A Call for Curious Questioners

This post was originally published on Critical Analysis of Media on January 22, 2017. The author, Heather Stafford, is a Multimedia / Curricular Technologist in the Academic Technology Group at Middlebury College. She also supervises the digital media tutor program where undergraduate students are trained and employed to assist with multimedia development projects.

This post was written as an assignment for my digital media literacy class at Northeastern University, but I hope it reaches and speaks to a wider audience of curious questioners. The prompt was: “Whose responsibility is it to teach digital and media literacy skills? What issues and challenges do they face?”

Everyone I speak to seems to think that digital and media literacy skills are essential, but most seem to think it’s someone else’s job to “know that stuff”. As a parent of a teenager and a pre-teen the questions and concerns surrounding media consumption and social media use are already prevalent and constant in our day-to-day lives. Several of our children’s friends take the approach of banning technology usage, in particular smart phones and tablets by their children. While I can understand this viewpoint, I completely disagree with it. Our guidance as parents is essential to our children, and in most cases the words that we speak (whether we realize it or not) weigh heavier on our children than those of others. Just as we teach our children to look both ways before crossing the street (rather than telling them never to cross a street), we need to help them navigate our digital world.

Crosswalk by Dani-Rae Law from Flickr - https://i0.wp.com/c1.staticflickr.com/4/3010/5760537399_15d4bd68b0_b.jpg?resize=690%2C518&ssl=1
Crosswalk by Dani-Rae Law from Flickr – https://c1.staticflickr.com/4/3010/5760537399_15d4bd68b0_b.jpg

However, I also know that a lot of parents and educators are caught in that in-between space of being consumers of radio and tv media messages, but are not active within other digital “channels”. They wonder – how do I talk about something that I don’t participate in? Or say things like “it seems like my kids are speaking a different language – what the heck is Snapchat?” But the most exciting part of digital and media literacy education can be summarized by the National Association for Media Literacy Education’s (NAMLE) statement:

“The purpose of media literacy education is to help individuals of all ages to develop the habits of inquiry and skills of expression that they need to be critical thinkers, effective communicators, and active citizens in today’s world.” (Scheibe, C., & Rogow, F., 2012, p. 36).

This means we are all students of digital and media literacy and we can learn alongside our children creating an inquiry-based exploration

What makes Apple Apple? by Opensource.com on Flickr: https://i0.wp.com/c1.staticflickr.com/8/7026/6555465931_4538320b87_b.jpg?resize=354%2C199&ssl=1, Creative Commons license
What makes Apple Apple? by Opensource.com on Flickr: https://c1.staticflickr.com/8/7026/6555465931_4538320b87_b.jpg, Creative Commons license

both in the classroom and around the dining room table. It’s an exciting and scary time to be doing this exploration. The questions outlined in Table 3.1 Key Questions to Ask When Analyzing Media Messages on p. 39 of the Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy are great starting points for these discussions. A particular favorite of mine is “What is left out of this message that might be important to know?” We often focus so intently on the message that we never consider – wait a minute – why didn’t they mention this other concept?

Doing this type of inquiry is complicated, which is one reason why I think it has been difficult to get more people active in this area. There is often not a right or wrong answer – but rather a shade of grey. For instance, the point that “Media analysis is rarely complete without considering the economic issues involved” identifies that analysis and research around a message needs to extend well beyond the confines of a 30 second advertising spot (Scheibe, C., & Rogow, F., 2012, p. 41). But doing that exploration also makes us more informed and knowledgeable citizens who are able and empowered to ask more questions about a message.

Anger is another issue. “As media analysis leads students to new insights, it can also challenge established beliefs and raise feelings of anger or frustration as students realize they have been mistaken or manipulated” (Scheibe, C., & Rogow, F., 2012, p. 42). This anger can be even more problematic if students feel they have uncovered information that challenges core family or personal beliefs. But it’s also a pathway into the conversation surrounding critical autonomy. In all learning it is essential that “…students [are] free to come to conclusions that are not only independent of media influences but also independent of us” (Scheibe, C., & Rogow, F., 2012, p. 47). We (parents and teachers) cannot pretend to be the ultimate authority. We aren’t and we need to recognize the very real power imbalance that students feel in the classroom, and be careful about our behavior as teachers. This imbalance in the classroom “…can make students reluctant to share any perspective that contradicts the teacher’s position, seriously eroding the benefits of collective decoding process” (Scheibe, C., & Rogow, F., 2012, p. 67).

Contradicting perspectives are taking center stage in our media right now. Emotions are high and power imbalances are becoming more and more transparent in all of our systems: government, economy, education, and criminal justice are the ones that come to mu mind most quickly. As I write this, my news feed in Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is lit up with pink-hatted women travelling to protest marches all across the country. A great deal of this action has been motivated and organized through digital and media channels. Jolls and Wilson reference the significance of action in connection to digital and media literacy through their reference to Paolo Freiere’s empowerment process of “awareness, analysis, reflection, and action” (Jolls, T. & Wilson, C., p. 73). Through this action, a new literacy can foster and promote change. I think this might be the most important point for our youth to recognize for their own empowerment: their voices have power. Until they are old enough to vote, children are often seen by others and themselves as cogs in a machine where they have little to no power.

child shadow by Michael Kordahi on flickr: https://i0.wp.com/c1.staticflickr.com/1/80/234720431_eb6fdd5997.jpg?resize=318%2C478&ssl=1
child shadow by Michael Kordahi on flickr: https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/80/234720431_eb6fdd5997.jpg

As parents and teachers we trick ourselves that empowering our children too much might lead to an erosion of our authority. But by doing this, we weaken them. Our youth are where I look when I need inspiration. When I need to feel that there is hope, new ideas, creativity and curiosity, I look to my children and their classmates. They are strong and smart, and we should empower ourselves to practice inquiry in digital media literacy right alongside them. Together, we can revitalize our schools as places of challenging inquiry, and our homes as a place where it is safe to question and analyze long held beliefs and change our ideas if we learn something new.

I welcome these conversations. Being vulnerable is not easy or comfortable, but it is the space we must inhabit. I am not an expert, but I am curious and embedded in the digital and media sphere through my education and my work. I am happy to be your partner in this work with your children and students, but please know you don’t need anyone else but you to start this work. All you need is a question to explore, and I feel confident the children around you have more than enough to keep you busy. Just ask.



Jolls, Tessa and Wilson, Carolyn (2014) “The Core Concepts: Fundamental to Media Literacy Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” Journal of Media Literacy Education, 6(2), 68 -78. Available at: http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/jmle/vol6/iss2/6

Scheibe, C., & Rogow, F. (2012). The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy:Critical Thinking in a Multimedia World. Corwin: Thousand Oaks, CA .


Kordahi, M. (2006). child shadow [Photo]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/delicategenius/234720431/
Law, D.-R. (2011). Crosswalk [Photo]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/daniraelaw/5760537399/
opensource.com. (2011). What makes Apple Apple [Photo]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/6555465931/
Sean Morris

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