Barry Duncan:  A 21st Century Man for All Seasons

Barry Duncan was born in Kenora, Ontario on October 21, 1936.  He died on June  6, 2012 following a long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.

Barry was an award - winning  teacher, author, media consultant and founder and past president of the Ontario-based  Association for Media Literacy.  When he retired, he continued teaching part time at York University and the University of Toronto in the Media Studies Additional Qualifications course.  

Barry was a member of Media Education Working Group of the Centre for Media and Culture in Education at OISE/University of Toronto, the lead author of the best-selling textbook, Mass Media and Popular Culture, as well as the author of Transitions and Transformations  - Grade 9 and 10 anthologies. He wrote articles for Telemedium and other publications. Barry Duncan addressed over 10,000 teachers through workshops and keynote presentations in Canada, the US, and 13 other countries including Japan, Korea, China, Argentina, UK and Brazil.

For years Barry taught at Toronto’s School for Experiential Education  (S.E.E.) Tearing down the artificial barriers between ‘high’ culture and ‘low’ culture, Barry effectively used the raw material of the students’ world: their own popular culture. 

In October of 1995, Barry Duncan received the highest award from the Canadian Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts. 

His courses enjoyed great popularity.  He was an irrepressible optimist, always ready to try something new, always the one to make sure that students are exposed to a wide variety of educational opportunities both in and out of the classroom.

He was a leader in every sense.  Ask any one of many former students who have returned and flourished at S.E.E. as resource assistants under his tutelage.  Ask any of hundreds of teachers and administrators across the Board who knew and respected him and his work.

Barry was truly a man for all seasons.  He always looked for the cross-disciplinary opportunity and was willing to team-teach with anyone who was interested.  Despite his commitments outside the school, he still assumed his full share and more in virtually all aspects of school business including planning major excursions, leading the annual canoe trip, meetings with parents, budget decisions, etc.

Above all, Barry was a most compassionate person who accepted students of all levels, aptitudes and personalities.  True to his commitment to the value of alternative schools, he particularly relished the achievements of those who struggled most, of those who did not quite fit, of those who might have given many—if not most—teachers a great deal of grief.

Barry Duncan’s influence on all Ontarians has been profound and will continue to be felt for generations. Barry was the founding president of the Association for Media Literacy. He advocated for and supported media education in Ontario and globally. He was, quite simply, to K-12 Media Education what McLuhan was to the post-secondary discipline. Barry led professional development workshops, conferences, and published a newsletter (print and online). He wrote the first media studies textbook. His extensive travel and research have made him not only the first, but also the most enduring voice in Ontario’s high-quality media education curriculum.

Barry was inspired when attending Marshall McLuhan’s graduate courses at the University of Toronto in the early 1960s. He determined to make McLuhan’s’ ideas accessible to his high school students. That teaching worked so well that he wanted to share his successes and further develop his own skills.

He co-founded, with Linda Schuyler (Kids of Degrassi), Arlene Moscovitch (NFB), and Jerry McNab (McNab & Connolly), the Association for Media Literacy (AML) in 1978 and served as its president for 10 years. The AML became a small but dedicated learning community that constantly worked to improve its own media literacy and the media literacy of students and parents. Barry hosted regular workshops at his school by inviting academics, expert teachers and representatives of the media industry—photographers, directors, actors, sound engineers, etc. Each of these workshops helped attendees expand their knowledge and appreciation of media literacy as well as making them more effective teachers and parents.

Barry taught the Media Studies Additional Qualifications courses for both the University of Toronto and York University. This allowed him to directly influence hundreds of teachers as they refined their own media teaching expertise.

At the same time, Barry maintained a healthy relationship with Ontario’s Ministry of Education and applied gentle pressure and support for more media literacy in its curriculum documents.  He contributed to Screen Education (1970), the Ministry’s first media literacy guideline. Its colorful cover design was so radical that a gray dust cover was produced to draw less attention. The Ministry’s next media literacy guideline was its English guideline (1987), which recommended media studies for grades 7 – 12. To support that guideline, Barry led a 10-person writing team to produce one of North America’s best known and influential media literacy documents, the Media Literacy Resource Guide (1989). The Resource Guide became a favorite support document in Ontario, across North America and was translated into French, Spanish, Japanese, and Italian.

Barry inspired others to achieve great media education accomplishments. He supported Rick Shepherd when he organized and ran the first AML conference in 1990 that attracted international attendees. At that conference Barry was the recipient of the Jesse McCanse Award for his work in media literacy.  He also supported John Pungente SJ when he organized the world’s largest media literacy conference, Summit 2000. Truly international, this conference enhanced the significance of media education to its 1500 delegates from 132 countries while simultaneously establishing Ontario as a world leader in media education.

In recognition of his ongoing efforts, Barry attended the World Council on Media Education Conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil in May, 1998. The AML was presented with an award "for outstanding services given to the cause of media education" in recognition of the organization's leadership role in the international media literacy movement.

Ironically at the same time, media literacy was threatened with cancellation by the curriculum reforms in Ontario’s Harris government. Barry spearheaded a PR campaign in November of 1998 that resulted in dozens of letters sent to the Minister of Education and sympathetic academics attended the stakeholder meetings at the Ministry to commend the critical thinking dimensions in media courses. The media studies strands and course were begrudgingly restored.

AML members, including Barry, further strengthened media education curriculum in the 2006 re-writes of the elementary and secondary Language and English curricula, resulting in arguably the most articulate and well-supported media literacy curriculum statements in the world.

As a result of Barry’s career and tireless volunteer work with the Association for Media Literacy, Ontario is the beneficiary of high-quality, world-leading media education.  His efforts have benefited, and will continue to benefit, all Ontarians. The media literacy skills that he has helped us develop will stand us in good stead as the 21st century proceeds.

Barry Duncan was a wonderful man who will be greatly missed.

(Thanks to Neil Andersen and Don Richardson for contributing material for this write-up.)