Teaching Advertising Literacy

From the New York Times, April 27, 2010:


“A federal agency is undertaking an effort to school youngsters in the ways of Madison Avenue. The initiative seeks to educate children in grades four through six — tweens, in the parlance of marketing — about how advertising works…”

My first thought on reading about this new effort was, “Wow! Great idea!” The initiative comes with its own Web site (of course), that is the jumping-off place for all the other parts of the program. (http://www.admongo.gov) There is a game that kids (or you) can play online, a section for teachers with classroom materials and curriculum guidelines, and an area for parents and families. The sample ads for fake but very realistic products (like the “Smile Meals” served at “Fast Chef” restaurants) are slick, entertaining, and excellent fodder for dissection and analysis.

But my post, “Not Tested and Not Taught” (https://classroomchoreography.wordpress.com/2010/04/26/not-tested-and-not-taught/) was fresh in my mind, and soon I was wondering just which children were going to have a chance to explore this topic in school.

First, there is the issue of time. As I said in my recent post, schools increasingly cut out anything that does not focus on what will be tested on those standardized exams that all children must suffer through each spring. The lowest-performing schools most often also have the most difficult populations (special education, English language learners, highly mobile families, etc.), and arguably these are the children who most need more diverse experiences and who are at the greatest risk of falling prey to unscrupulous advertisers. Yet these schools are the least likely to include any enhancements to curriculum like the Admongo campaign. They have already cut out physical education and recess; where are they going to find the time to experiment with this curriculum?

Then there is the higher-level thinking skills issue. Remember that the high-stakes tests only measure factual knowledge and a few basic, rote-type skills in reading and math (and soon, science). There are a few questions on more recent tests that allow students to show their thinking and to get partial credit for answers that are judged by human readers, but this is only a tiny fraction of test content. These tests have no way to ask or assess more open-ended, discursive questions like, “What does the ad want me to do?” Questions with multiple correct answers drive test-makers crazy, yet in real life those are by far more common than multiple-choice, right-or-wrong ones.

Since few teachers have the time or the training to engage students in this type of dialogue, how many will actually lead an exploration of advertising language? My guess is that the schools that are already doing okay (for now) on their Adequate Yearly Progress toward (unachievable) perfection may encourage this curriculum, and perhaps some teachers who are looking for something to occupy the rest of the year now that testing is over will try it. The stratification of public education will continue, with most children toiling under pressure to perform on tests that don’t really measure what we think they do.

My point is that the system, and the ever-tightening restrictions of No Child Left Behind, discourage inventive and thoughtful curriculum in favor of “drill and kill” strategies that amount to the insanity of doing more and more of what has not worked, in the hopes that eventually it will. And now that I put it that way, it sounds like of like certain military and diplomatic strategies of the recent past.

If we could harness the power of cognitive dissonance, we would never need another drop of petroleum, foreign or domestic, to power our machines.


About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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