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2000, Darren Alexander
(Creative Commons) 2010, Darren Alexander

Abstract: The intentions of this paper are as follows:
1. To highlight the need for and value of critical media literacy education.
2. To propose, by way of contribution, the development of a pedagogy for those educators and
advocates who will develop and share such skills.
3. To re-assert (what many others have said before me) that cultural groundwork is an essential
intermediary stage toward humanely progressive societal change.
4. To emphasize the need for the increased development and organization of independent media
operators, centres, networks and cultural workers, to support the development, production, and
distribution of such work.

I will not in this paper make an argument against the extreme and obscene nature of capitalism
(or corporatism, as John Ralston Saul calls it) as the currently predominate global force in terms
of socio-economic policy and its resultant anti-democratic and exploitative effects on media,
culture, and society. These themes have been thoroughly and successfully managed by many
others before me. Instead I ask that that position be assumed throughout, and further that the
reader make a clear distinction between the media that is corporate and profit-driven (what is
typically referred to as the mass media) and other forms of independently produced media. That is
a good first step toward any critical media literacy education, and I will expand on this distinction
further in the pages ahead.
I will begin by spelling out the necessary terms of reference. As mentioned above, I will do so not
by defining the terms so much as putting them forward, and placing them into some (hopefully)
relevant context. Thus, by way of association and reference to the ideas and definitions of others I
hope that the reader may assemble for him or herself the pertinent meanings, as they relate to my

Critical Media Literacy: Getting at the meaning

Defining Media:
No dictionary definitions herethey would only serve to exacerbate the difficulties in arriving at
the gist of a term that is so layered with meaning as media is today. Besides, its not so much a
concise definition thats required as it is a useful one. So I will try here to define the term by
selecting the essential features from that spectrum of priori definitions:
Media, as the derivative apparatus of Communications, refers to the variety of modalities
used to convey meaningful information.
Media, therefore, are features of communication which act simultaneously as
transmission/distribution systems as well as being content providers. The more obvious
modalities, or media, would include the following:
Radio (transmission of oral content);
Print (newspapers, magazines, etc. for the transmission of print/visual content);
Film/video and digital multimedia forms, including the internet and CDs/DVDs etc. (which
convey a combination of sensorial content). Likewise, analog forms such as cassette tapes and
phonograph records may be construed as sound media.
The not-so-obvious modalities of media require a slight abstraction from the typical forms noted
above. A lecturer in action at a podium might be considered a medium, for example, as she
conveys meaningful content (orally, perhaps with the aid of other media) to students and others in
the hall.
To abstract the definition further still, the lecture hall itself may be considered a medium, for it is
a modality (or space) in which the transfer of meaningful information takes place. In this
definition we arrive most closely at one essential of communications theory posited by scholars
such as Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, namely that an environmental situation may pose as
a medium for communication. It is through this assertion that we arrive at the potential for
invisibility of media or a medium, the way McLuhan suggested that a fish is likely unaware of
the water it swims in, its taken-for-granted environment.

Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

Defining Critical:
Why critical media literacy? First, because the phrase media literacy on its own is often used in
reference to a fluency in the technical skills involved in the use of media resources (cameras,
computers, etc.), as opposed to getting at a critical understanding of their roles and implications.
So it helps to discern between the two. That said, I should acknowledge here that Neil Postman
and many others do indeed use the phrase media literacy with the implied critical connotation.
But there are divergent opinions as to how radical an educational process media literacy should
be. For instance, some would contend that media literacy be applied to make better consumer
choices, or to enhance media appreciation. Not to get bogged down in contradictions of terms, but
the addition of critical makes it clear, I believe, that media literacy is fundamentally about
power relations. (Jay Dover and Viveca Greene, The Media Literacy Antidote, from We the
Second, because the phrase critical literacy is already in popular use, referring to a progressive
literacy model which aims to provide the reader of any text with the skills to understand (often
through deconstruction methods) the implications, agendas, or biases attached.
And third, because critical attention to media is essential when the means and construction of
expression are concentrated among large corporations. Why? Because the resultant implications
shape the way we perceive ourselves and our world reality. Wittgenstein and other philosophers
have long pointed to the power of language to shape our realities. And in his essay A Cultural
Approach to Communication, James Carey notes how reality is brought into existence, is
produced, by communicationby, in short, the construction, apprehension, and utilization of
symbolic forms (p.25, Communication as Culture) It is the corporate mass media that is today
largely responsible for constructing and communicating such forms.

Defining Literacy:
As mentioned above, literacy is already predisposed to associations with media (as in media
literacy) and critical (as in critical literacy). I especially like the term for its inherent connections
with the old school literacies, namely reading, writing, and arithmetic. Such literacies are
considered essential components to early educational curriculums everywhere, and the lack
thereof considered detrimental to the potential welfare of the society at large. I suggest that the
new school literacy, ie. critical media literacy, be considered equally essential given the value of
such literacy today.
Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

Media and Culture: the Connection

Media is responsible, in a large part, for mediating our culture.

Were being told that the only thing that matters is the
marketplace, that things that matter to us as citizens and as a
nation are less valuable than the business elites right to
unfettered corporate profits. The media have played a big role in
selling us this idea.
(Gail Lem, from Media Think: Corporate ownership threatens
democracy, in Canadian Perspectives, Summer 1997)
In fact, it would appear that a capitalist driven system of communications and media works with
an effort to support, maintain and progress what might be called a capitalist culture, using the
mass media (and educational systems, as expanded on below) to indoctrinate the participants.
The result is what Baudrillard refers to as the Lowest Common Culture. Friere calls it the culture
of silence, referring to the lack of Subjective involvement and participation in shaping our culture.
Heres how Marshall McLuhan foresaw the development, more than forty years before the world
would witness the mega-mergers of the worlds largest corporations (such as AOL and Warner),
corporations founded on media:

We are swiftly moving at present from an era when business was

our culture into an era when culture will be our business.
Between these poles stand the huge and ambiguous
entertainment industries. As the new media unfold their powers,
the entertainment industries swallow more and more of the old
business culture. The movie industry is thus an inseparable
portion of the advertising industry in providing the necessary
drama of consumption, in which the ads merely provide the
(from an unpublished essay, 1957, printed in On
Clearly, the mass media serves primarily as trumpeters for those in power. Their messages
suggest that the current culture of production (via disassociated work, as opposed to, say,
meaningful and creative labour) and consumption (of fabricated and dictated desires, as opposed
to, say, sustainable needs) is somehow what we asked for. Via delivery mediums which in the end
dictate public opinion and public policy, mediums such as the mass media and both public
and private educational systems, we citizen-consumers have been hoodwinked into playing our
Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

lives by the corporate rules. Programmed into conformity, most of us are complicit in corporate
culture, whether we like it or not. It is, after all, like the water is to the fish, the medium in which
we live and function.
We must acknowledge that our mainstream modes of communication have been so close to
completely co-opted to date as to render them virtually useless as channels to promote a critical
literacy of the sort that will promote an awakening out of that culture of silence of which Friere
wrote (more on this in Section II), and to become active participants for a cultural revolution. One
thing all of these media have in common is that, by their very nature or modality, they are telling
us how to proceed within the capitalist context, i.e. as consumers (for instance: a book is a
commodity, to be bought or sold). It is likely, as Baudrillard and others have suggested, that the
reception (and digestion) of the commodified media transmission (via print, tv, or other media)
itself becomes the action, thereby displacing the potential for any real (politically inclined)
action, that which is considered a prerequisite for change.
According to such suggestion, the content in any mass media becomes largely irrelevant. At least
so far as the potential for action is concerned. When somebody reads a newspaper, then, he is
typically not so much relating to the stories as he is participating in the act of reading a
newspaper. The same goes for a documentary on television or in the theatre. It becomes the
experience of seeing a film. It becomes a cultural activity, providing little inspiration or
motivation for political action or participation. Sure, some stories motivate a few to donate to a
cause, or to contribute some support or assistance towards a relief effort. But by and large their
meaning dissolves into a banal media bliss.
For that matter, there are those who have suggested that even so-called culturally progressive
(critical, independent ) media, or cultural work, can work likewise to dissipate the political
potential which many consider necessary for change. Radical activist and playwright Bertolt
Brecht, for instance, was concerned that political art would act as a sort of pressure release valve
for dissatisfaction and he was concerned that people would mentally and emotionally resolve
their political anxieties through culture, when the real resolution of these problems could only
happen by confronting power in the political realm. (Stephen Duncombe, Notes from
Underground, p. 190)
There can be no doubt, though, as to the inherent connection between culture and politics. In his
work on zines and the politics of alternative culture, Duncombe provides not only one of the
neater definitions for culture that Ive come across (and there are many) but he also identifies this
Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

