Five reasons why Media Studies is a great subject

Francis Gilbert's picture

I used to be a bit sceptical about the whole idea of Media Studies until I started teaching it at A Level. The process of choosing a suitable syllabus (we opted for OCR), devising schemes of work and delivering the lessons over the last few years has now convinced me that it should be an essential part of the school curriculum. Here are my top 5 reasons why:

1. It is a truly contemporary subject which is relevant to all our pupils' lives. The media saturates everything we do in the developed world in the 21st Century. Giving pupils the tools to analyse and critique the media affords them the chance to see the ways in which the media pervades their lives.

2. It improves literacy skills and pupils' abilities in other subjects. I've noticed that pupils' English skills really improve when they are studying the media. Because they're motivated, they are happy to write detailed critiques of the media in a way many are not when analysing Victorian literature or writing essays for other subjects. They also learn a great deal of new terminology much of which can be used in other subjects, including English, the Humanities, D&T and Science.

3. It is a genuinely vocational subject. Media Studies involves pupils making their own films, writing their own newspapers, setting up their own websites, creating their own music videos. It's extremely hands-on; pupils interact with modern technology in lots of ways, using all the customary IT programmes such as wordprocessing and presentation software as well as video and sound editing software.

4. It is intellectually challenging. Many people who have not studied the subject don't realise that it has a thorough grounding in theory. Pupils learn about linguistic theory, exploring the complexities of structuralist and post-structuralist thought. For example, it affords pupils to explore crucial issues connected with "identity". Recently, I've been teaching of the most fascinating lessons I've ever taken in A2 Media. Under the topic of "Collective Identity", we've been looking at the ways in which people's interaction with the media helps creates their sense of themselves. For example, we've looked at the whole issue of "Gay Collective Identity", tracing the ways in which notions of "gay identity" have evolved over the last few centuries. This has involved examining the circumstances surrounding Oscar Wilde's trial; the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Europe during the 20th Century; the ways in which seminal films like 'The Victim' starring Dirk Bogarde helped forge a new identity for gay people; the impact of AIDS upon society as a whole; the emergence of diverse gay identities in the Noughties. It's been an inspiring topic to teach, covering a myriad of differing subjects; our approach has been both historical and theoretical, as well as practical -- pupils have devised presentations on the topic. It made realise that studying such a topic would have been illegal when I first started teaching in the late 1980s; the Conservative's had a law, "Clause 28", which banned the "promotion" of homosexuality. This makes me realise how important "progressive" thinking in education is; prejudice needs to be challenged, explored, discussed, debated and analysed.

5. Media Studies GCSE and A Level is rigorously assessed. Contrary to the myths that surround the subject, it's actually very difficult to get an A grade in the subject, with fewer than 15% of pupils attaining an A grade on average each year at A Level. The marking criteria for the coursework is very precise as it is for the exams. The final grade consists of 40% coursework and 60% exam.

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Andrew Old's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 10:23

So just to check, your reasons are:

1) It is mainly about trivia.
2) It is a bit like another, more worthwhile, subject.
3) It is not academic.
3?) It is full of theory.
4) More theory.
5) They get bad grades even though it's 40% coursework.

Hmmmm. Not really selling me on it here. Surely, A-level media studies is what students do if they aren't bright enough to do English?

Andrew Old's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 10:53

Probably worth adding a couple of links:

Media Studies found to be among easiest A-levels:

Top universities shun students with A-levels like media studies:

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 11:37

In reply to Andrew's points:
I am not sure I accept that studying contemporary society is trivial; nothing could be more serious than the contemporary reality we live in.
Developing literacy skills is vital; there's evidence that Media Studies does this better than most subjects.
It has a good balance between theory and practicality.

The so-called "top universities" shun Media Studies for the simple that it's not a degree course. Many great universities do offer some form of a Media Studies degree, including Goldsmiths, which has a fantastic Media Studies department and is well respected.

Andrew Old's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 11:59

Studying the mundane is always going to be dumbed-down education compared with studying the best of what has been thought and said.

I assume you are right to say that top universities don't offer degrees in it. I'm not sure how it strengthens your case. Nor am I sure what's so great about Goldsmiths.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 12:10

Goldsmiths is great! I love being a student there; I've got top supervisors and I've learnt a lot. Many Russell Group Universities don't offer Media Studies because they don't have the staff to teach the subject. But having talked to the Directors for Admissions from Oxford and Cambridge at length, I can assure you that they see nothing wrong at all with Media Studies and respect it as a subject; ask them yourself.

