The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Five)

Tessa:   I like kicking the tires with you.  And I appreciate your independence of thought and your creativity, both hallmarks of a top R&D approach.  I’m happy to do potato salad and barbecue with you anytime!!  You have always been a man of your word and you have truly worked toward mutual understanding and lived your outreach and support for the media literacy field.

I confess, I am still challenging myself (and you) to think more about representation.  I take your points but I am thinking, thinking….for example, with your abstract art and lightbulb examples from earlier comments:  I don’t believe there is any “pure information,” as McLuhan characterized it.  Constructions always come from somewhere or from someone, and that automatically implies choices by the constructor on what to share or what not to share, what color to make the painting or the light…these decisions are driven by past experience or emotion or whatever intent there may be since there is always context to decisions.  The final product — the art or the lightbulb — is a construction based on these decisions and representative of these decisions. And there is context around the construction that affects the audience’s perceptions about the construction itself.  So for example, the lightbulb has shape and color and we may look at a single bare lightbulb hanging in a room from the ceiling very differently than we may look at a cluster of lightbulbs flashing and spinning like a disco ball from the ’80’s.

But neither do I think that the intent behind construction needs to be cynical or purely transactional just because there is no “pure information.”   I embrace the idea of a gift economy (digital or not) that you raised, and I illustrate this, ironically, with the idea behind MasterCard commercials that distinguish between the dollar value of a bicycle and the priceless value of parents riding bicycles with their children. Profit and power (with the word power used in the sense of having agency and a worldview, ideology or influence)  in themselves have no value. It is in the application and points of view around profit and power that individuals and society value them as beneficial or not. A case in point might be a Facebook campaign designed to encourage people to ride bicycles in a charity fundraiser to help eradicate breast cancer.  A beneficial use of profit and power, right?  But this entire scenario earns a different value if the Facebook page is a fraud, which represents a different author’s intent. Cynicism assumes the worst; our goal is to encourage skepticism through questioning.

I digress.  These are topics for the barbecue.  On the Core Concepts:  thank heavens you wish to uphold them and amend them in your own words and continue to refresh them rather than upend them!  (I like what you said about questioning them and we agree on that, too.)  I totally enjoyed your commentary on the Core Concepts because you have a broad and deep understanding of media literacy and it shows.  And though you see why I lamented that the Core Concepts weren’t included in your 2006 white paper, I want to emphasize that your 2006 white paper is a gift to our field, and we both agree that we need a paradigm shift in education (built on strong foundations).    This is why I am delighted that the Aspen Institute published an important policy report this year called Learner at the Center of a Networked World. This report calls for media and social/emotional literacies to be at the center of our education system — the paradigm shift that we have both been calling for.

And I totally understand your bristling at the idea that the Core Concepts and questions have taken on a “one true way” dogma.  Independence of mind is what the Core Concepts help inspire; I do NOT take issue with questioning.  In fact, what you cited in the your 2006 white paper was CML’s Five Key Questions for Deconstruction, that were designed in 2002 to introduce a pedagogy which is useful in teaching but not immutable or comprehensive.  The Questions pose a way to learn to apply the Concepts through a process of inquiry.  There are LOTS of questions that should be asked — but the Five Key Questions are a thoughtful way to begin inquiring.  In 2006, CML had not yet developed its Five Key Questions for Construction/Production, and so rightfully, a critique of the Deconstruction Questions in the 2006 report was that they were passive and  geared toward media consumption only.  Thank you!  This critique was helpful and CML now has an updated framework (developed in 2007) for critical analysis and inquiry based on the Five Core Concepts called Questions/TIPS (Q/TIPS):

Q_TIPS screenshot


Q/TIPS can be applied anywhere and anytime, to any content or any academic subject. Q/TIPS can be applied to construction projects or to any media message – digital or not — and in CML’s experience, students are highly engaged in the process.   Like having students bounce balls to learn about physics, students can undertake projects, and identify, label and learn the Concepts/Questions as they construct their projects or interact. In this way, students learn process skills experientially while they also acquire vocabulary for common understanding about media literacy.  Practicing over time helps students internalize the process and to be able to quickly apply the framework to analyze and evaluate their work and that of others, looking at both the construct itself and at the context surrounding it. “Content, in Media Education, is a means to an end.  That end is the development of transferable analytical tools rather than an alternative content,”  Masterman advised. Now, along with the theory and skills called for in your white paper, media literacy offers empowerment for people  on a scale that has never truly been available before, since our education system has focused primarily on content knowledge in a print-based world.

