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In defence of Heat Magazine

Had criticism been based on the detail of the specification that would be one thing, but frustratingly, it seems to be based on a blanket judgment that such texts are too down market to be worth studying. This attitude fails to recognise the potential value of studying examples of popular media. No one is saying that it should constitute the entire content of GCSE English but I would critical of an English specification that focused solely on any one type of text.

So here are my five reasons why popular media should be included in English GCSE.

1.       The creative industries in the UK are a huge part of our economy, representing 7.3% of the UK’s GVA (Gross value added) and accounting for over half a million jobs. It’s a sector that has been booming in recent years growing by 6% a year from 1997-2005 according to the DCMS (double the average across sectors). Jobs in this sector are not for the most part to be found in publishing and shipping crates of Shakespeare plays. That doesn’t make Shakespeare any less valuable but makes pretending popular media doesn’t exist short sighted.

2.       Businesses and entrepreneurs in particular need to know how to communicate messages about products and brands to mass audiences. Understanding how magazines like Heat appeal to their readers, how they make themselves easily accessible and how they influence people is crucial if we are to equip young people to be entrepreneurial, create strong brands and market themselves and their businesses.

Such instrumental preoccupations may sound low-brow and insufficiently ‘cultured’ to some but that doesn’t make them any less important to the economy and young people’s future prospects. Of course, some might argue that young people have sufficient exposure to popular media as it is and don’t need more, but exposure isn’t the same as learning to read texts critically. If young people were to read Shakespeare at home all the time that wouldn’t make studying him in school and learning to analyse it any less important. Yes Shakespeare is more complex and long lasting but the media doesn’t have mass appeal by coincidence; it is cleverly designed to do so and understanding how it does this is a valuable part of learning.

3.       Young people are hugely influenced by the media that surrounds them. Their role models, aspirations and body image are shaped by magazines like Heat and shows like Britain’s Got Talent. Being able to understand the way they are being influenced makes them more critical consumers, less likely to accept being told what they ‘should’ be like and less permeable to advertising.

4.       Part of the role of education is to enrich our lives by giving us an understanding of what is going on around us. When I studied Media Studies GCSE (yes. I took media studies GCSE), I remember noticing a real change in how I saw the world around me. I’d look at adverts and recognise the techniques being used, understand how they were affecting me and so on. For me, part of the role of education is to enrich the way we engage with the world around us. When so much of it is comprised of popular media it makes sense  to develop a more thinking relationship with it.

5.       Text types are partly understood in comparison to each other. Whilst the differences between Heat Magazine and Shakespeare are glaring, defining and illustrating these differences (between figurative and non-figurative language for example) through contrast makes it much easier to pick out key features in the latter. Yes there are more “literary” texts that could show this but using texts at opposite ends of the spectrum is a great way to illustrate the crucial link between text purpose and style.

For those who have assumed the role of cultural gate keepers, it can be all too easy to proscribe curriculum content as not high-brow enough and to announce yet more “dumbing down.” This would be fair enough if the purpose of English GCSE were limited to initiating the next generation into our literary pantheon. But it’s not.

12 comments

  1. Oldandrew says:

    You can justify almost anything if you do what you’ve done, namely:

    a) Come up with a non-academic, and often a bit vague, aim for education.

    b) Assert without argument, or evidence of effectiveness, that a particular activity or object of study is an appropriate way to achieve that aim.

    The problem is actually trying to convince anybody that your aim is appropriate, and that your method is effective.

    When it comes to aims, I’m not convinced. Should we be preparing students specifically for jobs in *any* and all creative industries? Should we be preparing students for being able to “influence” others in *any* way possible? Are we to directly inculcate students with our (negative) attitude to being influenced by the mass media? Are we in the business of deciding what “the world around” our students is and getting them to study it, rather than to broaden their horizons?

    As for methods…..

    Is studying Heat magazine better preparation for the creative industries than studying Shakespeare? Or for communication (some might say Shakespeare was pretty good at communicating). Does studying rubbish in English make students more critical of it? (I have seen students learn precisely the wrong lesson from what is meant to be a “bad example”.) Does studying the media actually give us advantages as consumers of it? Is comparison that effective a technique, and if so is it really comparison between the best and worse that’s important?