Sharon's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 12:17

Well said, Francis. I do tire of the trashing of Media Studies by people who know little about it and assume it’s an A-Level in watching the telly. If people believe what they read in the Daily Mail, it’s a made-up subject used by cash-strapped former polytechnics to exploit the naive ambitions of sixth-formers dreaming of a career as a television presenter.

But in the UK we spend huge amounts of our time consuming media in one form or another – about eight hours a day, on average, and this is growing all the time. The creative industries now contribute 6-8% to our GDP. It’s how we understand, shape, express and record contemporary culture. Given all of this it would be odd if media *wasn’t* worthy of in-depth study.

My degree in Media, was academically demanding and varied, covering everything from semiotic theory to the political economy of media production, and from globalisation to the relationship between the state and the media. It’s this diverse academic background combined (on some courses) with production skills that means media graduates actually have much better prospects than those on other arts and humanities courses. The Goldsmiths media degree has one of the highest rates of graduates going on to work in the industry of any degree course in the country. Conversely, there are huge numbers of History and English Lit students on the dole queues.

Laura McInerney's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 12:55

Teaching people almost *anything* will yield benefits, this is why research evaluations of any school curriculum or subject will show it has a positive effect. The question is whether not the time would have been better spent studying something more 'highly regarded' by others, or that would have a better 'outcome'.

Taking the first part - whether or not other subjects provide better skills - most non-numerical subjects at GCSE all provide the same skills because they are based on Bloom's Taxonomy. So every subject gets students to remember and recall information, then give reasons for things, and finally evaluate the information. So in History one remembers who was involved in a battle, why they were in the battle and then whether or not this is a good thing. In Media Studies you will look at what identity is, reasons why identity might develop in this way and then evaluate the theory. And so on. Because of this one subject is unlikely to make you 'more intelligent' than another.

The 'high regard' thing is true, but it's a mistaken belief. Some subjects are 'liked' more than others, but this is often based on a mistaken belief that some subjects lead to 'better outcomes' than others, or it's based on media views that are themselves ignorant of what is taught in schools.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 12:57

One of my sons did Media Studies GCSE, along with nine other highly academic subjects. He loved it and did well but that didn't mean he had a 'dumbed' down education.He subsequently did a History and Politics degree.
The other did PE, which he also loved, alongside his nine 'English Bacc' type GCSEs . He went on to read PPE at university.
I think it is a mistake to brand subjects rigidly as 'academic' and 'non academic', as if they were polar opposites.
Many young people want a choice, and to be able to do a mix of qualifications that interest and engage them.
It seems that 'choice' is the one thing no-one wants them to have, in spite of the rhetoric of the market.

Laura McInerney's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 13:00

On a related note about Oxford, in 2001 I sat A-Levels (the last of the linear ones) in English Language, Mathematics, Psychology, Sociology & Film Studies. I can hand on heart say that Film Studies was the most challenging subject by some way even though I had a fabulous teacher (who was also a university lecturer). It involved a range of skills and concepts that challenged me academically in a way no other subject did.

Film Studies was also the topic spoke about most at my Oxford interview for PPE and it was the subject I chose to send in an essay for as it demonstrated my understanding of political and economic factors in film-making. They were fascinated by my understanding of all kinds of concepts through that one topic. They had no problem at all accepting it as a rigorous A-Level once they saw the spec.

Daniel's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 19:03

I'm currently a student studying both A Level Media Studies and English Literature.
I believe firmly that throughout time subjects have been added to the curriculum because people still value education, but find that certain subjects should not be forced upon them. Why must one learn about Science or Latin when that does not excite one's interest? When given the opportunity to learn about the Media I jumped at the opportunity. I find it amazingly fascinating how the media shapes who we are as people, our identities and controls how we live our lives every day. It is something I believe people can value learning about. My father was a journalist and avidly believed that I shouldn't take the subject because it was a ‘waste of time’ and not seen as ‘academic’ but I took it upon myself to take the subject up; it is a choice that I have never regretted. Since then, I have immersed myself in learning about many other subjects that relate to media. The 'Male Gaze' and the 'Queer Theory' to name a few. Evidently, this subject can broaden any students' spectrum of reading and education.

To deem Media Studies as "dumbed down" is a very draconian and prejudiced way of looking at media students such as myself. Ironically, I believe this opinion is generated by the media itself in certain quarters; once again, you see how the Media has shaped ones view of students studying this subject.

Hopefully, I've made it clear that Media Studies is a subject close to my heart; I love learning about it and believe it really does benefit every student and is quite a demanding course.

Charlotte Mooney's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 20:16

Well said, Francis!

