Many people have asked me about standards for digital and media literacy and assessments that measure media literacy learning outcomes. At a recent meeting with Dutch educators, I had the opportunity to clarify my deep ambivalence on this subject, thanks to rich dialogue and discussion with Mary Berkhout, Paolo Moekotte, Allard Strijker, Freek Zwanenberg, Eugenie Zwanenburg, and others. Discussion of cross-national trends in digital and media literacy helps to clarify my thinking about curriculum standards and assessment in relation to my work as an educator, activist and researcher.
What are the curriculum standards for digital and media literacy in the United States?
Because Dutch educators themselves are now proposing new curriculum standards for digital literacy that would make it a compulsory part of Dutch education in elementary and secondary schools, this topic is important to them. It’s a huge effort to develop curriculum standards, of course. In the 1990s, I participated in work designed to bring “viewing and representing” to the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum in Massachusetts by supporting the efforts of teachers who sat on committees responsible for drafting these documents. By 1998, explicit language designed to help students learn how to critically analyze and create media was present in many of the ELA standards across the 50 states, including the State of Texas. In 2003, I developed a way to measure media literacy analysis competencies that involved students demonstrating their ability to critically analyze news and advertising in print, visual and audio formats. I had imagined that such assessments could be the basis of a new type of test that would ensure that students experienced growth in their ability to critically analyze the media texts of everyday life, including news and advertising. In 2007, when a group of business leaders funded the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, I had hopes that media literacy could be advanced through this partnership. It brought together a variety of education reformers to advocate for a new approach to teaching and learning that emphasized the need for schools to be more relevant to life. Global awareness, financial literacy, creativity, critical thinking about media, and technology skills and the soft skills of collaboration, initiative and self-direction were emphasized. It seemed like media literacy had a place in this coalition.
Some states have embraced media literacy as part of ELA education. In Minnesota, standards include explicit reference to media literacy in items like this (from Grade 8):
- Critically analyze the messages and points of view employed in different media (e.g., advertising, news programs, websites, video games, blogs, documentaries).
- Analyze design elements of various kinds of media productions to observe that media messages are constructed for a specific purpose
- Analyze media for purpose, message, accuracy, bias, and intended audience and gain understanding that media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.
- As an individual or in collaboration, create a persuasive multimedia work or a piece of digital communication or contribute to an online collaboration for a specific purpose. Demonstrate a developmentally appropriate understanding of copyright, attribution, principles of Fair Use, Creative Commons licenses and the effect of genre on conventions of attribution and citation. Publish the work and share with an audience.
But this momentum was soon wiped out by a group of state education leaders, sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). In their quest to establish consistency between state standards, they created the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) (Polleck & Jeffery, 2017). These standards for ELA and Math made only slender mention of media and technology. While some optimists hoped that CCSS would strengthen media literacy education through an emphasis on the use of reasoning and evidence, the CCSS legacy is more complex. In states like Massachusetts, all the language of “viewing and representing” is gone, replaced by a media literacy standard (like this one from Grade 7 ELA) that states: “Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium’s portrayal of the subject.” Teachers may read this as “Read the book, watch the movie.” How sad.
I believe that the Common Core State Standards have pushed media literacy even further to the margins of the curriculum, explicitly limiting the critical analysis of media and popular culture in English language arts by defining “text complexity” and “close reading” in ways that make it difficult for teachers to include the systematic study of popular culture or persuasive texts including advertising and propaganda.
Assessment giants including Pearson and McGraw Hill have received millions in government funding to create tests that align with CCSS, and school districts and states now publish test score results in ways that promote harmful competition and trigger a mania for test preparation. This awful competition has led to the diminishment of Civics and Social Studies education as well, because it is not tested.
Today, it’s a hot mess of competition, with all manner of groups advancing standards as part of a political process for education reform. Many different stakeholders are participating in the process (including educators and librarians) but the standards that get attention are the well-funded ones that involve members of the business community, like the Alliance for Excellent Education, which sponsors the Future Ready Framework. The ed tech community has included digital and media literacy competencies in the ISTE standards for students, where learners are expected to: “locate, organize, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and ethically use information from a variety of sources and media” and “communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of media and formats.”
A group of civic organizations created the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) framework for social studies state standards, which has little reference to the knowledge and skills for analyzing media as a force in contemporary cultural life. However, in Grade 8 students are expected to: use print and oral technologies (e.g., posters, essays, letters, debates, speeches, reports, and maps) and digital technologies (e.g., Internet, social media, and digital documentary) to share information with different audiences inside and outside the school. Similarly, in the Next Generation Science Standards, students should “make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.” There is no reference to how people’s ideas about science may be shaped by the representations of science in science fiction media or entertainment. There is no focus on helping learners learn how to critically read and analyze science journalism.
Funding from the technology industry and government enabled the creation of standards to integrate computer science into the elementary and secondary curriculum. Mozilla worked with educators to create a set of web literacy standards. The rise of computational thinking practices in education has advanced with robust support from the technology business community. Many states have since included digital literacy and computer science standards that include computational thinking, the ability to analyze and represent data, understand how the Internet functions, and grasp how computing impacts people and society (Gretter & Yadav, 2016). Less well funded and well-known is the efforts of a group of artists and art educators who created the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards after a 3-year process which encompassed massive outreach to the field, ensuring that these standards were created for educators by educators. Their standards were designed to improve curriculum, instruction and assessment in music, art, dance and media arts education. Even less well known are the information literacy standards created by the American Association of School Librarians, who developed a detailed list of competencies for students and teacher-librarians.
