Teaching Kids Critical Thinking Skills — With Holiday Ads

Posted on December 20, 2009 at 6:03 pm

Ellen Besen has written a worthwhile article about how to use the avalanche of holiday season advertising to give children some important lessons in media literacy and critical thinking. Many thanks to Ms. Besen for permission to reprint it here.

Sugar Plums, Candy Canes and a Little Media Literacy
Ellen Besen

Uh oh, it’s that time of year again! The glut of holiday movies and TV programs and the ad campaigns in overdrive mean that the holiday season is again upon us. And inevitably, the TV ads feature cute characters, catchy music and toys, toys, toys! Yes, let the whining, begging and wheedling begin because it is that time when the full force of media is suddenly directed at one vulnerable audience: children…our children. Or at least that’s how it feels. So with all the expectations that holiday media creates, is it really any wonder that our kids sometimes go off the rails?
Of course, every family finds its own ways to counterbalance the pressure, whether by limiting the hours of TV watching or opting for a secret Santa. But there is another approach that might help solve this at a deeper level, and it begins with increasing your children’s level of media literacy.
“Media what?” you ask. Media literacy, a skill that involves developing an awareness of the subtle and not-so-subtle messages in TV, print, movies and even video games. This awareness includes understanding both what those messages are and how they are being communicated. Sounds good, but do our children really need it?
I would say yes. After all, the average American child is glued to the TV for two to three hours a day, according to the American Association of Pediatrics. Just think, then, how much information and misinformation our children are unquestioningly drinking in.
Part of the problem, here, lies in the fact that anything that appears on TV already seems important. Television automatically lends an air of authority to its content–a powerful built-in trait, which even adults fall prey to. In addition, few young viewers can fully differentiate between fiction and reality within media content. So if the children in the ad look like they are having fun with that new toy, they must really be having fun. Not just any fun, either, but the most fun ever. And then naturally, your child wants to be having that kind of fun too.
Swamped by all this distorted information, children without media training easily get swept up by the belief that they are missing out on something; that they really can’t live without the latest toy. And all of this creates pressure that gets relayed directly onto you, the besieged parent. Give your children some insight into the true nature of media, however, and you just might be rewarded by a refreshing change of attitude that may last well beyond the holidays.
With media literacy training, children are shown how to pull back from media’s spell and consider whether the information being presented is really true; to think about if they agree with the message; to stop regarding the media as an absolute authority and to seek out other points of view–maybe even yours.
So rather than falling into the usual behavior, your media-literate children would be able to ask themselves whether that toy really would be hours of fun or merely a few minutes and therefore whether they really want it or not. Even if they decide they do want the toy, they’d still have a better perspective on how important owning it actually is. Altogether this creates the potential for a much calmer holiday scenario. And who wouldn’t prefer that?

Media Literacy Training 101

To increase your kids’ ML quotient, try making them aware of key ways that media spins information. TV ads aimed at children are, in fact, an excellent place to start. If the ad seems very exciting, for example, see if you can help your kids identify why. Fast camera moves and quick cutting from one shot to another are two factors that create excitement.
Fast-paced music and an ultra-cheery narrator might also be having a big impact here. Try turning the sound off when the ad comes on and see how this affects the perception of excitement. This one might come as a real surprise because sound plays a much bigger role in creating mood that most of us realize.
Also, consider the toy itself. Does the size seem accurate or are they making it seem bigger, perhaps by placing it next to something extra tiny? Discuss the reality of the special features being offered–what might they be like in real life? Connecting this discussion to your children’s own experiences, both positive and negative, with the gap that often exists between expectations built up by advertising and reality can really bring these key points home.
Of course, you can also point out that the happy children in the ad are actors who are being told to look like they are having fun. If you watch carefully you may even find that the shots of happy faces are quite separate from the shots of the toys. There may or may not have been any actual playing with the toy involved in the making of the ad. And even if there were, by the fifth or sixth take, chances are the actors were pretty tired of the whole thing.