Media studies is an essential subject in a broad education, and one we should not ignore. Following the wikileaks saga, I’m sure that no-one would deny that control of information is an issue worthy of examination and debate. I can’t imagine citizens of media-restricted countries saying that we have nothing to learn from our free press, or that there is no need to monitor or protect it. In 2009, The US government took new media seriously when they requested that Twitter delay its scheduled maintenance so that Iranians could continue to spread news about the disputed elections in Tehran. Most recently, the ‘war‘ between Vince Cable and Rupert Murdoch has highlighted the complex relationship between media, power and politics. Saying that media studies is not a valuable subject is saying that we don’t care about these issues. By leaving the media industry unexamined we give free reign to Rupert Murdoch, Mark Zuckerberg, Silvio Berlusconi, and many others to make billions without scrutiny or accountability. Now that media studies is becoming more commonly offered in schools, we are giving more pupils the opportunity to observe and challenge the world they live in.
Media studies broadens pupils' knowledge to encompass politics, business, economics and law - all subjects that the ‘top’ universities take very seriously.

I do, however, take issue with one aspect of media education. Most courses, including the one I took, try to combine academic study of the media with pupils making their own media. These are two huge areas that are worthy of study in themselves, especially at degree level. More established areas of study don’t attempt to combine analysis and creation into one course of study - English literature students are not expected to write a novel. Let’s respect both media studies and media creation, by separating them and allowing our pupils to study them in the depth they require.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 20:27

Thanks for your comments Laura, CharMooney, Daniel, Sharon, Fiona -- and Andrew, even though you seem to loathe the subject! I feel that Andrew has made some important comments because he voices some familiar prejudices against Media Studies that need to be answered again and again so that people see beyond the myths. I feel that the other comments have done this very well so I don't need to add that much to them. CharMooney makes a series of interesting points about the vital importance of Media Studies in our contemporary society. She suggests that the academic and the practical should be separated. I would beg to differ here; I think Media Studies' combination of the practical and the academic at GCSE and A Level works well because pupils can use the theory to go on to make some interesting media pieces that challenge and subvert the representations of key issues we find in the media. I like the way Media Studies provides practical applications for theory.

Joanne's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 22:00

Media studies along with other artistic and creative subjects can be easily judged and disregarded by the more academic people involved in education, which I find so frustrating! I am not the most academic of people, but I do believe in the importance of studying Maths, English and Science to GCSE level. Along with the anger I feel towards cuts to the arts by the government, I want to change the preconceptions often created towards Media Studies.

The subject involves a lot of theory, but also the application of a student's own opinion and philosophical judgement. The practical side involved creating original pieces of film that are marked to strict guidelines.
This intensity of creative thinking is valuable to a student's development of independent learning. Compared to the level of input required for completely theory-based subjects, it is a much more mature course and more relevant to life today; giving a student valuable experience, something which may be lost in the extremely complicated and irrelevant stages of, say, Maths as a subject.

Andrew Old's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 22:02

"Why must one learn about Science or Latin when that does not excite one’s interest?"

I think that says it all about media studies students.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 22/12/2010 - 07:40

While I think it's fair enough to attack my points with your sweeping and unsubstantiated generalisations Andrew, I think it's a little harsh to pick on one student's grammatical slip-up while not engaging at all with any of the excellent points he made. The reality is that the students like Media Studies and benefit from it, as is shown in Joanne and Daniel's points. I have seen plenty of English Literature students in my many years of teaching it at A Level who have struggled at times with their expression. I've found as a teacher that jumping on their errors and saying this indicates that they're "stupid" -- as you insinuate here -- really doesn't improve their English in the long run, but makes them overly-cautious about expressing themselves and inhibits their writing. I hope this isn't a pedagogical technique you use in your classroom because I can see that it might stir up anger amongst your pupils, but I'm sure you don't since from your website I get the impression you take your teaching very seriously.

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 22/12/2010 - 09:14

"grammatical slip-up"?

I just meant that it seemed to illustrate that media studies were for students who wouldn't appreciate challenging subjects like Latin or science. It there was an error of grammar I missed it.

(Let's face it, if I was going to be picky about errors I'd be pointing out that you failed to count to six in the main article.)

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 22/12/2010 - 10:15

Whoops! Thank you Andrew for doing some counting for me! I beg your pardon about misunderstanding your point; I suppose I just feel you're unfairly negative about Media Studies, but I am not sure anything I say will change your mind so we will leave it at that. I will amend my counting error!

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 22/12/2010 - 10:31

Just to add whatever the merits of Media Studies if a grade A GCSE or A'level is difficult to attain, that wouldn't always weigh in its favour. I think most students and parents (rightly or wrongly) would like to tackle subjects where a top grade is more achievable to enhance their university prospects.