When people ask me about my favorite curriculum standards for digital and media literacy, I point to the brilliant work developed by the Association of College and Research Libraries, whose Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education is a model that appreciates the value of interconnected core concepts that can drive the choices made by educators. The frameworks approach is vastly superior to the impossibly long, incoherent strings of learning outcome items present in most curriculum standards. In my view, six frameworks presented here reflect and embody some of the core ideas and values of digital and media literacy education. Librarians at Virginia Tech have built on these ideas to develop a comprehensive model of digital literacy. These approaches, while aimed at post-secondary educators, can be effectively explored by elementary and secondary teachers as well. They encourage educators to see the big picture when it comes to the point of teaching and learning.
How do educators make sense of all the different curriculum standards?
Teachers balance the need for accountability and relevance when determining what and how to teach. Teachers generally align their instructional practices with the high-stakes tests that are valued in their communities, or risk losing their job. But teachers generally resent the pressure of “teaching to the test.” Many of the standards measured on the test are not as valuable as the unmeasured standards that include soft skills of collaboration, problem-solving, creativity and communication (Drake & Burns, 2004).
Teachers who value digital and media literacy often pick and choose from a variety of different standards as they select and develop lessons and learning activities. This is precisely why professional development programs, conferences and professional associations are so valuable to teachers. In these face-to-face encounters with their peers, teachers get a chance to reflect on the the value and impact of their choices and strategies. As they gain new knowledge and share ideas, this can widen their repertoire of instructional practices and deepen responsiveness to the learners they support.
Indeed, in many American schools, there is a substantial value on teacher professionalism and autonomy that involves teachers taking responsibility for unpacking the standards and figuring out how to engage learners in classroom work that results in increased knowledge, skills and competencies. As one writer puts it, “It takes an educated eye to read and interpret the standards in a way that leads to relevant curriculum. Internal alignment is an iterative process” (Drake & Burns, 2004, p. 1). In some schools, educators have used curriculum mapping to develop a scope and sequence for integrating digital and media literacy concepts into the curriculum. Such initiatives often involve the support of curriculum consultants and experts like Rhys Daunic of the The Media Spot, whose work in integrating media literacy into the K-8 curriculum using scope and sequence templates is impressive.
Sadly, however, in some American schools, teachers are not trusted with the work of aligning standards to instructional practices. Instead, digital learning platforms like Summit Learning rely on personalized learning algorithms to generate a scope and sequence of learning activities for individual learners. The online platform is backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy and is now being used in hundreds of schools across the U.S.
Because American public education is the result of an intensely political process, change is a constant. In some communities, parent groups have developed to protest the use of Summit Learning in their school districts. In other communities, students have staged walkouts to protest the program. After school leaders introduced personalized learning in their schools, a grassroots group who call themselves We the Parents gathered to develop reasons why they believe that computer-centric approaches to teaching and learning are harming their children. This kind of pressure can be very effective. As a former elected public official, serving on the school committee in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts, I celebrate the ways that local control of schools is the hallmark feature of American public education. I wish that more people in more communities realized the power they have to shape what happens in schools.
In reflecting on curriculum standards and assessment, it is clear that education is a competitive marketplace with a give-and-take dynamic that is rooted in the powerful localism of public education. More than15,000 communities serve as little laboratories of experimentation on “what works” in education. But I am also aware that with all the diverse stakeholders for education reform, those with the largest megaphones have the ability to influence what parents and communities believe is best for their children. The rise of Google in Education is a hallmark example. Google is so loved and trusted that their products and services have become deeply integrated in American public schools, as few educators seem concerned about why Google is offering all its education products and services for free. Similarly, Facebook offers a library of Digital Literacy lessons but not a single lesson helps learners understand the economics of digital platforms. The field of education is now being used by the tech industry as a means to advance a surveillance society. This is why I am so interested in helping people to identity, critically analyze, and resist the many new forms of education propaganda that are part of our culture today.
Accustomed as they are to strong government control over schooling, Europeans may be surprised at the diversity of approaches used in teaching and learning in the United States, with the squabbles, competitiveness and chaos of it all. But the U.S. education landscape also represents the values of liberty, freedom and personal responsibility that also create opportunities for citizens and parents (not experts, authorities or wealthy philanthropies) to have an influence in “what counts” for their children’s future.
Drake, S. & Burns, R. (2004). Meeting standards through integrated curriculum. Alexandria VA: ASCD.
Gretter, S., & Yadav, A. (2016). Computational thinking and media & information literacy: An integrated approach to teaching twenty-first century skills. TechTrends, 60(5), 510-516.
Polleck, Jody N, and Jill V Jeffery (2017). Common Core Standards and their impact on standardized test design: A New York case study. The High School Journal 101(1), 1-26.
National Coalition for Core Arts Standards, (2017). About Us. Retrieved from https://www.nationalartsstandards.org/content/faq