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In a recent Lie Detectors survey, teachers across five European countries made a striking declaration: almost all identified media literacy as a crucial skill for their students to master. What’s more, teachers said media literacy—broken down into understanding journalism, tackling disinformation and learning skills to verify sources—doesn’t just belong in the IT room or politics classes: it also needs to be part of their own primary school lesson plans. Ethics, biology, even maths; but most of all, basic language teaching.
Word cloud produced from our survey question, "In your opinion: Into what school subject or subjects does the Lie Detectors project fit best?" Base: 624 responses from teachers (Jan-July 2022). Source: Lie Detectors Survey 2022
There is little doubt teachers are increasingly aware that their students navigate a 21st century information universe online, and that digital media literacy plays a key role in their ability to do so safely and effectively. Asked why they feel responsibility to transmit this literacy, teachers frequently cite their duty as educators. And yet, fewer than half of the 624 teachers Lie Detectors surveyed discussed it with their students even once a month. Why not?
Base: 624 teachers (Jan-July 2022). Source: Lie Detectors Survey 2022
Lack of time; conflicting school priorities; lack of recognition by school management; classrooms with little digital access; fear of bringing up topics that may spiral into sensitive conversations about politics in polarised classrooms; these are the reasons teachers regularly bring up.
Added to all this, they often cited a sense of being ill-equipped to discuss an unknown information space. And no wonder: COVID-19 may have set teachers on a steep digital learning curve, with many reporting an increased use of apps such as WhatsApp, Youtube and Instagram as sources of daily information. But proportionally, pre-teens and teenagers rely on social media apps and online platforms for daily information far more routinely than their teachers.
The good news is that with the growing spotlight on media literacy, teachers, policymakers and education authorities are determined to use it as a way to secure democratic society
And students continue to explore new platforms. No matter how digitally savvy a teacher is, teaching digital media literacy can become intimidating when students increasingly cite platforms such as TikTok, Twitch, Fortnite, Discord, Reddit and Telegram as information sources. These are platforms where teachers’ presence is relatively limited, and the speed at which this space develops means textbooks and lesson plans may be outdated soon after publication.
The good news is that with the growing spotlight on media literacy, teachers, policymakers and education authorities are determined to use it as a way to secure democratic society. With the limits of online content moderation as a panacea for disinformation and polarisation becoming ever clearer, priority is increasingly shifting to civic resilience. In Europe, recently published guidelines for teachers to combat disinformation and promote digital literacy encourage a whole-of-school approach; a separate-subject approach is recommended only as an add-on when teachers add digital literacy to their classes alongside basics like reading, writing and counting.
Yet media literacy materials and external experts are only as effective as the extent to which teachers feel ready to engage with them.
Non-political, non-commercial funds have spawned the creation of a wealth of materials and games that foster digital literacy from its many perspectives in engaging, age appropriate ways. Political media literacy, financial media literacy, news literacy, algorithm literacy and lesson plans that explain social media business models that exacerbate disinformation and polarisation; these areas are becoming populated with materials and informed by advances in cognitive psychology. Journalist alliances such as Lie Detectors, Germany’s Journalismus macht Schule, Austria’s Digitaler Kompass and France’s nascent plans for journalist-led education programmes highlight the valuable role that independent external experts can play in kick-starting media literacy in schools and teacher-training environments.
Yet media literacy materials and external experts are only as effective as the extent to which teachers feel ready to engage with them. Too many teachers report confusion about how much they must do to transmit the skills of digital citizenship to their students. To make the most of the momentum among educators, policymakers and media literacy actors, several developments must take place. Researchers must come up with reliable impact measures to provide media-literacy guidance equivalent to the recommended daily portions of fruit and vegetables.
A winning situation will be one in which professional media literacy experts—such as journalists, librarians, artificial intelligence experts—rotate into education settings.
Teachers need time, incentives and recognition to become fluent in the language of media literacy, and in the questioning approach that’s needed in a fast-changing and uncertain information landscape. This is not always natural to teachers, whose DNA is more often tilted to providing answers than raising questions. Both these conditions will take time to implement.
In the meantime, if external experts are to be integrated into education settings, they need long-term incentives from public authorities. A winning situation will be one in which professional media literacy experts—such as journalists, librarians, artificial intelligence experts—rotate into education settings. They would impart their knowledge over defined periods of months, returning with all the new understanding of young audiences that will allow their own workplace to flourish and remain relevant. External specialists have an important part to play, and education authorities and public policymakers can facilitate this process with all the guarantees of quality and independence in place.