Culture: artistic creation, is an expression of culture: tradition

and lived experience. Both the Culture that people enjoy and the
culture in which they are embedded provide them with ideas
about how things are and how they should be, or, more
accurately, with frameworks through which to interpret reality
and possiblity. Culture helps us account for the past, make sense
of the present, and imagine the future. This is why it is so deeply
political. (p.175)

An important distinction to make, then, as Duncombe relates, is that (c)ulture may be one of the
spaces where the struggle over ways of seeing, thinking, and being takes place, but it is not where
this struggle ends. (p.193) He refers to the work of revolutionary leader Antonio Gramsci (leader
of the first Italian Communist Party), and scholars of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural
Studies Birmingham (CCCS) who all suggested that counter-hegemonic cultures are prepolitical formations which provide the necessary but not sufficient condition for social change.
Thus it might be argued (as I will) that cultural work is valuable and essential for directly or
indirectly cultivating socio-political change.

Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

Media is Education

In the year 2000, the formal forms of Education and Mediathe products, the institutions, the
delivery systemsare virtually indistinguishable in form and content. Both (wherever it is that
one begins and the other ends) are typically products of private, corporate interests. Try to
identify the place where a text book or a film, on any subject whatsoever, stops being a product
and starts being an educational experience. A text book is a commodity. A classroom is a stage.
From all of these products and scenarios we are informed, exposed to the communication which
shapes our thoughts, our perceptions of reality and of ourselves.
Many scholars have previously exposed the oppressive interests that currently shape the formal
school environments and curriculums, at all levels, from the content of the texts and learning
materials through to the physical form and architectural design of the environments (Ivan Illych
in particular comes to mind). Further, it may be argued that most of our education, as that which
transforms or informs our culture, is informed via media other than formal classroom settings.
Marshall McLuhan was acutely aware of this phenomenon in the early years of television, as he
recognized its inevitable role, one way or the other, as a great educator:

I would suggest that if you were to put the TV in the classroom,

it would blow the classroom to bits...It would not be an
incidental teaching aid, it would simply alter the entire pattern
and procedures of the classroom, and create an altogether new
educational form. However, this has, in effect, happened since
TV is already the environmental force that is shaping the
awareness and outlook of children everywhere. It is already
doing this anyway, so whether it goes into the classroom or not
is really not a great issue.
(from Take Thirty, CBC Television, 1965, as quoted in On
If media is so crucially linked to education and, thus, our culture, essentially as an informant,
then it stands to reason that access to and mastery of the media is critical for the purpose of
education and cultural transformation. Hence the attention to media in this capacity.

Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

On Cultural Work

Maintaining the premises expressed above, namely a. the inherent symbiotic relationship between
media, education and culture, and b. that cultural development is a necessary precursor, an
intermediary stage, to more directed socio-political potential (for action, and change), it stands to
reason that those effecting or informing the culture are potentially contributors to that effect.
Combine that role with a sensibility (or a politic?) that is informed by an education in Critical
Media Literacy, and you have what I would call a Cultural Worker.
The role of the cultural worker then would be to apply critical media literacy skills to the
production of anything that might potentially contribute to or inform the culture. It is important to
note that in so doing, the cultural worker is supporting counter-hegemonic culture, either in
reaction against the dominant culture, or by promoting alternatives. These events or products or
productions typically relate to some form of media. Following is a list of just some of the
practical possibilities:
Courses and curricula, promotional materials and advertising, posters, banners, postcards, forums,
workshops, musicals, novels, poetry, parades, exhibits, festivals, cabarets, speaking tours, radio
and television programs, videos and films, cartoons, websites, chants and songs...these might all
be seen as the educational (or culture-informing) products of cultural workers. (Examples of
many of these can be seen in the Appendix, and will be referred to in Section II of this paper.)
Note that the contribution of cultural workers can vary and that the field calls on a variety of
skills and abilities: Educators, artists, organizers, administrators, researchers, skilled and
unskilled trades and laborers all figure into such work. Id like to point out here the source of
my original inspiration as relates to this contemporary concept of cultural worker. What follows
is the Mission Statement of an organization that is called the Syracuse Cultural Workers,
responsible for the production and distribution of everything from posters, calendars and daytimers to t-shirts, learning aids, and books (next page):

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Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy


and cultural organization founded in 1982. Our mission is to
help create a culture that honors diversity and celebrates
community; that inspires and nurtures justice, equality and
freedom; that respects our fragile Earth and all its beings;
that encourages and supports all forms of creative
We see cultural work as an essential part of and support for
political and economic change. Many of our materials celebrate
movements for social change and their leaders, thus helping to
legitimize history that is largely ignored or trivialized by
commercial media and school textbooks. SCW also helps to
unite socially concerned artists with a growing audience hungry
for meaningful work.
(from the SCW Tools for Change Catalogue, 1998-99, see
Appendix i)
On the one hand, the work of those cultural workers who perform quietly, simply, traditionally
(typically by the oral tradition) must not be underestimated in terms of its relevance and potential.
Some would argue in fact that that is the only way to truly affect culture. That said, to be effective
on a larger scale it would seem essential that cultural workers must have or gain access to media
production resources, facilities, networks, and distribution channels for their products. Thus a
case must be made, and an effort maintained, to support this end. (I will briefly revisit this theme
in my conclusion.)

Toward a pedagogy for cultural workers

Finally, in an effort to further the potential for such work, it is essential that those involved
continue to teach and to learn. The foundation must surely be an education in critical media
literacy. And I would suggest that such a literacy is informed mostly by one recurring and allimportant feature, one that, as mentioned in the SCW statement above, is typically (and
purposefully) omitted or censured from the stories we receive through commercial media: history.
By revisiting closely the theories and contemplations recorded by thinkers, doers and writers
who have come before, we fare a better chance of contributing more effectively as cultural
workers. After all, we have available to us the treatises, the products of intensive thought and
research, the efforts by those who made it their lives work to make some sense of our cultural
and societal macro patterns and potentialities, our political developments and reforms, our
technological and communications advances, and our capacities for teaching and learning and
transforming who we are, as individuals or in forms of larger communities or societies.
Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

In the next section I offer a summary exploration of several educational theorists who have
contributed largely, over the last few decades, to the latest ideas on how language ability is
achieved. It is an obvious arena, I think, for a pedagogical source of reference to inform critical
media literacy. After all, regardless of the modality or media, most of our education and
information is communicated by way of the word or some related text.
It opens with a quote from one of the foremost critical literacy educators of the century, Paulo

Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

Toward a Pedagogy for Cultural Work

As we attempt to analyze dialogue as a human phenomenon, we

discover something which is the essence of dialogue itself: the
word. But the word is more than just an instrument which makes
dialogue possible; accordingly, we must seek its constitutive
elements. Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection
and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed
even in partthe other immediately suffers. There is no true
word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true
word is to transform the world.
(from Paulo Frieres Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 75)
Educational theorists working in the latter half of this past century have made significant
contributions to our relationship with the word. They have sought, through diverse
methodologies, to contribute to our understanding of the word and the part it plays in our
perceptions of who we are. For language (be it through dialogue, or text, or any other medium) is,
for a large part, what we as humans use to define the entire range of our experience. It is no
wonder then that the learning of language has occupied the minds of so many of societys greatest
thinkers from across the disciplines, not just those working in the arena of education.
In the quote above, Paulo Friere, a revolutionary theorist and literacy educator, makes clear the
potency of the word as it relates to praxis. Friere defines praxis essentially as the transformation
of the word (or theory), with reflection, into work (or action). In his now infamous treatise,
Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he makes a strong case for praxis as a necessary factor for
revolutionary cultural action, that which can liberate the oppressed from systemic oppression:
The pedagogy of the oppressed, as a humanist and libertarian
pedagogy, has two distinct stages. In the first, the oppressed
unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit
themselves to its transformation. In the second stage, in which
the reality of oppression has already been transformed, this
pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a
pedagogy of all men in the process of permanent liberation.
(p. 40)
If praxis indeed begins with the word as Friere suggests, it is essential to pay close attention to
the contributions of those whose work has illuminated the magic of the word. With few
exceptions, those educational theorists and semioticians and linguists have pointed to one thing in
common: the socially transformative power of the word. It can be easy to overlook, inundated as
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Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

we are with texts representing a vast array of modalities, delivered by a plethora of mediums.
To get at the word is to get one step closer to an understanding, an empathetic relation, to what it
means to be human. The study of language, then, especially as it relates to education, inherently
contributes to the humanist tradition of Friere and other revolutionary theorists.
Thus, in the search for theory which can inform critical media literacy to transform society and
culture, it seems a practical choice to examine the theories of those whove dedicated their
intellectual pursuits to the understanding of how we interpret language and the word. I present
ahead a digest of several of those theorists, while seeking to make some connections between the
ideas (as they relate to education) and the praxis (as it relates to cultural work, quite similar in
concept to Frieres concept of revolutionary cultural action). Thus what follows might serve as a
contribution toward the pedagogical foundation for critical media literacy education.

Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

Frank Smith

Frank Smith is a psycholinguist whose contributions have had a great influence on the days
current concepts around literacy and education. His seminal work, Understanding Reading
(published in 1975), provided a reading theory that would lay the foundation for many subsequent
developments in reading theory. While his ideas were essentially formed around the reading of
printed text, those with interests in the range of education, media and communication theory
(including semiotics, sociolinguistics...) could easily find his theoretical framework relevant and
transcribable to the analysis, understanding, and deconstruction of other texts as well, including
visual and multi-media texts.

The central tenet of constructivism is that each individual

constructs a view of his or her world based on his or her
experience of it. This premise runs throughout Smiths entire
(Frank Smith: Psycholinguist, by Terry D. Johnson)
Note how the humanist notion of constructivism, as quoted above and relating to the work of
Frank Smith, possesses an abundance of meaningful analogies to critical literacy and the
promotion of counter-culture. This makes constructivist models in general astoundingly relevant
to a pedagogy for cultural work.

Frank Smiths Whole Language

Smith proposed that a reader predicts letters, words, and perhaps even larger fragments of text,
applying a sort of feature analysis that recognizes patterns from prior knowledge or previous
experience. His theories, published from 1971, broke rank with the up-to-then predominant
adherence to bottom-up constructivism which, through its resultant effects on school curriculum,
turned learning to read into a study of artificial texts and decontextualized exercises. Smith and
his colleagues laid the theoretical foundation to what came to be called whole language, a model
which would introduce real books to the classroom, replacing or complementing the banal
reader which relied so heavily on the teaching and learning of isolated parts and fragments of
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Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

words and language. The implications of whole language had a tremendous impact on the
pedagogy of reading and related school curriculum for the future. To this day the concept holds
One of Smiths basic premises is that reading is a language activity that is learned much like
speaking. Children apparently develop and test their own simplified theories based on what
they hear around them as they try out speech. Successful theories result in successful
communication and survive. Unsuccessful theories result in communication difficulties and die.
(FS: Psycholinguist, Who is Frank Smith?) Likewise, according to Smith, children learning to
read are testing out their current hypotheses word by word, responding to confirmation (or even
lack of dis-confirmation) until they reach a level of literacy by which reading becomes selfconfirming.

Applying Smiths models to Cultural Work

Essentially Frank Smith has provided a model which enhances our understanding of how we read
language, or how language informs us, and the process of comprehension. Extrapolating from this
model, we might consider the value of identifying and utilizing how prediction and feature
analysis figure into communications of all sorts, in all mediums. One obvious application would
be toward the deconstruction of corporate communication, to better understand and share with
community the knowledge as to how the insidious process of cultural domination is cultivated by
the proliferation of their texts, signs and symbols.
Logos and brand names, for instance, rely heavily on notions such as prediction and feature
analysis, for their quick (almost thoughtless) recognition and relative value. The fact is that
directly or indirectly much of Smiths groundwork has already been applied to efforts around
critical media literacy, especially toward the decoding of corporate messages in, for example,
commercial media and advertisements.
Frank Smith said, (t)he effort to read through decoding is largely futile and unnecessary. As
such, much of his work went into challenging the commonly held belief that reading was a
bottom-up decoding exercise, suggesting that our short-term memory could not likely
accommodate such a cumbersome operational process. Instead, Smith contends, we have likely
developed processes (prediction, feature analysis, and others) to simplify and expedite the act.
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Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

The flip-side to this is an understanding of how insidious textual messages can be. Smith also
claimed that there is nothing special about reading and that it makes no special demands on
the brain. These notions could help to explain how we as citizen-consumers can appear so uncritical when it comes to our acceptance and digestion of media transmissions. Perhaps we are
reading them without really thinking about them, in a way that seems as though we have
developed some predisposition to the task. (The way it seems that there is some generational
aptitude developed for driving a car?) This could suggest that readers today are prone to digest
information readily, uncritically, the result of our (generationally?) developed literacy skills.
Here McLuhan applies an apt analogy:
I am in the position of Louis Pasteur telling doctors that their
greatest enemy was quite invisible and quite unrecognized by
them. Our conventional response to all medianamely, that it is
how they are used that countsis the numb stance of the
technological idiot. For the content of a medium is like the juicy
piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of
the mind. The effect of the medium is made strong and intense
just because it is given another medium as content. The content
of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera. The effect of the
movie form is not related to its program content. The content of
writing or print is speech, but the reader is almost entirely
unaware either of print or of speech.
(Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964)
Critical media theorists have long identified the unconscious subversion that is employed by
corporations (and governments and other power players) in their advertisements, promotions, and
other communications. Everything from the intentionally (yet obviously) subliminal (sneaking
sexual connotations into the compositions, for instance) to the overt deployance of idyllic rolemodels (sports and entertainment personalities, for instance, with their built in signifiers) and
decontextualized copy (where the text has nothing to do with the product), a close examination of
the features of media bring true intentions to light. That said, now more than ever there seems to
be a (postmodernist?) obviousness about their intentions, and largely the reaction by the
consumer public is a kitschy revelry in it all. Is it thus possible that the ground meaning of the
ads, the hidden text behind the promotions, have come to be understood and even accepted, as
givens? Perhaps this is a feature of our condition, of postmodern capitalist culture?

Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

More Application: Smith and Culture Jamming

A flip-side approach to Smiths theories may also assist in the pro-active production of texts for
the purpose of progressive cultural generation or cultural work. Of course it is possible to borrow
from the tactics of the corporate sales pitches (above) to promote not products for consumption
but rather events or services of cultural value. But there is always something slimy about
adopting those devices, for it is noticeably insulting to the critical thinker. Thus, I suggest that the
more beneficial potential is found not in co-opting the application of hidden ground for
propaganda so much as to subvert and expose the existing tradition, thereby providing a public
education service, of sorts, in critical literacy.
By breaking tradition with the expectations of prediction and feature analysis (which, Smith
would suggest, reduces the unlikely possibilities for a reader), a powerful post-modern tool is
wrought to wield against the corporate culture. Culture Jamming is one such method, whereby
the typical and expected logos and copy or other associations are adjusted or reinvented in
order to change the message from one which counts on consumer apathy to creative, cultural
resistance. Following are two fine definitions of the concepts, as found within the pages of
Adbusters Magazine, a pioneering purveyor of such cultural strategies:
The brands, products, fashions and entertainmentsthe
spectacles that surround the production of cultureare our
culture now. Only by uncooling these icons and symbols, by
organizing resistance against the power trust that manages the
brands, can America reassert itself.
(Adbusters Magazine, no.29, p.50)
One-off pranks, gestures and goofs serve the function of
creating cognitive dissonance and interrupting the public routine.
They have a very short half-life, twinkling briefly then
vanishing. But if theyre ongoing and reinforced by the mass
media, they begin to take on weight and significance.
(Adbusters Magazine, no.29, in A Jammers (sic) Guide to
Reclaiming Urban Space)
Praxis: Stop the WTO was like a rallying cry to protesters and activists to prepare for the WTO
talks in Seattle. Stop signs throughout North America were converted from ordinary traffic
messages to billboards promoting the cause, as bold lettered stickers reading the WTO were
slapped beneath the central message, STOP, for all motorists and passers-by to
excellent example of culture jamming. (See a similar example in Appendix ii)

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Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

Smith and Chomsky:

Putting the parts together

Just as the break-with-expectations approach of culture jamming would suggest, the flipside of
Smiths theories seemingly imply that the deconstruction of a text is where the demands come in
to play, in terms of those critical, applied thinking (cognitive) skills. This idea would support the
need for promotion of critical analysis and deconstruction of texts (of any communications) as a
path to greater understanding of their meaning and intent. Perhaps it is ironic that Noam
Chomsky, noted linguist, is now more widely known for his efforts to just that effect, exposing
the corporate bias in the media, and identifying how corporations have been able to manufacture
consent via their handling of messages through the media. Prior to that work, though,
Chomskys formidable contributions to the understanding of language (in the late 50s and early
60s) involved deconstructing the grammar of sentences into a variety of definitve generative and
transformational rules. Such cognitive rules, he has suggested, could actually be part of our
genetic make-up. This genetic aptitude, like a wired in language acquisition device, is what
facilitates the language learning phenomenon. Interestingly, Chomskys contributions in terms of
breaking down grammar into its constituent parts seems to represent exactly what Smith rallies
against, when it comes to education. Chomskys finding are in fact complementary, however, as
they support Smiths claim that language acquisition and comprehension, via reading, relies on
some form of preconditioning.
Smith doesnt deny that (likely complex) parts make up the whole; rather, his argument relates to
the comprehension of the parts as they relate to the whole, suggesting that readers or learners can
cursorily gloss (or quickscan?) over that information which is already somehow familiar to them.
Whether that information is familiar by previous engagement or experience, or whether it is
familiar due to some predisposed genetic make-up, or a combination of bothit still recognizes
that the constituent parts are necessary and meaningful in terms of the texts composition. Given
this notion of quickscanning, then, and when it comes to reading the text, it makes sense that
those same constituent parts should become the hidden ground to the text. Thus reading a
newspaper, as an examplewith its smaller constituent parts being the articles themselves
becomes an act not of reading the articles, but reading the paper. Perhaps we are quickscanning
the content, not seeing the articles for the newspaper and in doing so we have made the content
irrelevant. (Note: Pictures and advertisements, on the other hand, would command special
attention due to their visual emphasis. In the context of print, graphics seem to override, or
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divert, the cognitive attention. ) Thats when a return to the parts becomes meaningful again. As
Chomsky has made clear in his determined pursuits, a detailed deconstruction of the content (or
lack thereof) can provide clear and meaningful messages, messages which answer to the question
(oft-cited by McLuhan), whats going on here?
Praxis: Such deconstruction methods are especially useful for exposing the terminology and
double-speak typically used to further the corporate agenda. See Appendix iii for a Glossary
printed in the Council of Canadians publication Canadian Perspectives (Fall 1997) which
deciphers the language of economic globalization.

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Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

Schema Theory

In Understanding Reading Smith introduced the notion of schemes or schemas as complex

conceptual structures which function as organizational categories to assist and promote
comprehension. R.C. Anderson, David Rumelhart, Paul T. Wilson and others picked up on this
powerful model and developed the ideas further, in an effort to explain how a readers (or
learners) existing knowledge affects comprehension. Once again, as a model relevant to grasping
some essential tenets of the relationship between education and learning, schema theory provides
invaluable tips as to how cultural workers might approach the educational aspect of their work.
Calling them the building blocks of cognition, Rumelhart suggested that schema (or
schemata, as the plural form he and others have used) are the fundamental elements upon
which all information processing depends (Rumelhart, Schemata: The building blocks of
cognition.) As a model of explanation he applies the practical life situation of one entering a shop
to buy something, and suggests that this person would bring with him/her an understanding of a
BUY schema, for instance. Thus there would be a certain protocol (in dealing with the
salesperson, for example) and a number of criteria built in to the task of entering a shop for the
purpose of purchasing a product. He explains that a schema is instantiated whenever a
particular configuration of values is bound to a particular configuration of variables at a particular
moment in time. Interpreting a situation to be an instance of some concept, such as an instance of
buying, involves, according to the present view, the instantiation of an appropriate schema, say
the BUY schema, by associating the various variables of the schema with the various aspects of
the situation(p.36).
What Rumelhart and others have developed is something of a cognitive network, structurally
composed of schema which subdivide into subschemata, which helps to explain (or
accommodate) such concepts as perception and remembering. An initial experience will, for
example, help to form a schema. A second, related experience will then draw on that initial
schema, providing some ground to reinterpret and/or reconstruct the original interpretation
(italics represent Rumelharts terms). The idea, then, is that every individual develops their own
special bank of schema, a hierarchical (tree-like?) order of slots that can be instantiated wth
specific information of knowledge (Wilson, Anderson) based on inference through recursive
experience. Essentially the schema theory presents a model for our internal cognitive processing
structure, a model which Anderson relates to ideational scaffolding which bridges the gaps
between prior knowledge and new information, thereby creating new (holistic) understanding by
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integrating the old and the new.

It is worth noting that Anderson, in his contributions to schema theory, drew heavily from the
foundations of the Gestalt movement in psychology (which dates back to the early part of the
twentieth century). As a model with a holistic emphasis to the study of mental organization,
Gestalt theory suggests that the whole of any experience or situation could not be identified by its
parts, but rather that the interpretation must take into account the context of the whole. Thus
Gestalt theory may be seen as part of the foundational framework to all constructivist models and
approaches. Interestingly but not surprisingly, we can read below how Gestalt theory figured
prominently into the work of media theorist Marshall McLuhan:
It [ground] is a term from Gestalt psychology. Look at the
ground around the figure of the automobile or the ground around
any technology, which necessarily has a large ground of services
and disservices associated with it. Now, the ordinary attention is
fixed on the figure rather than the ground, on the wheel rather
than the huge system of road services necessary to maintain the
existence of a wheel or wheeled vehicles. With a motorcar, most
people are interested in changing designs or patterns of the car.
They pay only incidental attentions to the huge service
environment of roads, oil companies, filling stations, and other
allied services of manufacturing that are the ground of the car.
The motorcar, when it was first introduced in the early part of
the century, was thought to be a sure way of getting rid of cities
by taking us back to the country. Watching the figure of the car,
they saw the immediate possibility of simply transporting city
dwellers back into the country where they came from...It never
occurred to them that this figure of the car might generate a huge
ground of new services far bigger than the figure was ever
thought to be. In other words, the car created a totally new
environment or ground of services and disservices that we have
come to associate with the American way of life.
By not looking at the ground around the automobile you miss the
message of the car. For it is the ground of any technology that is
the medium that changes everybody, and it is the medium that is
the message of the technology, not the figure.
(Marshall McLuhan, from Marshall McLuhan, interview by
Willem L. Oltmans, 1972, as quoted in On McLuhan.)

