When 50 million children and adolescents return to school this fall, they will be immersed in the core subjects of Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies and Science. But arguably the most important set of knowledge and skills of the digital age are not directly taught as part of the school curriculum. I am talking about media literacy—how to access, analyze, evaluate, produce, communicate, and act across print, object, electronic, and digital media forms. Media literacy is much more than technological proficiency; it necessitates critical thinking, creative production, and civic engagement. Outside of school, parents can play a key role in fostering media literacy with these simple back-to-school "ABCs."
Media literacy requires much more than access to devices or the internet. It requires access to knowledge through critical inquiry. It's not enough for children to know how to search and locate information. They must access meaning by critically decoding media texts. For young children, questions such as "whose story is being told?" in a picture, book, web site, or TV show is a thoughtful beginning for understanding perspective.
Access to knowledge requires tolerance of ambiguity as well as lingering in discussion so that children can discover answers on their own and not simply receive the preferred ideological message that is frequently delivered by teachers and parents. Instead, pose questions, listen, and encourage young people to ask their own questions. Make time and space to discover the answers.
Parents of older children can pose questions about texts that are normally left unquestioned. Who wrote this textbook? Whose stories are told? Whose are left untold? Who produced this test? What knowledge is privileged in these test questions? What knowledge is left out? Who funded this research study? How might these research findings be of benefit to the sponsors? It's important to ask questions authentically (to gather data) and withhold the urge to immediately evaluate or criticize.
The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) provides a set of key question to ask when analyzing media messages that parents can use as a starting point. The Center for Media Literacy (CML) also provides key questions as part of their MediaLit Kit™
It is insufficient for children to merely deconstruct an advertisement, criticize a film, or analyze a song. (Re)building is an essential part of the learning process. Being media literate therefore requires varying degrees of technical proficiency—whether the media are Legos, a written essay, a video, or web site. Parents and children can now build online with Legos using Google maps within the Chrome browser. You can literally build the world together, one brick at a time.
Curation is also a valuable form of creating a new original from existing artifacts. When kids tag their favorite images through programs like Pinterest or upload photos to Instagram they are creating and also endorsing new content. It's important for them to reflect on what and how they are communicating (intentionally or otherwise). Parents can instigate reflective conversations with their children to elicit the decision-making that shapes their creative production.
Important conversations surrounding creative production are essential to moral decision-making as well as building family relationships. There is an excellent article by Forbes.com contributor Jordan Shapiro that chronicles the experience of his two young boys in their use of Screencast-O-Matic to create Minecraft videos for YouTube. He touches on important differences between private performance and public expression, and the power of parental engagement.
The critical inquiry and creative production catalyze learning when learners directly apply their skills and knowledge within the communities of which they are a part. I'm talking more than just social skills here. Solving real world problems requires children to leverage critical inquiry and creative media production for the greater good.
Younger kids can share their work (and also learn more about digital citizenship) through organizations such as Digizen and apps that allow them to create and share their work. Book Creator allows younger children to author, read, and share their own multi-media book creations. Toontastic is another app that allows younger children to create and share videos and also enter them in film contests.
Older children and adolescents can garner worldwide community support for their cause through curation sites like Storify and online petitions like change.org. It is crucial that children move beyond merely consuming media and enter the world of creative and responsible participation in the community writ large.
In sum: Critical questioning + media creation + civic participation = media literacy.
If you think media literacy should be a formal part of the public school curriculum in your state, download a legislative toolkit from Media Literacy Now to enact change.