Essential Question 7: How do different viewers interpret the same message?

Teachers need particular skills at understanding how children understand film and television in a developmental context.  Children vary widely in their ability to recall what they see on television.  In one study of Israeli and U.S. children, researchers discovered that children's expectations about television---whether they think TV viewing is easy or hard---influences their ability to use TV for learning.  Students learn more from television if they expect to find the process of watching to be an active, challenging experience.

As a key concept in media literacy, it's important to understand that individuals interpret messages differently based on their prior experience, knowledge and values.  The creation of meaning is a process of interaction between the reader and the text.  As teachers, it is important to provide a climate where we respect the diversity of responses to a work of literature as well as to videos, films and television.  Too often, when we expect students to like a work that we do, or when we dismiss works that students enjoy, we inadvertently create a climate that discourages students from sharing their genuine responses to a message.

How do you see it?

Target Age:  Secondary and up

Materials Needed:  VCR and monitor, videotape of examples

Video Materials:  Segment 9 includes a brief segment from a documentary that uses footage from the Cold War era to comment critically on our nation's fear of the atomic bomb.

Focus Questions:  How do different viewers interpret the same message differently?

Goals and Objectives:

  1. Students will practice role-playing to gain insight on the developmental experiences of people who are younger and older than themselves.

  2. Students will discover that people make differing interpretations of a program, depending on their ages and experiences.

Activity 1
This video segment is excerpted from The Atomic Cafe, a documentary that uses "found footage" obtained from government archives to make a critical commentary about the Cold War. Divide the class into five groups and invite them to take on one of the roles listed below and to watch the program segment as if they were in that age group. As you assign these groups, describe the developmental concerns of each one of these groups briefly.

  • Group 1: Preschool/elementary school children
  • Group 2: Middle school and high school students
  • Group 3: College students and young adults
  • Group 4: Adults with school-age children
  • Group 5: Older adults and grandparents

Remind students to watch as if they were the age of their designated group. Play Segment 9. Then invite students in Group 1 to describe their feelings after viewing. Encourage students to role-play fully and to use the "voice" of a person in this age group.

When all the groups have described their reactions to the program, ask students to comment on what they noticed about the patterns of responses generated. Even though we may all see the same program, we make different interpretations based on our experiences, prior knowledge, age, gender and political belief.