“History is changing,” write Cornelia Brunner and Bill Tally in their new book, The New Media Literacy Handbook: An Educator’s Guide to Bringing New Media Into the Classroom. “Broadly stated, the change can be described as a shift from neat history to messy history. Neat history is characterized by a coherent, agreed-upon, linear narrative, and by delivery systems such as textbooks and lecture-and-slide presentations. In fact, textbooks are the quintessentially ‘neat’ form of history.” Brunner and Tally go on to credit the work textbooks do to frame historical events within a graspable context and format. But they also point out that textbooks tend to turn students into “passive consumers of history. All too often what they take away, in addition to whatever names, events, and ideas they remember, is a firm belief that history is boring—a closed book.
“In contrast, the more messy history being undertaken in many classrooms looks a lot like messy work done by professional historians: Students pose speculative questions, browse in old archives, mull over old photographs, collect oral histories, propose speculative answers, argue and debate interpretations with others, role-play, write and publish monographs, and even write historical fiction.”
Navigating messiness is a theme that underscores much of Brunner and Tally’s work. In their Media Workshop New York project, from which the book emerged, they help teachers make sense of the new media (such as CD-ROMs, the Internet, video games, animation) and develop ways to use them effectively in the classroom. According to the authors, the infusion of new media into schools has led to a deluge of information and a dearth of practical guidance for teachers. Buried in the midst of all that information—much of it conflicting and unreliable—are wonderful materials for student inquiry, such as the historical artifacts mentioned above.
Brunner and Tally wrote their book to provide teachers with concrete examples and tools for engaging the messiness and creating opportunities for student-centered learning. The challenge is formidable, requiring what Tally calls “multiple literacies.” Teachers have to learn to understand the codes and conventions of a variety of new media that may be unfamiliar to them, at the same time helping students develop literacy in the core academic disciplines. The book devotes chapters to history and social studies, arts education, language arts, and science. The key to helping students gain literacy in both the conventions of the media and the academic discipline lies, according to Brunner and Tally, in the creation of a “discourse community”—mentors and co-learners who can help students find meaning in the messiness.
Tally and Brunner recently discussed their thoughts about literacy, learning communities, and new media with Dan Tobin, EDC’s director of communications.
Active vs. Passive Learning
In your discussion of the difference between neat and messy history, you talk about the ways that the new media can help students become more active learners. As I read that, it struck me that a lot of people—including educators—believe that new media like television and even computers make students more passive. Here’s an argument I hear from a lot of parents and educators: Kids have a shortened attention span because of video games and TV. They are passive recipients of popular culture, and we are watering down the curriculum by adding in new media to cater to their short attention spans. We’ve sacrificed rigor in order to engage kids.
CB: Have you ever played a video game? Do you know how long kids have to concentrate to win? That argument seems to me about two generations behind the eight ball. All the television research of the past three or four decades indicates that kids, like adults, are active participants in these media. They are actively constructing meaning as they participate with television, video games, etc.
BT: I agree, but I also think we have to contend with parents’ concerns about the new media. There is a lot of dreck out there… . Parents and teachers are upset about the competition they feel from the mass media, such as kids’ involvement with Pokemon. They want to keep it out of the school, because they feel it infects this world of learning. They perceive it, perhaps correctly, as a threat to the way learning and teaching have been organized. They draw a marker between what’s educational and what’s not.
As the father of a 6-year-old son who is learning to read through Pokemon cards, I guess I don’t draw the same boundary. I think the intellectual work he is doing to make sense of Pokemon cards will help him make sense of other media as well—including books. What do you find in your research? Are the skills involved with making meaning of a video game, a photograph, or a television program transferable to the critical skills that come from deep engagement with a written text?
CB: We don’t know enough to make those kinds of comparisons. Some people have had their lives changed by something they’ve read, and that carries over to how they engage with other media. Others can read until they’re blue in the face and never learn to think critically about books, television programs, or anything else. It’s not the medium that makes the difference.
