Academic Exchange Quarterly      Fall    2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  3

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements  or   text lay-out and pagination.



Media Literacy and Student/Teacher Engagement



Paul Mihailidis, University of Maryland

Ray Hiebert, Professor and Dean Emeritus, University of Maryland


Paul Mihailidis, doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, researches media literacy education  Ray Hiebert is Professor and Dean Emeritus at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism




Media literacy education aims to enable students to critically and analytically engage with media.  Teacher/Student engagement in the classroom enables students to enhance their learning experiences by providing them the atmosphere and interaction they need to be actively involved in their learning process. The tenets of teacher/student engagement and mutuality, when applied to the concept of media literacy education, reveal how media literacy education can be enhanced in the classroom.





Most of all, bringing media culture into the learning environment—from kindergarten to graduate school—guarantees a high level of engagement by students. And engagement, as every teacher knows, is the key to learning success.

(Thoman & Jolls, 2004, 20)


Media literacy education aims to develop a skill set encompassing the abilities to access, analyze, evaluate, and produce media (Rogow, 2004).  How teachers teach about media and how students engage with media become the base upon which these skills can be effectively realized. The hope is that these skills will lead to students becoming more knowledgeable, aware and active participants in a democratic society.   Canadian educator Chris Worsnop (Seeman, 2004, 19) writes of the need for media educators to focus on mutual respect and engagement:


Good media education courses do not focus on propagandizing students into a single way of thinking. They provide students with a broad range of critical and analytical skills to help them make their own choices and decisions about the ideological and political messages surrounding them in 21st century culture ... Media education teachers focus on respecting students’ choices and decisions regardless of their orientation, provided those choices and decisions are well formed and properly supported.


The main question this analytic essay will address is: how can we enhance media literacy education through teacher/student mutual engagement in the classroom? The aim is to explore how the tenets of teacher/student engagement can be applied to media literacy education. This essay will reveal how such mutual engagement can lead to more critical and analytical reflection of media messages from a young age. The hope in addressing such an inquiry is that better insight can be attained as to how teacher/student engagement can enhance media literacy education for a more aware and participative future citizenry.


Critical, student-centered education

Thoman and Jolls (2004, 27) envision media literacy as a tool for empowering citizens: “The vision of media literacy is to put all individuals, ultimately, in charge of their own learning, empowering them to take an active rather than a passive role in acquiring new knowledge and skills.” Where media education departs from traditional teacher-oriented, top down dissemination of knowledge is in its aim to engage citizens to become active and reflexive in learning about information.  It is not that media literacy offers new and fresh content for educators to grapple with; rather, it offers a new way for educators to teach, and even more importantly, a new way for students to learn (Thoman & Jolls, 2004).


Media literacy education’s progress further rests on its emphasis as a pedagogical tool. Cynthia Schiebe (2004) refers to this as a curriculum-driven approach.  This approach posits that teachers must interweave active teaching about the media within their basic classroom lessons.  Schiebe (2004, 63) explains:


Teachers then feel more comfortable about taking class time to teach the basics of media literacy and to weave a media literacy approach into their overall teaching practice. Media literacy can also be used to develop ‘parallel tasks’ for students to build and practice their skills in analyzing their opinions with evidence in written essays.


Thoman & Jolls above assertion that media literacy offers new teaching methods can be explicated through the passing of Pope John II for example. It is the teacher’s job to elicit critical reflection and active engagement with the event rather than simply stating what it means for the Catholic Church and Western religion. The teacher should seek to develop tasks that make students understand the Pope’s passing as significant with regard to: how it is covered, what it means to society at large, and how we receive and process information about such an event.  In an educational context, this type of class activity can lead, on a larger level, to form “part of a strategy to reposition the media user – from passive to active, from recipient to participant, from consumer to citizen” (Livingston, 2004, 20). The teacher, instead of telling about this event, can utilize it to evoke engagement, understanding and awareness.


Thus, if media literacy is properly integrated into the curriculum, it has the potential to enhance students’ comprehension levels holistically:


A growing body of research suggests that media literacy instruction improves

student reading, viewing, and listening comprehension of print, audio, and videotexts; message analysis and interpretation; and writing skills. As students progress, they develop transferable analytical tools for learning and gain concrete connections between the curriculum and their experiences outside of school.