    You haven’t really provided an argument here, you have just provided a rough sketch of a number of different arguments, none of which seem to me to be likely to be convincing to anyone who isn’t already firmly committed to studying dross in English lessons.

    • loic_admin says:

      Should we be preparing students specifically for jobs in *any* and all creative industries?
      No I don’t think we should simply be preparing students for particular jobs but instead ensuring they have the skills to pursue jobs in the broadest possible range of sectors. Unless you mean that there’s something specifically wrong with the creative industries?

      Should we be preparing students for being able to “influence” others in *any* way possible?
      Depends where the line is between influence and manipulate. In terms of being able to set out a poster or a leaflet in a way which captures an audience’s attention and leads them through the information? Yes. To be able to shape the way a brand is seen? Yes I think so. If not should we also get rid of sections of the specification which cover “writing to persuade and inform”, or perhaps ban debating because influencing people is bad?

      Are we to directly inculcate students with our (negative) attitude to being influenced by the mass media?
      No I think we should avoid inculcation. But there’s a difference between inculcating and being aware that something is happening and how.

      Are we in the business of deciding what “the world around” our students is and getting them to study it, rather than to broaden their horizons?
      We should ensure that the world around them is covered AND that we broaden their horizons. That’s why most of the texts in the spec will be ones they’ve never come across before

      Is studying Heat magazine better preparation for the creative industries than studying Shakespeare? Or for communication (some might say Shakespeare was pretty good at communicating).
      No I don’t think it is better. Shakespeare may well be better. But it’s not an either or situation and I’m not clear what the disadvantage of covering both would be. If the argument were about one OR the other I’d reach very different conclusions but it’s not.

      Does studying rubbish in English make students more critical of it? (I have seen students learn precisely the wrong lesson from what is meant to be a “bad example”.)
      I’m not saying that they are studying a bad example. I think Heat magazine is a very good example of English of a particular from directed towards a particular purpose.

      Does studying the media actually give us advantages as consumers of it?
      You’re right that that’s something research would be needed on.

      But then Is comparison that effective a technique,
      If not we might need to get rid of quite a lot of “compare and contrast” questions!

      if so is it really comparison between the best and worse that’s important?
      – Again I can’t agree that we are talking about the “best and worst” – apples and pears.

      • Oldandrew says:

        I think that on the “purpose of education” type questions you are dodging the issues here. Do you really mean the “broadest possible range of sectors” regardless of whether they actually require an educated mind? Personally I’m more interested in preparing my students for being, say, doctors rather than strippers. Do you really mean to defend *all* forms of “influence” only by arguing against the straw man position of a condemnation of all persuasive writing? Or to defend passing on particular attitudes by arguing against the idea that students should be completely unaware of what is around now? Do you really think that you can gloss over the conflict between two different aims by suggesting we do both? None of the above debating techniques seem to indicate that your assumptions about the aims of education are anything less than highly controversial. I’m quite happy to pursue discussion of them further, but I think we have already established that they cannot simply be assumed without objection.

        As for your claims about methods, you no longer seem very convinced about any of them. Are there any that you think are definitely solid enough to justify studying something that seems like such a waste of time to so many people?

        • loic_admin says:

          I think that on the “purpose of education” type questions you are dodging the issues here.
          Really? Did you read the links?

          Do you really mean the “broadest possible range of sectors” regardless of whether they actually require an educated mind? Personally I’m more interested in preparing my students for being, say, doctors rather than strippers.
          If your point is about creative industries then I think the comparison with stripping is a little… unconvincing. I would also disagree with you that working in the creative industries does not require an educated mind if that is what you mean. If however you’re point is not about the creative industries but about industries that “do not require an educated mind” then I’m not sure how education would be part of preparing for them if education is not required for them. In such cases no; education should not aim to prepare you for them when there is no such thing as an education that would prepare you for them because they do not require education. By “preparing you to enter sectors” one take it I was referring to sectors that would require preparation for. Which I think covers most of them.