BT: We should be involving kids with images and animations not because they are “easier” media, but because that’s where many kids start. Begin with the literacies kids bring to the classroom. And then work to develop those literacies further. At the same time, teachers need to be ever conscious about the fact that one of the key goals is to induct all kids—especially those who don’t come from highly literate, middle-class families—into the dominant culture of print literacy. Because print literacy has power in people’s lives. The problem with a lot of school practices is that they define literacy too narrowly—at the level of simply decoding letters or numbers. Literacy needs to be connected to two ideas: literacy as practice and literacy as discourse. Socioculturalists stress that the goal of literacy in practice is to develop an active meaning-making capacity—so that it is possible to be transformed by something we encounter. Every medium, every endeavor—from Pokemon cards to poetry—has its own sets of codes and conventions. You have to become literate in those codes and conventions in order to make sense of, and be transformed by, any medium. And that kind of literacy comes from being part of a discourse community in which you share knowledge and learn how to gain more knowledge from the medium.
And what about the transition from one literacy to another?
BT: I do think there is transfer from print literacy. If you develop a relatively high level of literacy in print, those capacities can be transferred over to other media. I also think there is a class element that we need to pay attention to. Many middle-class families teach their kids from a young age to respond actively to books, and those same families are probably doing something similar when they watch television or use computers with their kids. They tend to constantly reinforce the message that we are active responders to media; we can ask questions, and we can talk about anything we see.
What Is Evidence?
CB: But it’s not just about being active. It is the fact that you are looking for evidence and then making evidence-based responses. You can be very active and very passionate in your response to media without ever being critical. In our culture, civilized discourse means evidence-based discourse; we look down on opinions based on emotional responses. The problem is that the kinds of responses we [educators] value are very closely defined by class. When responses aren’t articulated in the valued way, we don’t consider them evidence-based. We put some kids at a disadvantage by not understanding that what they are talking about is, in fact, evidence. I think that problem is exacerbated by the new media. Kids are bringing in examples that their teachers don’t understand.
So you’re saying that these kids may be using excellent intellectual processes but the teacher doesn’t recognize the evidence as evidence.
CB: There are times in a classroom when kids are making interesting allusions and comparisons, and the teachers are unacquainted with the references—which may come from video games or rap music, or whatever. In many cases, their first reaction is to malign the unfamiliar reference, rather than saying, ‘That’s interesting, tell me more. What are you actually talking about?’
We have to help teachers draw parallels and connections between the materials they are used to teaching and the ones students are bringing into the classroom. You don’t have to know all the rap songs out there in order to recognize that rap has some relation to poetry. You can have interesting conversations about what is permissible and what isn’t. But you have to respect rap as an art form. You have to understand that kids aren’t just stringing random words together. Rap has a purpose, and it has its own codes and conventions.
Finding Emerging Patterns in the Messiness
BT: Let me give you an example that illustrates some new ways to think about evidence and drawing conclusions. We’ve been designing a multimedia project that brings together two groups with different goals: One is a group of New York City teachers working on literacy and the writing process. They are interested in writing as a recursive act—helping an individual understand his or her own subjective view and, at the same time, make sense of the world. The other group is low-income urban teens interested in community study through video. We’re sending the groups out with video and digital cameras to grab images and interview people in their community about a particular theme. Then they come back and scan the material into a composition space we’ve created on the Web where you can begin to look at the patterns that emerge in those images.
In the composition space, students and teachers explore the material and make connections. They may create linear meaning of what they’ve experienced with annotations of images or audio. Or perhaps they create a juxtaposition between two startling images, or a slide show of images. Kids also create branches to one another’s essays about the same neighborhood. So they are beginning to see connections, and they are beginning to see their own peers and their community as resources. It’s about grounding inquiry in the multiple sources of knowledge within their own experience and communities, rather than just relying on the official sources of information.
CB: Most teachers still think there are two sides to every story: a right one and a wrong one. Sometimes it’s not clear which one is right and which one is wrong, and that can lead to an interesting discussion. But essentially that’s the model. The kind of connection that Bill is talking about leads toward a different image of the classroom. One manifestation could be a set of interesting thoughts that kids have—associations they make as they meander through their classmates’ work. Many teachers will tend toward a more linear and categorical organization—such as all of these have to do with signs, these with houses, these with street scenes, etc.