Smart Consumers, Not Cynics

If it seems like this will take away some of the fun of the holidays, be careful not to overdo it. The purpose, after all, is not to turn your kids into cynics but simply to prevent them from being sitting ducks.
And why take this on at a time of year when you are already overloaded, anyway? For one thing, at this time of year, you have your children’s full attention. There is something at stake here that has real meaning for them and that puts the odds in your favor. It also helps that holiday ads are particularly vivid in their use of the techniques discussed above and that makes them easier to spot. It’s true that the undertaking may make this holiday season a bit more challenging, but it also may ease holiday tension for years to come.
And keep in mind that while you may be able to control what media your young and even your older children are exposed to, eventually your kids will have to go out into an ever more media-saturated world. ML tools will give them an enviable edge in the greater world–one that will likely serve them well throughout their lives. Talk about a gift that keeps on giving!

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Interview: Ellen Besen on Visual Literacy

Posted on July 6, 2009 at 3:58 pm

The average American child watches two to three hours of TV a day, according to the American Association of Pediatrics. And that doesn’t include the time they spend playing video games, sitting in front of the computer, and watching movies. Yet, few children are taught how to decode the messages that come wrapped in visual media. Ellen Besen, an acclaimed animator, author, and teacher who’s worked with students from pre-school to college level says that visual literacy is a skill that every child should be taught. “Because of technology our kids have near-constant access to visual media, yet we’ve done very little to teach them how to really understand what they’re seeing,” says Besen. She is the author of Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writers, Filmmakers, Video Artist, and Game Developer Should Know and she answered my questions about what parents should know about visual literacy.

How do you define visual literacy?

It’s the ability to watch visual media with awareness of exactly what is being communicated (including less obvious messages and intents) and how that communication is being achieved.
How do you turn children from passive viewers to active, engaged viewers of television and film?

The first step involves introducing the idea that media can be questioned instead of just being accepted carte blanche. By its very nature, media seems authoritative — if something is on TV, for example, it must not only be true but also important. Left unquestioned, media can become established in a child’s mind as the ultimate authority. So you need to sit down with your children and watch things with them and discuss what you are watching. This way you maintain (or re-establish) the role as the main authority in your child’s life. Media may then raise interesting questions but the final answers to those questions come from you.

What can preschoolers learn about visual media? Elementary school kids? Middle and high schoolers?

Recognition that everything we see in media was put there by choice is key to developing visual and media literacy. This recognition leads to three big questions which can be adapted for children of different ages:

What choices did the creators make? Why did they make those choices? What else could they have chosen to do?

Again I must emphasis here that for kids of all ages, you need to watch the shows and movies they watch, preferably with them — you can’t be a credible authority (especially with older kids)unless you know the material! This allows you to see how your children react to specific elements — both positively and negatively — which will open doors for conversation with them. It also helps you observe your children’s overall reaction to media. What kind of watchers are they? Some kids get taken right in and once there, are hard to peel away. Other kids treat TV as a background element to which they give some of their attention while also carrying on with other activities. These different styles of watching offer clues to what your child might need to understand about media.

Since preschool programming is already quite regulated, efforts with very young children can mostly be focused on laying the foundation for visual literacy. Watch a favorite show with them and ask what they like best about it and what they like least. What would they change, if they could — show more of a favorite character, perhaps, or add a new character? Put the stories in a new setting or have more stories in a favorite one? This encourages active watching and helps create the groundwork for critical thinking by stimulating the child’s ability to form an opinion. Older preschoolers can also begin to consider the difference between real and not real — at this age, it might only be the broadest of distinctions: live action actors — real, animated characters — not real, for example.

With elementary school kids and preteens, you can try a more sophisticated version of the same exercises. Here along with encouraging active watching towards forming an opinion about the content, you can also begin to foster an awareness of the various elements through which different media communicate. Have them watch for changes in camera angles or the use of camera moves. Once they’ve identified that the angles often change, you can have them think about why they change: has the camera just cut closer to showcase a tiny detail which would otherwise be hard to see, such as something a character is taking out of her pocket? Has the camera started to move way back from the scene because the show is over and we are now saying good bye?

At this age, the “real/not real” discussion can also become more sophisticated. And it definitely becomes more important. Kids can watch TV ads aimed at them and look for false information — camera angles which make a toy look bigger than it really is; favorite cereals which look more brightly colored and more appetizing on TV than the real thing because the food has been doctored. They can also watch action sequences or fight sequences and begin to understand that the actors are not actually fighting.

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