          Do you really mean to defend *all* forms of “influence” only by arguing against the straw man position of a condemnation of all persuasive writing?
          I don’t think I am trying to defend *all* forms of influence no. I think my initial point on influence was to do with branding, PR, marketing etc which would be significant concerns for most businesses. I then suggested that if you object to learning these out of a dislike for pupils learning to influence in *any* way then you would also need to ban a whole range of other forms of learning to influence

          Or to defend passing on particular attitudes by arguing against the idea that students should be completely unaware of what is around now? Do you really think that you can gloss over the conflict between two different aims by suggesting we do both?
          Not sure I follow. I can see two points there- one about particular attitudes: no I don’t think teachers should pass on particular attitudes, they should get pupils to look at things critically, see different points of view and form an opinion backed up with reasons. I don’t think that’s controversial though so I’m not sure what your concern is here. Secondly the “conflict” between learning about the world that surrounds pupils and the less familiar world. It’s not rocket science for a curriculum to do both those things. “Conflict” between aims? I don’t think I see it.

          As for your claims about methods, you no longer seem very convinced about any of them.
          The claim that learning about how the media influences people might make them more critical consumers of it? That seems a likely enough hypothesis to feel pretty convinced of it but to be interested in any evidence available for or against it. Do you have any to disprove what seems such a reasonable hypothesis?
          The claim that studying why y is different to x helps you understand what x is like? Again, seems reasonable and has always worked when I’ve done it in the classroom. Surely being open to evidence that proves or disproves a view is not the same as not being very convinced of it.

          • Oldandrew says:

            I haven’t followed the links as there was nothing to suggest that they would strengthen your argument.

            With regard to the other points, I did not compare the creative industries with stripping. I was simply trying to get you to acknowledge that education and preparation for work were not the same thing. You still don’t appear to have acknowledged this.

            Nor do you appear to have acknowledged that you can’t justify something by appealing to its usefulness in influencing people, unless you think influencing people is a worthwhile end in itself. That, not the straw man that nothing which is useful for influencing should be taught, is the point you should be addressing.

            You still seem to be glossing over the conflict between aims. It’s no good saying you can’t see it. Why can’t you see it? How can you miss it? Spending time on one aim is automatically time that can’t be spent on another. An education designed with one end in mind would be very different to one with another end in mind.

            In your final claim about methods you seem to have just moved towards discussing aims again. If making students into “critical consumers of the media” doesn’t involve instilling particular attitudes into them, then I don’t really know what it means and I can’t judge how best to teach it.

    • Joseph Reynolds says:

      Yes, OldAndrew, you are absolutely correct. If you gave them a piece of loo roll or the back of a cereal box, they would rationalise why it was important to study these.

      But, like most of the others I have seen or heard from, they don’t really have any of the facts handy. I’m about five facts ahead of them. As you can see below, I gave him the first fact: the National Curriculum states that texts should be of ‘high quality, among the best of their type…’

      Oh, I know. He’ll just come up with some rationalisation now about how Heat magazine is the best of it’s type. But he would be foolish to. I’ve got another five bullets in the gun. And he’s got nothing.

  2. Oldandrew says:

    Why is it that writing about standards in English is almost guaranteed to ensure one makes a lot of errors in basic English?

    Apologies for the strange punctuation and odd typos in my previous comment. In particular, that should be “best and worst” not “best and worse”.

  3. Lethandrel says:

    As neither “Britain’s Got Talent” nor “Heat” ever enter my house, does that mean my child fails because I have slightly higher standards as to his media intake?

    I also take umbrage at the implication that I surround my child with such media drivel.

    The argument that children should be studying what influences them? My child has Aspergers and has absolutely no interest in the fleeting fashions that pass as entertainment (and I, for one, am glad). That argument could be used to feed toddlers only lollipops as “that’s what they like”, or “pink milk” as Peppa Pig does – give me a break.

    I would much rather my child be taught; how to use an apostrophe, that it’s “could have” not “could of”, how and when to use a semi-colon or a comma (especially when to use a comma). I’d like my child to be able to read and write the English language properly.

