to how the medium affects the audience.”
– Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity, 1979

Renowned media analyst, Neil Postman, author of 18 books on the effects of media in the culture, viewed technology and media as synonymous.

In his book, Teaching as a Conserving Activity, Neil Postman said technological inventions “lead to a reconceptualization of what there is to see, how things might be seen and what there is to know . . . Technology is always an idea disguised as a piece of machinery.”

Postman compared technology to the brain, which can be seen as an instrument complete with hard wiring; media is likened to the mind because it is through the mind that we use technology. The ‘new media,’ produce benefits as well as negative consequences.

The negative aspects of new media

1) New media are destroying the idea of childhood, which is a social construct as much a matter of biology. Children are sent to school to learn as they grow, in developmentally appropriate ways. But media presents all of life, in its complexity and violence, to children of all ages. How do children interpret the images and language, frequently unmediated and readily available in the new media?

2) New media have changed the meaning of information from tools to be used for solving problems, to commodities to be bought and sold. Throughout history the scarcity of information hampered problem solving. We are bombarded with more information than we can use, and more we can’t do anything about. Much of the facts stand alone, disconnected from cause and effect and presented as disjointed pieces of information. How is the newscast related to real life? What conclusions do we draw from what we see, hear, or read in the media?

3) The new media elevate technology to god-like status when individuals believe innovation equals human progress. What about introducing reflection into the process of passive acceptance? In the age of science, technology and calculation, Postman asked, what happened to our faith in human judgment?

4) The new media, from the invention of photography in the 1840s through the development of filmmaking, mass advertising, radio and television, diminishes the importance of literacy in the culture. The history of literacy is found in writing associated with enlightened developments in science, religious freedom, and political democracy, sharpening analytical thought and rationality.

Use media in the classroom as objective inquiry; study TV as a “curious cultural object: not as an audio-visual aid. Popular music, films, television and the use of technology can form the bridge to enhance students’ analytical reasoning throughout the curriculum.

Technology is essentially a moral and social issue at all times, Postman believed.

Media & Literacy

Simply because people are reading, listening to or viewing media doesn’t indicate understanding, thinking is required as well. Any teacher who has shown a film in class can attest to its effect on students, frequently equal to that of young children in front of cartoons on television; are they thinking or simply mesmerized?

“Media education recognizes that raw information is probably worse than useless if people do not have the skills to organize, evaluate and make it work for them” (Leveranz & Tyner, 1993)


Media education provides an organizing structure enabling teachers to share the power of thinking with students, to show them ‘the way in,’ making sense of the vast array of electronic knowledge. Media educators often start from an inquiry model predicated on what students believe is important to them.

Many educators know this as Reader Response Theory, which begins classroom discussions of literature and textbook readings from information students deem noteworthy. Students take responsibility for their choices, explaining their points of view, seeking to persuade their peers, and thinking critically about their decisions. Teachers facilitate discussion, guiding students’ understanding. Educators working in the inquiry model see students overcome their resistance to thinking; motivation overtakes lethargy in the classroom.

Viewed from the perspective of critical thinking, and the requirement for higher order thinking skills in the classroom, media literacy becomes part of the expanded definition of literacy in the world today.

Literacy, in any medium, is the process of understanding sufficiently to question and to rearrange ideas. Through the interplay of thinking, learning occurs. Active learning includes active viewing and listening, in which many potential meanings are available. Any meaning, however, remains elusive until viewers, listeners, or readers begin to make connections. Meaning resides in the reader, the one who interprets the textbook or the novel. It is the reader who chooses what to focus on, and this focus may not be what an author intended. In any case, it is the reader who makes specific connections in the text. These connections become the meaning of the text for the engaged reader.

When educators invite student inquiry into the classroom, it is not solely the teacher who is responsible for the learning; the learner is an equal partner. Students often lack the ability to transfer knowledge, to re-integrate the discrete skills and disparate pieces of information. Education reform seeks to focus on analytical reasoning, the thinking skills required in a complex world.

Values in Culture

The Center for Media Literacy, available at offers educators resources for the classroom. The Center’s founder, Elizabeth Thoman, echoed, “You can’t escape todays media culture. Media no longer just influence our culture. They are our culture,”

The goal is no longer “inoculation,’ the protection against popular culture and the media, but greater understanding of the role of media in life today and in the future. Thoman, a former English teacher, directly connected educational goals to media literacy, which she called “a process and a way of thinking that, like reading comprehension, is always evolving. It’s an illusion that media somehow ought to be ‘value free,’ It cannot and never will be. Our job as educators is to teach critical thinking and critical reading of all media so that people young and old, can recognize what values are embedded, and accept or reject them.”

Media Ecology

More than three decades ago, Neil Postman proposed ‘Media Ecology’ as the descriptive term for the study of how technology and information sources contribute to culture. Understanding the effects of the media, he believed, will “help youth to step outside of and above their information environment so that they can see where they are located.”

Understanding the effects of media can be examined in all grade levels.

Stepping above, or “having one’s consciousness raised,” as Dr. Postman advocated, may be compared to the general focus on metacognitive strategies, that is, understanding how we think. Through understanding the process of thinking and learning, students can better monitor the acquisition and integration of knowledge.

Active student engagement in the classroom encourages collaborative model learning. It is education which re-connects knowledge to real-world inquiry, showing students how to formulate the questions, to create and to solve problems of genuine value to them.

Students’ opinions when shared reveal intriguing bases of knowledge on which to expand or further clarify learning. Media education is an effective tool in teaching rhetoric and persuasion. Critical thinking strategies can enhance classroom inquiry. Across the curriculum, students learn to document their findings, write to persuade their peers and wider audiences, engage in story telling, predicting and debates or role play designed to challenge inferential reasoning skills.

What do students understand of the ideas tossed around in the media, in sound bites on TV news, 22-minute programs in a series, or lead paragraphs under attention-grabbing headlines?

Entertainment wrapped around commercials targets its market and achieves its goals to produce consumers.

If it bleeds, it leads

For those whose news is TV news, the trend is disturbing. Tom Brokaw once said, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Hard news is typically pushed aside in favor of the sensational. What does this mean to young people? Do we ask them? For students’ ability to read, write and make sense of the world, consider young people’s opinions of how they spend time, frequently taken up with an assortment of media and technology.

Ask them to muster the evidence to persuade that these opinions and habits are worth their time and interest. In their real life, they will communicate to persuade others, as well as themselves. It is thinking, analysis and reasoning that count. Students’ had best learn how to question their world, to comprehend the action and not merely watch it, to construct their world through thinking rationally, not passively accept images offered.

Rhoda Sims Molta is an educational consultant focused on higher-order thinking skills. She can be reached through [email protected].