The point is to help teachers view these visual images as data and then to search for many kinds of emerging patterns in the data. Even to many science teachers, the idea of looking for emerging patterns in data may be new. The idea of finding emerging patterns in images you’ve grabbed by running around with a digital camera is wild and woolly.
BT: Right. Most of the early classroom examples of multimedia projects featured a very watered- down notion of inquiry: You pose some questions, you gather them together, and you put them into a multimedia report. That’s not enough. You need to expand these assignments so that you make student thinking visible and shared—and so that you make room for rigorous, open-ended questions. We encourage teachers to have students write essays about their process: Why did they make the decisions they made? What problems did they grapple with? Why did they link two images or two ideas? What is the connection?
That’s one of the reasons we organized the book through disciplines. The disciplines—history, science, mathematics—provide powerful ways of understanding the world. The question is not, how do the media change teaching. The question is, how do social studies teachers or science teachers make use of the media. And it’s not just about knowing, it’s about doing. Students need to do history, to do science. Only from that standpoint does meaningful literacy occur.
Values in Conflict
What about the issue of values—the question of whether or not some of the new forms of evidence you alluded to earlier are appropriate material for the classroom?
CB: That’s the primary issue that confronts teachers in dealing with the new media. When teachers choose materials, they know where to go to find books and handouts that didn’t raise the problem of values—materials that avoided the big controversies within their culture. We all know the difference between reading a magazine at the checkout counter and reading a textbook or the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s harder to draw those distinctions with the new media; the gatekeeping process isn’t up and running yet. And these new media do contain controversial information, and that information is now easily available to students… . And when teachers run up against controversial stuff, they feel they have to silence the conversation.
What are the values that are threatening to them, or to their students’ parents?
CB: We don’t assume that teachers or parents have a single set of values. What we emphasize is that there are values embedded in all productions, in all media, regardless of whether you are talking about a textbook or about a movie. We talk about how to tease out those values. That’s an interesting conversation. It can be exciting for teachers to realize that the new media have not yet been filtered in the way that scholars and textbook publishers have filtered most materials that wind up in schools. But the lack of filtering can also be very intimidating.
Is the filtering process good or bad?
CB: It’s both good and bad, but I’m most concerned about burdening the teachers by assuming that they should be able to figure all of this out. They are in a very difficult position, confronted with this vast universe of uncooked information. How they find their way out of that position depends on who they are. Teachers who lean toward constructivism have a field day finding good stuff. More traditional teachers have a different kind of issue they have to deal with. All of these teachers have to figure how to stretch the boundaries of the curriculum and the teaching methods that have been handed down to them for generations. They need to stretch those boundaries to encompass these new media in ways that are meaningful to them.
It sounds to me then that you are saying the pedagogy matters more than the medium or even the content.
CB: If these new media are going to produce anything revolutionary in education, it will be about pedagogy. I think it could actually make possible a new kind of pedagogy, because you have such a richness and diversity of materials at hand. That would make it possible to have kids engage in real inquiry, to arrive at different conclusions and different opinions, based on legitimate evidence about the same thing. But it will take an enormous effort to make that material actually accessible to hard-working teachers who don’t have a lot of time.
We also need to realize that the kind of learning Bill and I are describing is a relatively new kind of learning—constructivist learning as opposed to authoritative learning, which is traditionally the way most people have been taught. In authoritative learning, certain kinds of truths were handed down to you, and you lived your life according to them. That approach to education requires that you control access to information, because you need to maintain taboos and stay within the confines of what is permissible. Now, the impermissible is thrust into everyone’s face, and teachers are facing a new set of problems. How do you deal with these conflicting values and multiple cultures?
We need to give teachers more guidance on how to wrestle with all of these messy issues, as well as on how to make good use of these new media. That was the idea behind the book—to give teachers practical suggestions for sorting through all of this.
Originally published on June 22, 2006