(Johnson-Towles & Shessler, 2005, 10)


Integrating media education into the curriculum will allow students to enhance media comprehension skills while further strengthening their ability to become critical and analytical of their experiences outside of the classroom. This connection is a key of media literacy education. It is more apparent now than ever before that what students encounter away from the school can affect their learning experiences as much as what they engage within the classroom. Renee Hobbs (2004, 52) writes:


…media literacy educators will commonly make the argument that if students are to be able to critically analyze media messages in the world outside the classroom, it is important to bring into the classroom examples of contemporary media culture that are part of their lived experience.


It is important for media educators to find a way to incorporate such transfer in their classrooms, as it can provide greater understanding and awareness of the larger social relevance of media in students’ lives. 


In this context media literacy educational initiatives rest largely on the necessity of teacher/student engagement. Engagement-centered learning relies on a teacher’s ability to incite active and critical tasks in developing a relationship based on mutuality and creativity.  Rother (2000, 107) sums up the mutuality of media education by writing: “Media education enables teachers and students, exploring together, to demystify how media are constructed in the manner they are, and for whom they are constructed.” Media literacy, based on Rogow’s insight, must predominantly engage the student with media messages they confront daily to help them become active learners.


Learning-centered environments


So, what if we adopted a different perspective, one that placed learning in the context of our lived experience of participation in the world?…What kind of understanding would such a perspective yield on how learning takes place and on what is required to support it?                                                    (Wenger, 1998, 3)


Wenger posits that education, reconstructed as community and a shared experience embedded in our everyday lives, can be an experience both integral to our actual participation in the world and to our reflection of our role in society. With this in mind, the notion of how learning is part of living and experiences are part of the educational practice can shed light as to why the notion of ‘learning-centeredness’ in education is far more crucial to students’ progression than commonly accounted for.


In learning about media and its overall effect on society, students must be cognizant of how to make decisions based on the information they constantly confront. This information shapes opinions, decisions, and lifestyles.  If, as Wenger suggests, the learner is in the center of the educational environment and further engaged with learning through exposure and sensitization to media, the learner stands a strong chance to see how such information impacts their values, beliefs, and life experiences. Further, Wenger’s assertion can allow the teacher to utilize media in an educational environment that is interactive and student-centered.


If media educators can successfully evoke critical understanding and active learning in the classroom, students can begin to see the connections between the classroom and their larger social surroundings through information. In this way, media education serves the purpose of enrichment and larger fulfillment for human evolvement.  Peter Senge (1990, 14), in his seminal work The Fifth Discipline, discusses what he believes ‘real learning’ accomplishes:


Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it.


Senge touches upon the end goal of media literacy: to reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Unless students’ are actively involved in questioning the world, constructively and interactively in a classroom setting, this aspect of learning will remain peripheral.


Towards mutual engagement

Teacher/student engagement must start with the teacher.  Students are most often subject to how a class is conducted based on how a teacher structures and conducts her teaching. McLaughlin & Talbert (2001, 19) believe that “classroom practices remain largely teacher-centered, with lectures predominating.”


Attaining student perspective is important in building participatory and mutual learning relationships.  McLaughlin and Talbot (2001, 37) stress this notion: “Snapshots of students’ responses to classrooms representing an innovative pattern of instruction illustrate how their personal engagement translates into learning and a sense of accomplishment.” Teachers and students must mutually engage in learning so that the student feels part of a community and at the center of the learning process.


Jackie Cossentino addresses this issue in her exploration of the teacher as designer, manager and critic. Here explorations, if seen in terms of media literacy education, are strong descriptors in showing how media literacy education stands to be enhanced by mutual engagement in the classroom.


In describing the teacher as designer, she explains how a shift in responsibility (less is more) raises the bar for both students and teachers:


“Moving student performance to the center of the curriculum in the cumulative manner…demands that students do more, not less, work.  It makes a similar demand on teachers’ energy and expertise” (Cossentino, 2004, 106).  


This idea of less is more alludes not to teaching energy and commitment, but to moving the role of the teacher from the center to the periphery. Cossentino believes that this breeds a mutual rapport in which both teacher and student feel engaged with the type of learning they are involved in and its outcome(s). In terms of media literacy, this means that media educators have to find out what specific media students most frequently engage with and allow students to lead discussions about how these media depict gender, race, ethnicity, and so on. The teacher, on the periphery, becomes a moderator and not an orator.