Daniel's picture
Wed, 22/12/2010 - 15:16

Andrew Old, fair point you make, but I wasn't talking about myself, I'm actually applying to study English and Classics as a joint honors at University. I have respect for anybody who chooses to study Latin, Science, Maths OR Media, because it is what they enjoy doing, I don't think anybody should be forced into being educated about what they don't enjoy learning about. I really disagree with this hierarchy of education and Media being seen at the bottom of the list because it challenges people creatively, something which a subject such as Math doesn't do, every student learns differently, it is up to them to decide what path they wish to take.

dan clayton's picture
Wed, 22/12/2010 - 16:50

I'm no great evangelist for Media Studies (having taught it for a good few years), but Andrew Old's opening comment strikes me as both curmudgeonly and cynical. (And I actually quite like Andrew's teaching blog...).

Surely literacy stretches to all forms of language: the written word, the spoken, visual codes? Don't we want a culturally literate generation of students?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 22/12/2010 - 16:58

Thank you Daniel for saying what I should have said in my first response to Andrew's comment. I think you make a very strong point when you say that it's important that pupils have choices in the subjects they study. I think that we get into all sorts of trouble when we start making false hierarchies of subjects, with the older, more traditional subjects at the top, and the newer ones at the bottom. I think Dan is absolutely right in pointing out that literacy stretches to all forms of language; including cultural literacy, something that Media Studies is particularly good at fostering.

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 22/12/2010 - 18:33

There's a reason that old subjects get more respect than new, it is that they have withstood the test of time. They are our inheritance, not simply a passing fancy. They are the best that has ever been thought, rather than the most "relevant". They have proven themselves to be more than a temporary phenemona which seemed important to the fashionably minded. They take us beyond our everyday experience, instead of elevating the everyday to the exclusion of the profound. They have changed the world. We become smarter for knowing them and that, not developing vocational skills or fashonable opinions, is the point of education.

dan clayton's picture
Wed, 22/12/2010 - 19:44

OK, that's all fine and dandy, Andrew, but where then does anything from the last 50-100 years fit in to your vision?

Do you not agree that, with the rise of film, TV and technology-led communication, young people (and even, perhaps, older bloggers) need a set of tools to analyse the language and culture around them?

I may be an utterly shallow and easily pleased consumer of modern tat, but the three things that have given me the most artistic pleasure in the last decade have been "Pan's Labyrinth", Radiohead's "OK Computer" and HBO's "The Wire", not a book among them, and I'm an English teacher.

I wish I'd been given some better critical tools to analyse these amazing works of art when I was at school. What I got was a diet of T.S. Eliot and Jane Austen: great but not the whole picture.

Media Studies goes a long way towards giving us some of the analytical tools that are relevant to contemporary culture (or even, if you want to be picky, older patterns - take Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Russian Folk Tale as an example).

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 23/12/2010 - 08:54

Let's not pretend that Media Studies is about getting people with a strong background in great literature and art to apply it to the greatest parts of contemporary culture.

Somebody who has studied the best of English literature might be able to tell you how The Wire resembles Dickens' descriptions of the life of a city. They might be able to draw parallels between George Orwell's mix of reportage and fiction and the writing of David Simon.

Somebody who has studied media studies will tell you The Wire portrays black people and compare it with The Cosby Show.

I don't object to people developing an appreciation of the contemporary, I would just prefer it was one that appreciated what is great in a contemporary work rather than what is superficial. One that draws on what has established over the generations as great, rather draws on the video they watched the week before.

Dan Scott's picture
Thu, 23/12/2010 - 11:59

Tin hat on.

Media studies seems a very interesting subject and provides excellent scope to discuss what lies behind the media for well-informed individuals. Let's face it, its impact on our culture has been immense over the last fifty or so years, as well as our sense of 'self'. However, I really cannot equate it to the core subjects such as Science, Maths, English, History and the like, which equip people with the intellectual armoury to be able to actively engage with all aspects of our culture, and probably to debate issues of the media effectivley as well! Well-educated people can interpret the media, but media students can do little else.
Let me clarify my position further. I have noticed a huge shift in education in the last 2 decades towards the expression of opinion and acquisition of 'thinking skills' as opposed to good old fashioned knowledge, a dirty word nowadays. It's almost as if thinking occurs in a vacuum and hence pupils can be taught how to do this in isolation and apply it to any situation. The scientific evidence I've seen seems to suggest thought and knowledge are inextricably linked. The former can't appear without the latter. This would seem to me to be at odds with Bloom's taxonomy, which suggests memory and recall are low order functions and should be avoided at all costs in outstanding lessons. Or maybe the interpretation of the taxonomy is at fault. This is why recall-type activities are non-existent in classrooms today. I'd argue pyramids fall down without the broader sections at the bottom being strong and reinforced, and so sadly does neuroscience. it seems a nourished memory stimulates thought. Great thinkers know a lot basically. Which is why I'm worried about the proliferation of supposedly top-of-pyramid subjects such as Media studies (P4C etc), and this is my main point, instead of knowledge-based subjects. Even science at GCSE has been relegated to the media studies of science, where the motivations, methodology and impacts of science on society now override the importance of the subject knowledge itself. This makes teaching A level a nightmare! But I'm over 40, so what do I know.