You mentioned that “to be scalable and sustainable we need to move beyond the culture of early adopters/adapters and reach teachers who will need more basic materials, more fully developed practices, in order to bring these ideas into their classrooms.”   We have long struggled with the issue of bringing the theory to the people in a way that is accessible, adoptable, sustainable and measurable in the education system, while still being credible theoretically.  This is why I have said that the Core Concepts are a base for understanding theory and the the Key Questions are a pedagogical practice. We want teachers to see that yes, they CAN get started to teach media literacy.  Q/TIPS is one of many approaches.   But in providing education resources and teacher training that can be replicated and scaled at the level we need, issues of consistency inevitably arise, because while we are trying to encourage understanding and training, we are also trying to measure effectiveness, and to increase vocabulary and communication on media literacy — globally.

While I realize that the theory is always evolving — and that is a positive!  — we also need some stability in how we approach media literacy theory in teacher training and program implementation. Otherwise we can never gain any traction to be able to scale, and we are always starting over again in trying to sustain media literacy basics into the pre-K 12 system. You mentioned that “CML’s Core Concepts and especially the Key Questions provide a framework that can serve as a template for designing classroom activities,” and I can say that we developed this framework with exactly that approach in mind.  I also must note that Q/TIPS is only one element of CML’s approach to media literacy, but it’s fair to say that it is central to our work, along with what we call the Empowerment Spiral of Awareness, Analysis, Reflection and Action.  And  I see no conflict whatsoever in joining your work with ours.   We welcome opportunities to work together and partner. 

There are rays of hope in the education world for media literacy’s being more accepted and understood.  The Common Core State Standards are hospitable to media literacy education.  National organizations such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards have called for media literacy education.  Reports such as the Horizon K-12 Report and the Future Workskills 2020 Report cite media literacy as important, and of course, the new Aspen Institute report I already mentioned, Learners at the Center of a Networked World, is outstanding. The more that media literacy is is cited as part of public policy initiatives, the better.

Our challenges are to continue the R&D,  and to explore the new horizons that are continuing to open up, while at the same time institutionalizing media literacy education.  It is my hope that our field can agree on some fundamentals and continue to fill in the substantial existing gaps so that we have a firm foundation for making progress with our education system.   Clearly, these explorations and conversations are essential for securing media literacy for future generations. Thank you for all you do, Henry.


Henry: Back at you, Tessa. I really loved discovering that you had taken some of the critiques in the white paper and used them to expand/retool your core questions. This is the kind of back and forth between research and practice that we’ve been talking about.

There is probably an interesting conversation the field should be having about how what we call participation may be more than consumption plus production or what it might mean to think about production as a collective rather than personal practice, but I think the recognition that today, in many cases, we are producers of the messages being discussed rather than consumers is an important step in the right direction.


In any case, I should have clarified much earlier in this conversation: we still live in a world where media produced by others exerts a very strong influence on our lives; Broadcast media institutions and practice still shape the media environment and we need to critically engage with their products now as we should have all along. But, we look at those products differently in a networked culture where we collectively have an expanded communication capacity including some ability to shape media production and circulation and some ability to push our concerns into a larger, many-to-many conversation. We look at them not as fixed texts, but as something to which we may respond, something we may appropriate and remix, something we might need to challenge and disrupt, etc.

 And notions of construction (and the choices and constraints that it implies) remain core to what it means to be media literate in this world. See, for example, Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Networks: “What institutions and decisions are considered ‘legitimate’ and worthy of compliance or participation, what courses of action are attractive, what forms of interaction with others are considered appropriate — these are all understandings negotiated from within a set of shared frames of meaning.” or consider Chris Kelty in The Participatory Culture Handbook, “‘Participating’ in Facebook is not the same thing as participating in a Free Software project, to say nothing of participating in the democratic governance of a state. If there are indeed different ‘participatory cultures’ then the work of explaining their differences must be done by thinking concretely about the practices, tools, ideologies, and technologies that make them up. Participation is about power, and, no matter how ‘open’ a platform is, participation will reach a limit circumscribing power and its distribution.” And so, a model grounded in participation requires an informed and literate community: neither Benkler nor Kelty is explicitly advocating for media literacy, but for me, these arguments make media literacy a central element in any effective system for educating future citizens.