    In an English lesson I don’t want my child to be taught fashionable drivel and dross, I want my child to be taught how to use the English language PROPERLY.

    • loic_admin says:

      As neither “Britain’s Got Talent” nor “Heat” ever enter my house, does that mean my child fails because I have slightly higher standards as to his media intake?
      Is it ok for pupils whose parents don’t own any Shakespeare plays to automatically fail English as a consequence? No and that’s not what happens. It’s teachers’ job to make sure that it doesn’t.

      The argument that children should be studying what influences them? My child has Aspergers and has absolutely no interest in the fleeting fashions that pass as entertainment (and I, for one, am glad).
      It does influence the world he/she lives in though so is still worth understanding and I’m afraid we can’t write individual specifications for each pupil.

      That argument could be used to feed toddlers only lollipops as “that’s what they like”, or “pink milk” as Peppa Pig does – give me a break.
      No but it would be an argument for teaching children about different food groups and healthy eating. Importantly I’m also not advancing the argument that we should just put in texts on the grounds that pupils “like them” or to make the spec more “relevant”. I believe that education and the curriculum should be about more than just giving children what they want.

      I would much rather my child be taught; how to use an apostrophe, that it’s “could have” not “could of”, how and when to use a semi-colon or a comma (especially when to use a comma). I’d like my child to be able to read and write the English language properly.
      Not sure why the inclusion of this unit in a broader specification should detract from that? Have a look at AF5,(vary sentences for clarity, purpose and effect), AF6 (write with technical
      accuracy of syntax and punctuation in phrases, clauses and sentences) and AF8 (AF8 – use correct spelling) of the assessing pupil progress in English writing framework? http://www.essex.gov.uk/Business-Partners/Partners/Schools/One-to-one-tuition/Documents/A3%20APP%20assessment%20criteria%20%E2%80%93%20Reading%20and%20Writing.pdf

  4. Joseph Reynolds says:

    The problem with all your arguments it that they are just rationalisations. They don’t fit the facts.

    The National Curriculum Range and Content section states, texts should be of ‘high quality, among the best of their type…’
    I won’t go into detail about what the rest of it says, because inevitably you will just now change your story, and, like those before you, will automatically try and rationalise each new fact as it comes out. But I’ll let you in on a secret, I’m about five facts ahead of you on this. If you want to look like a fool five more times, go ahead. Be my guest.

    In the meantime, I suggest you ‘read’ the National Curriculum.

  5. Joseph Reynolds says:

    There is some implication that the English curriculum can be whatever you say it is. Or whatever you decide it is. This is not the case. Someone has to decide what the standards are. That is the National Curriculum. Not you. All the arguments are meaningless when they come up against the cold hard facts of the case.

    1. Heat magazine covers are employed. Not even ‘Heat magazine’. So, many of your arguments about why ‘Heat’ can and should be used, are irrelevant.

    2. The National Curriculum sets the standard. Not you. Nor other well-meaning people. This is similar to a court of law. You can come in with all the ‘reasons’ and ‘excuses’ about your criminal culpability, but if these reasons don’t apply to the criteria and standard set by the court, then they are meaningless. Your criteria are meaningless, because it is not the National Curricum criteria.

    3. The criteria is that the texts chosen should be ‘of high standard, among the best of their type…’ Now I know you will further rationalise that ‘Oh, but Heat is the best gossip magazine of its type,’ but then what if I show you that there were further qualifications and definitions and criteria that had to be met? What would you do then? Just keep chasing them down and trying to rationalise them?

  6. Joseph Reynolds says:

    The question is not why anyone would use Heat magazine. But why would anyone even try to defend the use of it in the classroom. I have to say that I think most ‘defenders’ aren’t really that at all. They don’t really have any ‘skin in the game’. This is just some intellectual exercise for them.

    Wasting your intellectual energies on defending this curriculum seems to be a poor choice. To trade in our rich cultural heritage for a few catchphrases (mulitmodal, anyone?) and some cod philosophy strikes me as a very poor bargain indeed. And I’m not buying.

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