Stuck in a schema: Another explanation for the media malaise

As to how the selections are made, or how the schema are activated, Rumelhart offers the (vague)
notion of goodness to fit (like natural selection?) as the evaluation criteria. A problem arises,
he points out, when a learner adopts a schema that is not a good fit. The result of an inappropriate
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schema he suggests, is something like a filtered distortion of perception, and as example he cites
an experiment (Bruner and Potter) in 1964 where subjects were shown slides of out-of-focus real
world objects and asked to identify what they were seeing. As the slide would be repeatedly
shown, each time a little more in focus, the subjects would find it very difficult to abandon their
initial (and often incorrect) identifications. Even as the objects came increasingly focused and
clear, they continued to misidentify what they were seeing, adhering instead to their original
identification. Rumelhart concludes that once the subjects were committed to their initial
identification, and thus had developed a mental schema that fit that perception, it was especially
difficult for them to adopt the contradictory information.
This model of unwillingness to change based on preconditioned schema would help to explain
how it is that a culture of silence can be prone to self-maintenance. If we are culturally
conditioned one way, then there is naturally a common schematic order that accompanies that
conditioning. A cultural shift, therefore, would require a (admittedly problematic) shift in the
schematic paradigm. As they say: old habits are hard to break. So the question becomes, how to
develop anew or recompose the existing schema? What follows are some devices or strategies
which Rumelhart identifies for their potential to change or adjust existing schema.

That is the name Rumelhart applies to the accumulation of fragments or traces from events or
readings. This sounds very much like a numbers game, invoking quantity and repetition. On the
one hand this helps to explain some of the corporate cultures basic strategies when it comes to
their commercial messages. We all know that if we hear something enough, or see it enough, then
it takes a place in our mental landscape. On the other hand, it suggests that a pro-active cultural
workers strategy of communications must likewise take into consideration these factors. The
numbers game will always figure prominently into any advocacy campaign.

The Trojan schema

Wilson and Anderson found that, as one might expect, a familiar schema would speed up and
expedite the readers processing(p.249). Another important finding in their research was that
what and how much is learned depended on what was culturally important to the reader. In other
words, it would appear that the likeliest in for new schema would be via the existing (low-level)
schema already in place, something that is culturally significant to the subject. This suggests two
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things to me:

1. Do the twist: If familiar schema expedites the processing potential, then it also lends itself to
the easy subjective distortion or misinterpretation that follows such expediency. This brings us
back to that idea of missing the articles for the paper, the oversimplified and uncritical digestion
of information. And so, following this argument, it would stand to reason that a culturally
progressive message (advocacy) would fall on deaf (or at least hearing impaired) ears if it is
delivered by the corporate messenger (i.e. commercial media). This substantiates the notions of
Baudrillard and others who have pointed out the inherent malaise that is generated by the
commercial media, regardless of content.
It also identifies and supports the inherent value in culture jamming as a progressive means for
counter-cultural generation. In such, the twist on preconditioned schema likely slows down the
processing at an encounter, forcing slower, deliberate and critical consideration. Of course this is
by no means a given, as subjects are just as likely (one would think) to resort to a this is a silly
prank schema instead, never admitting themselves into a thoughtful deliberation at all. Perhaps
some more attention can be paid to this feature of culture jamming, ie. how to increase the
likelihood of recognition and consideration.

2. History: What better way to evolve new schema than via existing schema. And what better
way to understand the present than through history. What we have seen before, what we know
to have come before, affects us and lends to who we are, how we perceive (objectively) the world
around us and how we perceive (subjectively) our position within it. A lesson regarding union
history, for example, and how the weekend was won, is automatically meaningful to any worker
today. Whether it is met with, Wow, so there was a hard-won struggle for this weekend that we
take for granted or Oh, so thats where the weekend came from--either extreme suggests that
this new information has found an in, what might be the initial connector to some new schema
regarding unions, or work, or activism, for example.
This concept of delivering the history fits soundly with one of Andersons recommended
strategies for applying schema theory to instruction, ie. the development of the students relevant
background knowledge prior to any given task. History is but one feature that can be applied here,
in a sense it brings one sort of literacy to the equation. But it is surely a powerful one, and
extremely relevant to a cultural work.
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Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

Praxis: (See Appendix v) A little bit of history goes a long way in this poster which highlights
the hypocrisy of a governments fanfare around an apparent increase to welfare rates.

Know your audience

Another strategy recommended by Anderson (in fact it precedes that of building a background
knowledge base) is to recognize what kind of background knowledge the students already
possess. Only then can one ascertain (with some likelihood of success) whether the necessary
schema to make connections are already in place, or whether they need to be developed.
Translated to cultural communications, the lesson here is most meaningful: An academic treatise,
for example, is not likely to go over well with blue-collar workers. The message must be
presented in a way that is meaningful to the subjects involved. Just as corporations study their
demographics so that they can position their products, so must activists position their messages,
utilizing all the modalities and all the mediums available, as best suited for the recipient, or the
desired audience. (More on modalities and mediums later, especially via London Group
Praxis: (See Appendix vi) An example of working to suit the audience: A Students Guide to
Protesting is a small booklet of information and ideas particular to a targeted audience of
students. Following is a quote from its pages: On campus students have the right to exercise
their constitutionally protected rights of free speech and assembly so song as they do not interfere
with the operation of the regular school program

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M.A.K. Halliday is credited for developing a framework which identifies functions or purposes
for language use. His central argument is that language is always being used for some social
purpose, and that it has evolved to cope and adapt to new situations and circumstances. Of course
his work is built on the ideas of others before him: Malinowski, who posed that language is
multifunctional, used in response to societys demands; Firth, who posed that there was a
multiplicity of language within a total language; and Whorf, who demonstrated a relationship
between language and culture and the need for categories of language. (from Hallidays functions
of language: A framework....)
Much of the foundation to this approach to language, often referred to as social literacy, also
refers back to James Gee, a professor of linguistics who refuted the promotion of a standard
English in American schools, on the grounds that it would present cultural conflict. He claimed
that the teaching of English is about the distribution of social goods, such as status, wealth,
power, and control. He pointed out that schools socialized students to perform in certain ways,
depending on their intentions (for instance, public schools to produce middle-class functionaries,
or upper class schools to produce power elites).
In some opposition to Chomskys structural linguistic theories (i.e. that language is overtly
deterministic and predictive), Halliday applied a systemic linguistics, whereby rules are
considered to be local, temporary and situational. He suggested that we call upon a repertoire of
registers which serve various language functions, namely: instrumental, regulatory,
interactional, personal, imaginative, heuristic, and informative (see Appendix vii for a table
outlining one way that teachers have applied Hallidays registers). These ideas served to change
the view of language from predominantly one of syntactic complexity to being more about shared
cultural meaning. It was recognized that children, for instance, could learn the mechanics of a
school register in order to become successful students. That register would contain various
genres: narrative fiction, poetry, exposition, and personal recount, for instance.
Then there are the genres of power: exposition, argument, procedure, directive, and persuasion.
These genres are utilized by those in positions of power, it is contended, in order to assert and
extend their powers. The implications of this, i.e. the identification of genres of power, is of
course of critical value to the activist movement. Perhaps more obvious are the possibilities for
deconstructing power texts and in doing so, naming and identifying the tactics, strategies and
persuasions. Thus the potential for flagging or highlighting the way language is used, say, to sell
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products, or to sell war via the news. Much work has been done to deconstruct those genres used
by CNN to cover the war in Iraq, for example.
It follows suit that those same genres may be likewise adopted to influence power via activist
communications, and surely this has been recognized and utilized. Activist organizations and
NGOs have long adopted power genres to their communications. But there must be some careful
consideration in how this tactic is approached. The following is quoted from Dr. Ursula Franklin,
retired university professor, writer and activist, from a speech she made at the Toronto TEN
DAYS event of February 1, 1997 (addressing the theme: The World We Want):
We are occupied the way the French and Norwegians were
occupied, but this time by an army of marketeers..One of the
things that anyone who has lived under occupation will tell you
is that they refused to speak the language of the occupier. I think
that is a good lesson to remember. We too should refuse to speak
the language of the occupier; it is not now German or Russian
but the language of the market, where they speak of service
providers and clients, of stake holders and of the bottom line.
Its a language that reflects, as all languages do, the moral values
of those who speak.
One path of resistance is to refuse to communicate in the
language of the occupier. Dont talk stakeholders, about users
and providers of health care, consumers of education. They are
for us teachers and students, nurses, doctors and patients; they
are friends, families and communities. This particular option of
resistance is open to all of us and we should use it. We must
analyze the language of public discourse and have to point out
what those words really mean. It is amazing how much such
clarification can help to build a resisting community.
Thus it is crucial, as Dr. Franklin reminds us, not to give in to the applied language of the
oppressive forces. Indeed, adopting any of modes of language may be seen as an acquiescence, of
sorts...a relinquishing of autonomous value. Here Baudrillard points out another good example of
how adopting a genre can work against counter-cultural intentions:

