Teaching Students to Become Media-Savvy Consumers

from Educators' eZine

Our curriculum coordinator was at first resistant to my suggestion that advertising would be a relevant and engaging unit to include in our new program of inquiry. He was concerned that since we were living and teaching in an international setting there would be few resources available to support student inquiry, and that the nature of advertising in Japan might prove to be problematic, considering a number of our students were not Japanese speakers. Despite his initial reluctance I was able to convince him to let me go ahead with the unit.

As predicted, finding resources was difficult, with only a handful of relevant texts in the library. Examples of print advertisements in Japanese and English were easier to come by as the school subscribes to a great many publications, and students brought examples from home. I also arranged with friends in the States for television advertisements that were featured during children's television viewing time. But it was on the Internet that I found the most comprehensive resource.

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) have produced a website called Don't Buy It: Get Media Smart, which encourages students to think critically about the media. The content and activities featured on the website were ideal as they matched the central idea and key concepts to be covered in the unit.

The students' first experience with the site took place before the unit was underway. At the end of one of our weekly scheduled lab times the students took part in a foregrounding exercise in which they were provided with just enough time to explore and familiarize themselves with the layout of the website, and the nature of the content to be covered.

Although the website could cover the topic, I chose to integrate it with a number of other activities. Discussions, introductory ad analyses, brainstorming activities and a field trip to a local shopping center provided students with an awareness of why, where and how people and groups advertise. The contents of the website however, provided us with a deeper insight into the powerful force that is advertising, and offered learning experiences not possible through more traditional means.

By taking advantage of our school's flexibly scheduled laptop program my class was able to access the website on a daily basis. At first I used this time to take the students through sections of the site step by step, focusing on consolidating concepts such as target audience and advertising techniques which had been introduced during regular class time. The interactive quizzes featured in the Buying Smart section of the website were an engaging and informative source of information. They also helped the children build connections with the advertising techniques used in the television commercials they viewed at home and during our in-class media analyses sessions.

Structured exploration also served to introduce new concepts to the students. This led to some powerful discussions as the children reflected on their motivations for purchasing goods, analyzed the qualities of their perceived role models and debated aspects of fantasy and reality featured in the media. The depth of thinking demonstrated by the students really took me by surprise and I was impressed with the connections they made to their own experiences. I was quickly finding that advertising was a powerful and persuasive force throughout the world, which transcended language and culture.

Providing the children with unstructured time to direct their own learning experiences was also important. The students explored the website and researched their own questions at their own pace and in a variety of ways. A range of authentic online activities also challenged the children to apply their knowledge and understanding of the media and the power of advertising to real life situations.

It was evident when we went back to analyze and evaluate print and television commercials with an advertising executive (our guest speaker) towards the end of the unit that the integrated use of the website had helped the students develop critical thinking skills and a better understanding of the nature of advertising. He was suitably impressed with the children's knowledge and ability to critically analyze and interpret media messages.

When it came time to sit down and review the unit with the curriculum coordinator, we were both pleased with the result. The unit had proved to be a great success, equipping students with skills that would be essential for life outside of the school environment and long after leaving fourth grade. The students had successfully engaged in a range of meaningful learning experiences where the focus was on making progress towards content standards and developing essential elements of the learning process along the way. Integrating technology had not only been a great way of overcoming a lack of resources, it had been integral to providing learning opportunities that would not have otherwise been possible.

Email:Andrew Powell