Cultural theory matters to media education because it aims to describe the relationship between people and the world around them, and of course media and popular culture form a significant aspect of people's world experience.
Cultural theory aims to provide a model to explain how society works, and places emphasis on aspects relating to identity formation and the exercise of power. These are both crucial areas of interest for media educators who go beyond a focus on media skills and aesthetics to include a focus on the role of media in society - socially, economically and politically.
Since its inception in the 1930s, media education has been closely associated with cultural theory. In fact, many argue that F.R. Leavis' book "Culture and Environment", which employed a "cultural heritage" theory of culture, was the first media education text.
Theories of discrimination associated with Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall were highly influential on media education in the 1950s and 60s. In the 1970s and 1980s Marxist and structuralist theories, especially those associated with Louis Althusser and Roland Barthes help to shape media education, particularly via the work of Len Masterman.
The most recent theories - post modernism and post-structuralism - should inform media education because they provide convincing explanations of contemporary society - more convincing than those used by media educators up to this day (particularly structuralist notions of the one - directional dominance of media over individuals).
What can post-structuralist theory offer media education?
An explanation as to why young people are both vulnerable and powerful in relation to media simultaneously.
Theories for understanding young people's complex identity construction and use of media as a symbolic resource for identity construction.
An explanation of the evolving relationship between new media technologies and young people.
And much more...
Why does any of this matter? Because education should seem authentic to students and if they can't recognise themselves in scenarios that model particular educational claims, they will tune out. Young people know they are not victims of media, but they don't know how to participate most effectively in media culture, or how to think about media in such complex times. Media education can scaffold this learning.
I'm not suggesting that young people start learning post-structuralist theory. I am suggesting that teachers and media education theorists should find ways to develop curriculum that takes account of post-structuralism.
Here are some initial suggestions:
Place students at the center of their own learning experiences so that they can build on their existing media skills and knowledges though practical participation.
Recognise the limitations of "teacher expertise". Draw on the knowledge and skills of all members of the class.
Provide a diversity of experiences. Media classrooms should be spaces in which to experience genuine difference, innovation, and creativity. Promote acceptance and diversity.
Avoid absolute answers. Always look for opportunities to explore concepts, debate, question, challenge, interrogate and present alternatives. Aim to keep conversations going rather than close them down. Respond to controversies and ideas creatively rather than seek to have a final position.
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