Barrie McMahon

From Telemedium, The Journal of Media Literacy

Vol 60, No 1&2. Published 2013

Barrie McMahon [& Tessa Jolls and Frank Baker] Receives the 2013
Jessie McCanse Award For Individual Contribution to Media Literacy

In this year of 2013, as we celebrate our organization’s sixti-eth Anniversary, we at the National Telemedia Council are delighted to present our time-honored Jessie McCanse Award to three eminent leaders, all passionately represent-ing essential and different building blocks for a media lit-erate, global Society of the Twenty-First Century.  The re-cipients, honored during the NTC’s Anniversary celebration on November 8, 2013, are Barrie McMahon, distinguished Australian pioneer, teacher, mentor, author and a founder of media education in Australia.  --  Tessa Jolls, rigorously grounded visionary and brilliant entrepreneurial genius ded-icated to the cause of media literacy. -- and Frank Baker, eloquent spokesman for media literacy education, author, communicator, the joyful Pied Piper and genial Master of the Media Literacy Clearinghouse.

Barrie McMahon


Barrie McMahon is among Australia’s most eminent educator pioneers of the Media Age.  His contribu-tions to media literacy education have been transfor-mational, putting his native Australia at the forefront of successful early implementation of the field and providing leadership across the Globe.  His career is an inspiring and rare example of the disciplined, rigor-ous teacher whose passion and tenacity are rewarded with success.


Having experienced, and rejected, the traditional teaching practices of his own youth, Barrie devoted a lifetime career in education, to the enormous goal of school reform, with the core philosophy that “to teach a child you must first reach the child,” and that, to do so requires a pedagogy of active student involvement and new teaching approaches. Early in his career, Bar-rie embarked on extensive studies that included a year in England and Europe, where he avidly absorbed the essence of teachings of the new Media Age in post WWII, both in England and notably also the world of Swiss Educator Jean-Pierre Golay.


As teacher and subsequently the Western Australia Education Department’s Media Education Consul-tant, Barrie developed a pilot media education pro-gram, built a mobile media education resource using a traveling caravan, established K-12 syllabuses and founded the Western Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM)
Barry successfully worked with all stakeholders to es-tablish a media education curriculum based in “rele-vance and rigour” across the vast territory of Western Australia and later throughout Australia.


Working in close cooperation with Robyn Quin throughout the years, the evolving curriculum, the list of seminal publications, lectures, awards and above all, inspired students and teachers, are a living, lasting testimony.


It is no wonder that Barrie McMahon is widely recognized as the Father of Media Education in Australia.


Personal Thoughts from Barrie...

We had a wonderful curriculum when I was at high school. The basics of course, but also art, music, sport, woodwork, physical training, drama and scripture (the government school version). I hated that school. It took ten years to recover and learn how to re-love learning.


In art we had to use a ruler to get our perspective right (we only did perspective). For drama we mimed, all fifty in the class, one at a time and the other forty nine had to guess the mime (we only did mime). Music was listening to 78s (we only did classics). Some of the better woodwork kids got to make something but I only made a groove in a bit of wood and over a year I never got that right so wasn’t allowed to make anything. Sport was great except we were caned if we didn’t bring back our football jumpers in time at the end of the season. Four hundred of us sat in the hall for scripture and recited the Creed. And library! As a life-long book addict how could I forget our thirty minutes each week when we learnt the Dewey classification system but were not allowed to borrow any books?


The basics were well drilled – with the cane if we were unable to regurgitate geometry theorems. But I did get to write the autobiography of an alley cat for composition. The same story repeat-ed month after month until one day the teacher actually looked at my compo book and sussed my ploy. More cane.

So the curriculum suggested opportunities but the pedagogy almost killed this youngster’s love of learn-ing. Ten years older and I realized that bad schooling did not have to be. I resolved to become a teacher, to teach students everything I knew in a way they would find effective and satisfying. Three weeks into my teaching career I had taught pretty much all I knew so from there on had to focus on the ‘effective and sat-isfying’ bit. It required another look at the curriculum. After all, a good curriculum comprises an accumulat-ed wisdom that goes far beyond content knowledge. My high school had a quality curriculum for the time (I’ll bet rulers weren’t mentioned in the art syllabus) but was murdered by rotten pedagogy.


Western Australian media teachers enjoy a quality curriculum which is the envy of many renowned inter-national educators. The discipline also has a history of attracting quality teachers. In the pioneering days they were refugees from other disciplines who were search-ing for more effective means of engaging students in a curriculum more relevant to their lives. In more recent times potential Western Australian media teachers have been able to undergo specific media teacher training in preparation for their careers, an opportunity afforded in few countries.