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The appearance of social rights, brandished as slogans and

emblazoned on the democratic banner of the affluent society, is
in fact symptomatic, therefore, of the elements concerned
acquiring the status of distinctive signs and class (or caste)
privileges. The right to clean air signifies the loss of clean air
as a natural good, its transition to commodity status and its
inegalitarian social redistribution. One should not mistake for
objective social progress (something being entered as a right in
the tables of law) what is simply the advance of the capitalist
systemie. the progressive transformation of all concrete and
natural values into productive forms, i.e. into sources 1 of
economic profit;2 of social privilege.
(from The Consumer Society, p.58)

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Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

Genres across Mediums

The theoretical framework of genrism translates to all mediums of text. Examples of oral genres
might include phone conversations, or stage plays, or radio interviews. Examples of written
genres might include assembly instructions, recipes, or newspaper articles. Some examples of
visual genres: watercolour portraits, road signs, product packaging...New genres are regularly
developed to meet the changing needs of society. For example, voicemail (both incoming and
outgoing) messages are themselves new and distinctive oral genres (T.D. Johnson, Complex Texts
in a Complex World, a class handout).
A correlation between genres and schemas seems inherent. It would seem that schemas relate
more closely to our incoming information processing, whereby genres relate more to forms of
expression, or outgoing textual processing. A combinative approach, i.e. borrowing from both
models to inform and facilitate the task of formulating, designing, producing and delivering
culture informing communications and educational materials. One helpful exercise might be to
chart the potentialities of communications, taking into account the various modalities (of genre,
schema, etc.) that can be considered. Following is a simple conceptual model taking into account
multiple modalities for the purpose of cultural work development, in this case the design,
function, and application of some textual communication:

1. Consider function:
instrumental, regulatory, interactional, personal, imaginative, heuristic, informative
2. Consider genre; some examples include:
narrative fiction, poetry, exposition, personal recount, stage-play, film script, sketch
3. Consider applied genres; some examples include:
argument, directive, persuasion...(subgenres, to be applied to the general genre above)
4. Consider medium genre; some examples include:
radio, print, tv, film, multimedia...oral (transpersonal) vs. mediated...
5. Consider background schema required:
who is the communication targeted for? Union employees? Students? Teachers? The
Note that such a checklist as above could also be used to assist in deconstructing existing texts.
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Praxis: (See Appendix viii) Genres may be considered, for the purpose of cultural work, in terms
of the various media or modalities that any communication might take. Written text, for instance,
may take the form of buttons, postcards, or bookmarks, to name a few.

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Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

Multiple Intelligences

If genrism provides a structural model for our external transmissions, then John Gardners theory
of multiple intelligences provides us with a model which identifies the variety of (inherent?)
approaches or modalities possible for those transmissions. Gardners premise is that every
individual comes equipped with a variety of intelligences, each one unique as to its cognitive
function or potential. In his original treatise he identified the following seven intelligences:
linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, musical, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal, and
intrapersonal (See Appendix ix which depicts a teachers checklist with examples of teaching
applications related to Gardners Intelligences). Later he added an eighth, which he cited as
naturalist. Thus a writer or Scrabble-wiz or eloquent speaker would be said to possess a
noticeable aptitude for linguistic intelligence, while a dancer or a hockey player would have a
greater bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence. We are all biased toward some intelligences, it would
seem, and weaker in others. Recognition of these distinctions can help us to understand different
approaches to learning, as well as providing perhaps some due recognition for those intelligences
which are culturally less valued (for whatever reason).
Apparently Gardner admits that education was not a consideration when he conceptualized his
model. But his ideas have found great attention in that very arena, with educators scrambling to
incorporate the model of multiple intelligences into their curriculums, and he has since been in
high demand to represent his model to their ends. Thus he has suggested what would seem to be
the obvious; to teach to the strengths of the learners. In other words, if the learner is more
spatially oriented than linguistically so, she might be encouraged to visualize a concept, or work
with video, for example, instead of being dedicated to a written report. He takes this idea one step
further, and puts forth a model of curriculum brokers whose task it would be to negotiate a
good match between learner and curriculum, applying the prerequisite intelligences.
This seems to harken back to the know your audience notion of Anderson (noted above). But
instead of background experience and likely schema, with Gardners model its all about
ascertaining which of the intelligences will be called upon to facilitate successful learning. The
potential for translating this model to suit cultural work becomes obvious: Lets say the effort is
targeted toward the education and organization of unions for solidarity. Adopting Gardners
model, we might consider that the language and methodologies used to communicate with, say,
teachers, would be likely different than the most effective choices for communication with, say,
machinists. Of course these are generalizations, but it is also reasonable to expect some likelihood
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of such disparity. Thus, the models and analogies and even the actual methodologies used, in fact
the entire curriculum, could take into consideration these variances. Generally speaking,
Gardners theories suggest that cultural workers must consider adopting a variety of intelligence
orientations to increase the likelihood of speaking to the variety in the audience they approach.
Praxis: Appendix x shows a program designed to accompany a musical theatre production that
deals with the subject of genetically modified foods. Such a production is bound to attract
audience members who are not likely to attend other, more typical venues for the education about
or consideration of such a subject.

Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

Louise Rosenblatt and Reader Response

Based on a methodology of eliciting student responses to literary works, Louise Rosenblatt

developed a constructivist theory of reader response (beginning in 1938), suggesting that with
every foray into a text the reader interacts with and interprets that text anew. She argued thus that
the reader in fact constructs the text (in the act of interpreting it) and as such the text and reader
are aspects of the same transaction:
The readers main purpose is to participate as fully as possible in
the potentialities of the text. But much of the interest and vitality
and texture of the total literary experience arises from the
intensely personal activity of thought and feeling with which the
literary transaction is impregnated and surrounded. And the
matrix of this is, of course, the personality and the world of the
individual reader.
(Rosenblatt, The reader, the text, the poem, 1978, p.69)
While Rosenblatt would not necessarily be considered an exponent of critical literacy, the above
quote exemplifies her dedication to personal experience in a way which is reminiscent of Paulo
Frieres revolutionary contention that it must be the educators aim to assist the learner in
discovering their own subjective value, their own position and potential to interpret and to act and
to have an effect on their reality:
Problem-posing education, as a humanist and liberating praxis,
posits as fundamental that men subjected to domination must
fight for their emancipation. To that end, it enables teachers and
students to become Subjects of the educational process by
overcoming authoritarianism and an alienating intellectualism; it
also enables men to overcome their false perception of reality.
The worldno longer something to be described with deceptive
wordsbecomes the object of that transforming action by men
which results in their humanization.
(Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 74)
Rosenblatt made a clear distinction between two prevailing kinds of text, each requiring selective
modes of attention: efferent, which was a text read for information, and aesthetic, which was a
text read for lived experience. She posited that much of a learners reading practice was
approached from an efferent stance, and deplored the fact that school curriculums resorted to
efferent readings of poetry. She encouraged instead an aesthetic stance to a text, contending that it
was through such a transaction with the text that real learning took place, i.e. with the potential to
adjust ones cultural horizons, in a social context. The transaction she spoke of was a reciprical
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one, wherein the text shapes response simultaneously as the reader shapes the text. It is through
this critical process, this praxis, that the learning occurs. Applied exercises, such as facilitating a
readers examination of stock (or conditioned) responses to a text, would assist in developing and
evoking strands of awareness (Rosenblatt, 1978, p.154)
Rosenblatts contributions, via her theories of reader response, provide for powerful potentialities
in terms of application toward cultural work. In highlighting the distinction between efferent and
aesthetic texts she noted a profound distinction in the ability of one (aesthetic) over the other
(efferent) to yield an emotional fulfillment with inherent socially transformative effects. Is it any
wonder that so much of the texts consumed today, with their commercial intentions, are efferent
in their nature or, if aesthetic, can be critically exposed for their intention, i.e. to elicit stock or
conditioned response?
Likewise, in an examination of the current use of texts for cultural action, ones likely to discover
a commitment to efferent stances. Why? Likely because cultural activists have (unfortunately)
adopted the language of the oppressor (i.e. the marketplace), with its reliance on facts, figures,
and qualitative information. Rosenblatts insights would suggest that, if the goal is to evoke
change (or initiate praxis) in the reader, then an aesthetic approach would be the likely form for
success. In adopting an aesthetic stance with the text, the reader then replaces social vision for
conditioned response:
Since we interpret the book or poem in terms of our fund of past
experiences, it is equally possible and necessary that we come to
reinterpret our old sense of things in the light of this new literary
experience, in the light of the new ways of thinking and feeling
offered by the work of art. Only when this happens has there
been a full interplay between book and reader, and hence a
complete and rewarding literary experience.
(Rosenblatt, 1938, Literature as exploration, p. 126)
Of course, the work of art, for the purpose of cultural action, need not be a poem or an art
exhibit (although it certainly might be). It could also take the form of a poster, or a pamphlet, or a
lecture, or a video. Whatever the medium, an aesthetic stance to the delivery (thus evoking an
aesthetic reading) can call the reader into participation with the text, promoting the possibility for
cognitive and, further, cultural change.
Praxis: (See Appendix xi;a) Seeking ways to transform cultural meaning from efferent to
aesthetic form is an ongoing challenge for any artist and cultural worker. Ruben Andersons
Partial Portraits (as printed in Front Magazine, Volume IX, no. 5, May/June 1998) works to
lend new aesthetic and artistic value to politically, historically, and culturally significant figures.
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Appendix xi;b shows another popular and effective aesthetic form: the comic.