In her teacher as manager section, Cossentino (2004, 107) writes:


Authority relationships between teacher and students are changed when transmission is replaced by discovery or when the site of learning shifts from the classroom to the library.  And new learning environments as well as the emphasis on student performance demand a new and expanded repertoire for teachers.


When students are discovering rather than simply digesting, they may feel more a part of a learning community in which they can uniquely engage with material and feel gratified by their learning experiences.  Bringing students to computer labs to talk about the Internet, taking them for a walk in a shopping mall and probing them to discover the pervasiveness of advertising, or bringing them to the cinema to discuss how popular film helps reinforce and/or challenge stereotypes are all ways in which teachers can transcend learning experiences out of classroom. In this age of media pervasiveness, media educators’ content is all around.


The third teacher experience Cossentino describes is teacher as critic. Here the teacher’s feedback must be both intelligent and compassionate. It is the teacher’s role to provide feedback as a building block rather than dead-end criticism.  Cossentino (2004) describes how a teacher must be competent and coherent in judging performance, and further capable in communicating this to a student.  If the teacher can excel as a ‘constructive critic’, then the student stands to greatly benefit from such positive feedback. 


This point is rather self-evident and simple. However, in the context of media literacy it is essential.  Media literacy has no prescribed content with which to teach. Thus, the teacher’s role becomes one in which she must be capable of relating to all media and enacting learning from whichever form of media students are engaged with. Whether print, broadcast, or the Internet, media educators must take the piece(s) of media and provide feedback that is constructive, relevant and illuminating. The content can never be wrong. The application of the content and constructive feedback from the teacher is the most powerful way learning about media can be attained.



Now that media literacy education and the tenets of teacher/student engagement have been explored, the initial inquiry: how can we enhance media literacy education through teacher/student mutual engagement in the classroom?, can be addressed.


Teacher/student classroom engagement seems to be the base need for media education to be effectively implemented and sustained in education. Media literacy education is based on the student becoming aware and literate of the information she or he confronts on a daily basis. As previously mentioned, there is no prescribed content with which to teach such skills.  In digesting information students must be able to understand and be aware of the following questions: Who is this aimed for? What does it mean? Who is it leaving out? How is it made? What are the implications of this? And how does it affect me?  There are no lesson plans, or set amount of material that can teach this. Rother (2000, 108) reminds us that: “media literacy is also about getting teachers to rethink what we teach, how we teach and to whom. Teaching about media has enabled me to focus my attention on the students’ skills, rather than on the subject matter.”


How students utilize basic analytic skills to enact with and dispel media messages is an inherent trait. They come to the classroom with a certain understanding gained from functioning in society.  Each is unique unto itself.  It is the teacher’s job to embrace this uniqueness and enhance each student’s individual critical thinking ability.  Such enhancement rests on engaging with a student, both personally and holistically, to evoke their interests and ideas about media. 





Cossentino, Jacqueline. (2004). Talking About a Revolution: The Languages of Educational Reform. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.


Hobbs, Renee. (2004). “A Review of School-Based Initiatives in Media Literacy Education.” American Behavioral Scientist, 48, 42-59.


Johnson-Towles, Linda, & Shessler, Tom. (2005). “Media Matters: The critical role of library media specialists in making media literacy happen in your school.” Access Learning, March.  May 2005:


Livingstone, S. (2004). “What is Media Literacy?” Intermedia; September, 32; 3; ABI/INFORM Global, 18-20


McLaughlin, Milbrey, W, & Talbert, Joan, E. (2001). Professional Communities and the Work of High School Teaching. University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London.


Rogow, Faith (2004). “Shifting from Media to Literacy.” American Behavioral Scientist, 48, 30-33.


Rother, L. (2000). “Expanding the Meaning of Literacy.” Australian Screen Education. Issue 28, 106-109. (Article first published in Cable in the Classroom, 1998).


Schiebe, Cynthia, L. (2004). “A Deeper Sense of Literacy: Curriculum-Driven Approaches to Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom.” American Behavioral Scientist, 48, 60-68.


Seeman, N. (2004). “Beware the media police.” Fraser Forum, January, pp. 19-20.

For article link, please see: Retrieved May 2005


Senge, Peter. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Doubleday Publishers, New York, NY. Pp. 3-26.


Thoman, Elizabeth. & Jolls, Tessa. (2004). “Media Literacy—A National Priority for a Changing World.” American Behavioral Scientist, 48, 18-29.


Wenger, Etienne. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, UK.