So what is the problem? Certainly not quality curricu-lum nor quality teachers. The problem is the potential for slippage – a slide from the learning that is intended to what actually is learned. The potential for slippage is inherent in the nature of teaching. Teachers by necessity, are engaged in the moment – delivering today’s lessons, preparing for tomorrow’s, making sure students are best prepared for exams. Increasing workloads are taken on willingly in the interests of students, sometimes to the extent that professionalism turns into sacrifice. This environment leaves little time for professional reading, minimal professional development other than to address immediate concerns and no time for theoretical contributions to educational debates.


In this environment, slippage between curriculum, peda-gogy and learning festers. The fall back strategy is what worked last year, what others did that worked, even (as research suggests) on how the teachers themselves were taught. It becomes an educational form of Chinese whispers in which a little slippage occurs each time the teaching, pedagogy and curriculum interplay when devoid of further interrogation and reflection. Interrogation about what the curriculum states, its underpinning philosophy and how these conceptual understandings interplay with curriculum, is put on the backburner.


The conversation about the relationship between curric-ulum, pedagogy and what actually gets learned needs to be resurrected by those best placed to so – the practicing teachers and curriculum developers. It may be a difficult time to raise this matter with curriculum developers dis-appearing quicker than video stores and teachers being asked to do more with less but the longer we let it go the greater the slippage. We will lose our relevance because the learning that takes place will no longer truly reflect the totality of the curriculum.


Like any art form, teaching continually evolves, develops, sometimes changes course and builds on personal learn-ing and the wisdom of others. In the best circumstances the curriculum, its philosophy, rationale as well as content become the anchor in this process. We are not starting from scratch in this regard. During the formative years of media education there were international debates regard-ing the purposes and approaches to media education with significant educators like Len Masterman, Kath-leen Tyner and Neil Andersen generously sharing their views and experiences (another 30 examples from many countries could have been cited here). Perhaps the most adventurous and illuminating voice in the quest for a rele-vant pedagogy was that of Barry Duncan. He demonstrat-ed to us that learning about media, or developing visual literacy as it is known in North America, belonged in the everyday experience of the students. In Western Australia pedagogy is currently being driven by the accountabil-ity monster. For media education this places the focus on the exit points, years 11 and 12 and pedagogy focuses on equipping students to do well in tests and examinations. Marshall McLuhan once said that if we are worried that children are reading too many comics then we should set tests on comics. That should inocu-late them. If we wish to avoid destroying children’s love of learning it is time to revisit Barry Duncan’s mantra.


Teaching is an art. There is no formula to be followed but there are examples and histories that will inform.  The characteristics of good media teaching will, and should be, contested. Here are a few ideas to contrib-ute towards the contest.


The pedagogy should directly address both the objectives and philosophy of the curriculum.


So obvious but it does it always happen?  Slippage can accelerate into a deep slide. For example, effective use of a camera is an important means to achieving curriculum ends but teaching camera use can slip to become an end in itself. Is teaching the f stops on a camera really the curriculum goal or is it a means to another end? Is knowing and discussing the latest digital game part of the curriculum or is it a means towards another objective? Is teaching about racism teaching about the media or has the theme taken its own path? Does teaching about stars or stereotypes turn into hero worship or a game of spot the stereotype? And the biggest potential slide of all! Does a well-made student media product necessarily illustrate the objectives of the curriculum? Do we sometimes confuse artistic merit with understanding?


Some methodologies are more relevant to media education than others.


Good teachers use many methods. Some work better in different subjects. Rote learning for example is a useful adjunct for learning poetry or a language but won’t be top of anyone’s list in media education. On the other hand learning by doing has worked well in teaching literacy as we ask students to read and write; the value of the media equivalents, to interpret and to make, is just as obvious.  Slippage can occur when they get out of kilter, when the making gobbles up so much time and energy there is little time for observing, analyzing and reflecting. How often do time lines on practical projects stretch so there is little or no time to reflect on what has been learned? Slippage happens even when the most relevant methodologies are used. The pedagogy should engage students and encourage learning beyond schooling.


Teachers should focus on what they are best at.
(I wonder what my composition teacher would make of that grammar.)


There is a tendency by some teachers to downplay the importance of their own role. ‘The kids know more about the media than I do. I’m just the guide on the side.’ Rubbish. True, the students are media savvy and many of us have difficulty in keeping up with the tech-nologies they so readily embrace. What good teachers do have is a thorough knowledge of the curriculum, not just its content but also its rationale, history, philosophy and sometimes competing ideologies. After all, if we addressed the curriculum as a media text to be interro-gated we would go well beyond content analysis.


But teachers do more than guide from the side. They provide structures (sometimes called frameworks or even more trendily, scaffolds) that enable students to make sense of their ever changing media experiences. These learning structures will be so robust they will adapt and survive no matter what new technologies and practices emerge. To be trendy yet again, the scaffolds we build provide a foundation for lifelong learning and living. It is this role that makes teaching the most noble of professions.

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