A couple of other things to add. Choice in education, I think not, for the reasons outlined above. At least not until later on. Would you allow children to choose their diet? Oh yeah we do, and look where that's got us. Secondly, the relative numbers of people achieving a particular grade at GCSE and A level is largely down to the ability of the cohort - 33% of A level physics students get an A grade - too many if you ask me. It is argued that the kind of student that survives to go on to do A2 physics tends to be at the top end of a particular cohort. Nothing is totally norm referenced any more. The anecdotal evidence for Media Studies is that the less able tend to gravitate (are encouraged)towards it. I know as I chuckle at the list of clowns who want to do it year on year at my school. This is only my view of course and others may have a different experience, where the most able students do it.

To sum up, I agree, the media is an excellent subject to study, but please don't equate it with traditional subjects.

dan clayton's picture
Tue, 04/01/2011 - 14:21

Andrew says "Let’s not pretend that Media Studies is about getting people with a strong background in great literature and art to apply it to the greatest parts of contemporary culture", but I think that this misses the point entirely.

What I would argue is that Media Studies as a subject is a good way of getting young people to develop a more up to date analytical framework than that deployed in English Literature.

Andrew then goes on to say that "Somebody who has studied the best of English literature might be able to tell you how The Wire resembles Dickens’ descriptions of the life of a city. They might be able to draw parallels between George Orwell’s mix of reportage and fiction and the writing of David Simon". It's good to see you can appreciate the power of David Simon's work, but what you do here is give a quick literary analysis of it: you don't even mention the language of camera angles, edits, or the role of sound or lighting, let alone the actors themselves. The Wire's quality is only partly down to brilliant storytelling and if you don't offer young people a critical vocabulary to dissect the rest of what's in front of them, they'll not be able to analyse what they experience. Why stick to literary reference points when discussing a text like this? Why not compare it to Homicide, Hill Street Blues, Dixon of Dock Green, Z Cars too?

That's why, I'd argue that at its best Media Studies can be much more than the caricature you offer in your quip about representation of ethnicity in The Cosby Show.

Bob Anderson's picture
Tue, 30/10/2012 - 20:32

People should just let others do what they want in terms of education and stop critising others. In theoretical sense all of it is pointless but we still do it, its just 1 of several paths that people take, critising any subject is a form of segregation

FJ Murphy's picture
Fri, 20/12/2013 - 20:39

'Criticising any subject is a form of segregation.' Strange, what do you mean?!
I do, however, tend to agree with you in one respect: 'People should just let others do what they want in terms of education.' LSN, take note.

FJ Murphy's picture
Fri, 20/12/2013 - 20:43

Not surprised that Francis slipped in some gay propaganda by teaching about so-called 'collective identities'. I deplore what is often referred to as 'identity politics' with various self-appointed 'community leaders' talking on behalf of this community and that community, as though all gay, Muslim, black or whatever people see themselves as primarily gay or Muslim or whatever 'minority' is flavour of the month.

Saima's picture
Thu, 23/01/2014 - 19:47

I'm in yr 9 and i'm choosing my options would media be good for it
cos i love producing

Brendan Sheppard's picture
Sat, 21/01/2017 - 19:41

The truth is that Media Studies is a difficult subject and should be amongst the top 5 essentials. In fact I'd argue it's more important now than it's ever been. If History is the equivalent of learning the past then Media is about learning the future. With our kids using mobiles, tablets, computers and just about still watching TV and Film - Media Studies has to adapt. For example, the latest GCSE (or Cambridge National) includes: Creating Apps, Digital Photography, Digital Animation, Comic Strips, Website creation etc... the latest Cambridge Technical has been endorsed by Cambridge University and includes: News, TV/Film, Apps, Websites, Digital Animation etc.. Now if you feel these things don't belong in our schools then I feel sorry for you and you are clearly so far behind the times it's unreal. It may be difficult to get an A in the subject - true but that's because it's more challenging than English, more challenging than Maths and more importantly, it teaches a set of very broad skills that ALL employers USE.

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