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Verbo-Visual Literacy: (Steve Moline and others)

Simply put, historians and educators should consider mounting a visual literacy campaign of the
magnitude and energy of the early common school reformers. Historians and teachers working
with visual images, especially photographs, television and film, need to alert students to the
inherent biases of these formats. Students will be willing partners in the endeavor, for they seem
more willing and capable of critiquing film and tape than they are of printed text. In that way,
they can test the truth of Oliver Wendell Holmess definition of the photograph as an illusion with
the appearance of reality that cheats the senses with its seeming truth.
(Peter Knupfer, from Text to Television: Hermeneutic Textualism and the Challenge of Visual
Technology in the Teaching of History, in Verbo-Visual Literacy: Understanding and applying
New Educational Communication Media Technologies, p. 155.)
What is really needed is education of the consumer in visual
literacy and media literacy. We can use the media to teach about
the media. We can use the media or let the media use us. One of
the tasks for the 21st century in the area of Visual Literacy is to
teach people about Image manipulation.
(Ronald Sutton, Image Manipulation: Then and Now, from
Verbo-Visual Literacy, p. 189)
Verbo-Visual literacy recognizes the importance of visual information, both as a vehicle for
conveying language, and for its powerful ability to convey coded information, information that is
difficult (often meaningfully and intentionally) to decode and thereby potentially manipulative.
This literacy therefore presents combinative options for cultural communication, namely 1. to use
graphic or visual information to enhance or add meaning to verbal communication, and 2. to learn
a visual literacy with which one may critically deconstruct visual information, to make better
sense of the communication.
Thus cultural workers may use these concepts in a number of ways. For one example, visual
deconstruction of texts may be applied to critique, learn and teach the implications of the
manipulative potential inherent to visual forms. Augmentation and deconstruction skills may thus
be developed. And the advantages of thoughtful application of visuals to enhance other texts (oral
or written) is of course invaluable. Not only does this work to enhance the aesthetics of the text
(think Rosenblatt) but it also increases the visibility of a text, and can transmit meaning more
directly to those more visually inclined (think Gardners intelligences).
Praxis: (See Appendix xii) A picture (from the WTO protest in Seattle, November 1999) speaks
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a thousand words. (Photograph taken by author.)

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Complexity Theory

Complexity theory, based on a theory of complex dynamical systems, can radically alter ones
perception of reality. It has emerged from the disciplines of mathematics and physics, but is now
lending itself to other cognitive systems. Most systems, it would appear, are not linear but
complex in their nature. Complex systems are typically:
- fractal like
- sensitive to initial conditions
- dynamical
- recursive
- iterative
- prone to emergence
- demonstrative of chaotic behaviour
- self-organizing
Suffice to say the details and empirical study behind complexity theory are, well, complex. That
said, we are all very familiar with complex systems. One of the crucial points to derive from this
theory, for our purposes here, is the realization that most organic systems are complex in nature,
and that they contain patterns (of recursion, iteration, etc.) which, holistically observed, create or
follow a remarkably common model of a hierarchical, nested nature.
The application to learning is summed up nicely by Dr. Terry Johnson (in Complexity, Brains and
Learning, a professors handout):
If the brain is complex then the mind is complex. If the mind is
complex then learning is complex. If learning is complex then
curriculum and instruction must be based on a true
understanding of the nature of the brain and the manner in which
it learns.
Johnsons Recursive-Iterative Model of Instruction applies complexity theory to a learning
curriculum. The premise is (see illustration) that a learner makes recursive (always coming back)
and iterative (repetitive) engagements with a text, with each recursion a varied engagement, thus
becoming more and more familiar with the material, via a variety of approaches. This ultimately
takes the learner to a place where he or she may achieve mastery by independent application (see
Appendix xiii).
This model can encompass so many of the other models for teaching and learning previously
cited. Thus it can work ideally as an apparatus, of sorts, or an applied methodology for the
Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

purpose of communication of any text, in any form. Best of all, it accounts for the complexity of
the learner, making possible a plurality approach to comprehension and learning.
Indeed it is such an approach to learning that was presented recently (at a conference in 1995) by
members of the so-called New London Group, in a discussion of the Future of Literacy

Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures

If it is possible to generalise about the mission of education, it is

to ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that
allow them to participate fully in public, community and
economic life. Literacy pedagogy is expected to play a
particularly important role in fulfilling this mission.
(from A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing social futures,
by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis with members of the New
London Group, 1995)
Indicative of the complex nature of their proposed pedagogy, I quote additionally the following:
The more autonomous lifeworlds become, the more movement
there can be: people entering and leaving, whole lifeworlds
going through major transitions, more open and productive
negotiation of internal differences, freer external linkage and
(p. 28)
In their paper The Group asserts that the role of literacy pedagogy is to develop an epistemology
of pluralism which provides access without people having to erase or leave behind different
subjectivities. This proposal relates closely to Frieres intentions for literacy as related earlier.
Furthermore, they apply a notion of Designing to their pedagogy, which acknowledges the
complex assertion of complexity (and that of Rosenblatt and others) while contending that every
moment of meaning involves the transformation of the available resources of meaning. Reading,
seeing and listening are all instances of Designing. As such, they contend that meaning makers
constantly remake themselves, reconstructing and renegotiating their identities.
The Group sets out to develop a metalanguage that describes meaning in different realms,
including the textual and the visual, while taking into account the multimodal relations so
prevalent in todays media texts. They suggest that this metalanguage include the key terms
(based on earlier models) of genres and discourses, plus the additional subcategories such as
voices, styles, and narratives. They further identify six major areas in which functional
grammars (defined as the metalanguages which describe and explain patterns) are required:
Linguistic design, Visual design, Audio design, Gestural design, Spatial Design and Multimodal
Design (see Appendix xiv).
Such a multiliteral approach to pedagogy could clearly serve the interests of a pedagogy for
cultural work. By naming the parts and modalities, and with a vision of subjective pluralism, it
Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

would appear that efforts of educational theorists like those of the New London Group (Courtney
Cazden, Bill Cope, Norman Fairclough, James Gee, Mary Kalantzis, Gunther Kress, Allan Luke,
Carmen Luke, Sarah Michaels, and Martin Nakata) could provide the foundational groundwork
for developments towards a specialized understanding of the design and function of
communication for cultural action. Indeed, much of their language and ideas, especially as relates
to the forementioned concept of designing, might transfer literally (and possibly ideally) to a
design for cultural work:

Two key concepts help us describe multimodal meanings and the

relationships of different designs of meaningThe term
hybridity highlights the mechanisms of creativity and of
culture-as-process particularly salient in contemporary society.
People create and innovate by hybridisingarticulating in new
waysestablished practices and conventions within and between
different modes of meaning. This includes the hybridisation of
established ways modes of meaning (of discourses and genres),
and multifarious combinations of modes of meaning cutting
across boundaries of convention and creating new conventions.
Intertextuality draws attention to the potentially complex ways
in which meaning (such as linguistic meanings) are constituted
through relationships to other texts (real or imaginary), text types
(discourse, genres, narratives, and so on) and other modes of
meaning (such as visual design, architectonic or geographical
positioning). Any text can be viewed historically in terms of the
intertextual chains (historical series of texts) it draws upon, and
in terms of the transformations it works upon them.
(p. 35)
Further, the Group proposes four components of pedagogy which may be applied (see Appendix
xv). Especially of interest is the Critical Framing component:
The goal of Critical Framing is to help learners frame their
growing mastery in practice (from Situated Practice) and
conscious control and understanding (from Overt Instruction) in
relation to the historical, social, cultural, political, ideological,
and value-centred relations of particular systems of knowledge
and social practice.
(p. 38)
And finally, like a bow to Frieres notion of praxis, the Groups fourth component of pedagogy,
Transformed Practice:

Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

It is not enough to be able to articulate ones understanding of

intra-systematic relations or critique extra-systematic relations.
We need always to return to where we began, to Situated
Practice, but now a re-practice, where theory becomes
reflective practice. Teachers need to develop, with their
students, ways in which their students can demonstrate how they
can design and carry out, in a reflective manner, new practices
embedded in their own goals and values.
(p. 38)

Praxis: The latest developments in cultural work seem to exemplify contemporary developments
in educational theory such as those of the Group outlined above, especially with regards to
multiliteral approaches to pedagogy. Appendix xvi;(a and b) are copies of posters promoting
events which are often referred to as convergences, as they bring together people for larger events
which feature a multiplicity of opportunities for learning, practice, involvement, exchange, and

I suggest that the work of the Group and other educational theorists, as summarized above,
strongly supports my main assertion of this Section, namely that the work of this discipline has
been and continues to inform a potential pedagogy for cultural work. More generally, the
theories lend themselves, invaluably, toward furthering the development and potential of critical
media literacy education.

Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

In Conclusion

I hope Ive satisfied the intentions set out for this paper. To revisit:


to highlight the need for and value of critical media literacy

education, especially in a time when capitalist (read corporate)
interests prevail and dominate the media landscape and our culture.

In her article (previously cited) relating to corporate ownership of media, Gail Lem succinctly
sums up the threat that is posed against our culture and society:
The problem with letting the corporate agenda invade our language is
that the words we use inform the way we think. With time, we will
begin to believe that the human cost of the corporate agendaand the
cost to our society, and our countrycan be sacrificed on the altar of
corporate profits.
(p.10, Canadian Perspectives, Summer 1997)

Critical media literacy (and the education thereof) provides citizens with the skills necessary to
recognize how the media is complicit in this corporate invasion, and how to identify the

to propose, by way of contribution, the development of a pedagogy

for those who will develop and share such skills, they who I will
refer to as cultural workers.

I have made a case in these pages for cultural workers, those who by choice or compulsion make
it their work (full or part time) to apply critical media literacy skills toward their efforts to inform
citizens and, ultimately, the culture. Teachers and artists, tradespeople and laypeople, everyone
has something to contribute to the effort. Ideally, every modality and medium would be utilized,
every potential audience targeted. Due to the overwhelming bias of mainstream media and
corporate-driven education we experience today, more workers are essential, and better
organization of such work should be a priority. Development of a pedagogy for cultural work
would help to legitimize the work and to ensure its perpetuity and development and expansion.
As for my cursory contribution from a field of educational theorists, I readily admit to just
skimming the surface of the existing potential for assembling a pedagogy. Other obvious
territories to mine would include communication theory, history, anthropology, linguistics...and
Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

of course there is no limit to the depth of study that any one of those or other disciplines might
provide. As suggested, a multiliteral background would best inform the potential for cultural
3. to re-assert (what many others have said before me) that cultural
groundwork is an essential intermediary stage toward societal change
or revolution.

Before the machine can be understood, one must first be able to see it, writes William Greider
in the beginning of his exploration of global capitalism entitled, One World, Ready or Not (p. 12).
Cultural work means to expose that machine, for what it really is, for all to see. The more citizens
that see it, it follows, the more support there will be for the future potential of change on a socioeconomic and political nature.

4. to emphasize the need for the increased development and

organization of independent media operators, centres, and networks to
support the development, production, and distribution of such work.

I touched only briefly on this point, as I feel ultimately that to do this theme justice would require
another paper altogether. It is key to my arguments put forth, however, and so in summary I will
add the following:
As was touched on earlier in this paper, the potential to effect cultural change through mainstream
media channels would appear to be extremely limited, at best. Not to say it is a wholly fruitless
endeavour to plug the mainstream with as much cultural work as possible, mind you. In the end,
in keeping with the multiliteral pedagogical approach, every little bit helps. But I suggest that the
real potential for large scale cultural information will take advantage of independent media
Recent revolutions in technology have made for new potentialities in terms of independent media
production and distribution. It is especially a critical time for the negotiation of democratic
access to the resources and bandwidth space of the new digital media (namely, in its current
form, the internet). If this challenge is met successfully (and the internet bandwidth isnt co-opted
by corporate interests the way all other mainstream media potential has gone in the past) then in
all likelihood cultural workers may find themselves in a frontline broadcasting situation,
creating the programming and content for independent digital broadcast stations and networks
of the near future. Given such a scenario, one can only imagine the potential for the promotion of
Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy

critical media literacy and cultural work.

We must strike while the iron is hot. Now is the time to collect the resources, to assemble the
media centres, to organize and shape the networks. As Don Hazen points out in his article,
Imagining a Democratic Media (as printed in We the Media), the momentum is already well
under way:
In the spring of 1996, for example, the Institute for Alternative
Journalism hosted the first-ever Media and Democracy Congress. The
congress brought together more than 700 media activists, critics,
working journalists, and editors representing print, electronic, and
online outlets
Many participants saw what they have in common despite their
different issue areas or mediums...They agreed to share resources and
to collaborate in the future. The congress alas developed an Information
Bill of Rights for organizers to use as a foundation for moving forward.
(p. 200)

We have now the window of opportunity to resist and refute attempts by corporate interests to
control the digital bandwidths and likewise to promote the democratic potential for this space, as
well as other media, in the interests of the public good.

Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy


Id like first of all to thank Dr. Laurie Baxter, my academic supervisor in the Faculty of
Education at the University of Victoria, without whose ideas, intellectual prodding, support and
patience this project would not have been possible.
Heartful thanks and appreciation are also due Dr. Geoffrey Potter, who as Chair of the Dept. of
Communications and Social Foundations at UVic provided me with some of my first up-close
models of contemporary education theory.
And to Dr. Terry Johnson, also on the faculty in Education, whose inspirational class turned me
on to the wondrous connections that were possible between the theories of contemporary
educational theorists and a pedagogy for cultural work, and for providing me with so much of the
source material for Section II of this paper.
Lastly, I ride humbly on the coattails of all those scholars who have come before me and I hope
Ive not offended anyone by meddling with their ideas and coming up with my own conclusions.

Darren Alexander

Darren G. Alexander

Toward a Pedagogy for Critical Media Literacy