Now, back to the debate about representation. This last go around produced an “Ah Ha!” moment for me. I think part of the problem here is that neither of us are defining our terms and thus we are speaking past each other. So, a little time with a dictionary suggests where some of the confusion may be coming from. I am drawing on representation, first and foremost, to refer to a specific set of functions media may perform having to do with the depiction — the re-presentation — of something that exists in the world. This draws on such preferred definitions as “a painting, sculpture, etc., that is created to look like a particular thing or person” or “an artistic likeness or image.” So, an abstract painting by definition does not depend on its “likeness” to anything that exists in the world and a lightbulb is defined by what it does, perhaps what it allows us to see, but not by what it depicts — at least in most cases.

I also noted that the term representation has a political meaning and that the power of representation in media literacy, for me, has to do with the blurring boundaries between the two: when we depict a group, often in a stereotypical fashion, through media, we exert political effects because we impact the ways they are perceived by others, we shape what this group stands for, and so we are always locked in a struggle over representation. Representation, thus, is never simply about depiction or likeness; it always carries connotative meanings which need to be critiqued if we are going to understand the meaning or effects of a media message. Indeed, it is this layer which makes it a message in the first place.

I am not a hundred percent clear on how you are using this term, but my sense is that you are adopting a more expansive definition, such as this one from my dictionary, “something (such as a picture or symbol) that stands for something else.” This is what I might call signification, which is a much broader concept than representation in the ways I am using the word.  By that definition, you are right that an abstract painting could “stand for” the state of mind of the artist, even if it does not offer a “likeness” of anything that exists in the world.

So, if you told me that Media Literacy always involved construction and signification, we might come closer to agreement, where-as I would want to insist that there are many other functions that media can perform that are not best described in terms of producing a likeness. In many cases, representation is an appropriate word in either sense, but not always, and I am often interested in those functions of media that are not reducible to representation in that sense.

This is a great example of how lack of communication can create friction between different groups which are working for the same cause. As we shift between theoretical traditions, we often end up using the same words to mean different things, and so we read statements outside of their original meaning or context. I am hoping that a more open exchange between ML and DML researchers might diminish some of the misunderstandings and mutual misperceptions which exist between them. I think we’ve made a great start with this conversation, and I hope we can find other ways to expand the discussion in the future.


Tessa:  A start for sure!  Although I note that such conversations really start with attitudes of openness and mutual respect and the sense of common purpose that you noted earlier. The intellectual pursuit of knowledge is always exciting, but we must have common ground, emotionally and knowledge-wise, to communicate.

I agree with your AHA! moment — our vocabulary stands in the way sometimes.  Yes, I use representation in a very broad sense. Your word “signification” is an excellent one and more descriptive of the situation we were describing with the lightbulb, for example. I embrace signification!  But there’s another aspect at work here: there are different purposes behind using different vocabulary words.  A researcher may need to be precise to the nth degree; a practitioner may need to be only as precise as the situation calls for in introducing and then expanding on and exploring a concept or idea. Kindergartners may require a different vocabulary than high school students. Expandable words like representation, which can be interpreted from a more concrete level to a more conceptual level, are very useful words in an educational setting. Ultimately, for those who wish to push the boundaries of an exploration, expandable words lead to other more precise words. (Thank you for turning to a dictionary!)

And yes, I agree that we are sometimes using the same words for other things. The word mashup comes to mind:  some people may call a mashup making a collage, or some people may call it scrapbooking.  What is different here? And how important is it?   And so we confront the slippery slope — but in most cases, it is the effort of trying to confront together that is what counts, because we are aiming toward a higher purpose.

It is in this spirit that the field should definitely have the conversation you suggested about “what we call participation may be more than consumption plus production, or what it might mean to think about production as a collective rather than a personal practice.” You have been raising those questions and they are highly important ones.  And when we say field, we are saying BOTH the ML and DML communities, which I believe are the same overall community with the same overall purpose: media literacy education.  My mind is racing with ideas and and I am fueled with enthusiasm as I think about coming conversations for the field. I will only note that the reduction in cycle times between information exchanges has revolutionized the world we know, which has given us the urgency so needed to propel media literacy forward. Thanks to technology, we the people have more power, and our challenge is to exercise it wisely.

An informed and literate community is the basis for finding this wisdom, as you said.  And we can’t say it often enough:  media literacy is a central element in any effective system for educating future citizens.  I welcome working together towards this global imperative!




Tessa Jolls is President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, a position she has held since 1999. She also founded the Consortium for Media Literacy, a nonprofit which provides research and a monthly newsletter publication. During her tenure at CML, she restructured the organization to focus, grow and change, preparing to meet the demand for an expanded vision of literacy for the 21st Century. Her primary focus is working in partnership to demonstrate how media literacy works through school and community-based implementation programs.