Avoiding the Mr Garrison Complex: Popular culture, new media and engagement


I remember when I was at school, many of my favourite learning moments occurred when I felt we were entering some new, unchartered territory; discovering ‘secret’ learning spaces of information and ideas often crossing over into other worlds. Worlds of adults, other cultures, historical moments, sexuality and connectedness to wider perspectives that promised much hope and interest for the future. Untapped knowledge and concepts are specifically engaging, rather than teaching a merry-go-round of familiar topics. So how do we use popular culture to engage young people without presenting too much of the familiar. Do they want to know about what they don’t know or can they just google it? How do we teach things that are part of our world and not theirs without risking disengagement?

Mr Garrison is a well-known fictional teacher on the animated television series South Park. He is often presented as an unstable and deviant figure of authority who has an obsession with pop culture and predominantly teaches the students the key things they need to know about it rather than traditional curriculum. Of course, Mr Garrison is an absurd fictional character, yet he represents the disparity between traditional curriculum and popular culture curriculum and the perceptions of teachers who choose to situate it comfortably within the classroom.

Today’s teacher needs to compete with a range of popular culture influences and artefacts making the task of engagement increasingly challenging. Adolescents use new media and technology largely for pleasure, entertainment and social networks (Buckingham, 2007). Pull media  rather than the push of content is also what young people are often seen as engaging in (Buckingham, 2007). Bridging this use with school curriculum has consequences for engagement, simply because we might be entering into student downtime and pleasure arenas that may need to have some separateness.


Some new ideas emerging place popular culture as a central motivator.

Read some ideas on this in the following article: Making the classroom more like the real world

The nuskool website can be found here.

Rovio, the Finnish company who developed Angry Birds, initially as a gaming app, have now created a national preschool curriculum for 3-6 year olds based on the game. China is keen to adopt the model for increasing engagement through a fun and creative learning environment. The aim is to maximise learning potential through engagement rather than the pressures of testing. China are very well known for traditional rote learning and standardised testing models, and looking to Finland for innovation makes sense as Finland perform well in PISA despite not having standardized testing and curriculum as part of their national approach.


However, just to throw a theoretical spanner in the works, Buckingham (2007)  states that we make assumptions about children when it comes to engagement and technology. Facer et al. (as cited in Buckingham, 2007) suggests that we present the child as both techno-savvy user and disenchanted learner who requires technology because of the perceived motivation it supplies. Buckingham (2007) raises some valid points about perceptions. There is a ‘grinding tedium of much technologically driven work’ (Buckingham, 2007, p.86). Additionally, technology can be used to economically exploit the child (Seiter cited in Buckingham, 2007). Furthermore, the adolescent and child uses new media in banal ways and for the purpose of pleasure and entertainment. To encapsulate technology as the great enabler of engagement is to misread the range of uses and perspectives that drive adolescent motivation and use of technology. Buckingham (2007) refers to this as a type of romanticisation of the digital native child.

Similarly, a complete absence of popular culture is disengaging. Stigmas around the popular culture teacher and classroom, of which Mr Garrison’s fictional character, amongst other fictional teachers,  provides a few real-life insights into perceptions. The teacher of popular culture  as flaky, cool, lazy, subversive or radical is portrayed in many screen and paper fictional constructs.jack black


What’s common to all these fictional characters is the beautifully touching mix of passion and desperation. Like most things, balance is perhaps key to how we approach popular culture and technology in the classroom. Too much of anything is disengaging including technology and popular culture.


Buckingham, D. (2007). Digital Childhoods?. In Buckingham, David, Beyond technology, (pp.75 – 98). Cambridge UK: Polity Press.

Visual Literacy: The importance of teaching the language and concepts of cinema, illustration and photography to navigate text


Image Source: *Image credit: (Untitled) Human Mask (film still), 2014. Film, colour, stereo, sound, 2:66. Running time: 19 minutes. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, London and Anna Lena Films, Paris

Recently, I visited the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne as part of the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA) state conference. I was introduced to the number of exciting programs available to schools onsite and online, to develop visual literacy through the study of film, television, animation and visual culture.

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The TEAM culture: Choosing as part of participatory culture

Sometimes popular culture divides us. The trend to partition fictional characters, celebrities and other popular culture artefacts into two camps suggests  there are divisions between fans of texts and genres as well as layers and nuances within popular culture, even when it is the same popular culture we are referring to. Social media, memes and merchandise go into overdrive when this occurs. The most prominent example perhaps is the vampiric Twilight Saga TEAM EDWARD/TEAM JACOB phenomenon of 2007. When investigating this phenomenon, I could find limited academic literature, however, Ben Zimmer, a linguist who is the executive editor of Vocabulary.com and Visual Thesaurus. com and  also consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary writes about the TEAM X phenomenon at least originating in the 1970s, but it was largely used when pitting corporate products or in relation to sporting teams. Entering popular culture, Zimmer claims, occurred during the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie or Brangelina affair of 2005. Team Aniston or Team Jolie became tabloid staples. This team mentality he claims, surfaces when there are public conflicts between both real or fictional people.

One recent example, is the well-publicised TEAM BECK or TEAM KANYE social media campaign that emerged after the Grammy Awards earlier this year. The folk/rock/pop artist Beck won the Grammy award for the album of the year over Beyoncé. Kanye West, a pop artist, who is also married to a Kardashian,  publically declared whilst stage-crashing Beck’s acceptance speech,  that Beck should give his award to Beyoncé.

Social media flared its nostrils.  Both popular music artists, with large fan bases and high album sales, had their ‘artistry’ debated through an unpeeling of pop music through memes, open letters on facebook and posts from celebrities, in an attempt to define and  distinguish artistry after Kanye West’s audacious move.

Beck needs to respect artistry – Kanye West

Image result for beck and kanye memes keaton stewart twitterBeckwww.postconsumerreports.com

What is interesting in this example, is the debate largely focused on the ‘quality’ of lyrics, the vocabulary, grammatical expression and mastery of language. Additionally, the artist who wrote the songs, rather than merely performing them as well as playing the instruments, rather than dancing to them, also seemed to be worthy of more cultural capital. It brings us to the gradients of popular culture, low, middle and high and all things in between. Henry Jenkins reminds us that high culture usually was once popular culture, in the example of Shakespeare (Jenkins, 2006). American popular culture has always circulated globally. Irrelevant of whether it is low, middle or high culture, globally humans need to have things in common to discuss (Jenkins, 2006).

Fan culture is ‘born of a mixture of fascination and frustration’ (Jenkins; 2006). To choose which team you are on, draws upon who or what most appeals to you based on your background experiences, tastes and values. High culture, according to Jenkins (2006) can be seen as perfection, somewhat ‘untouchable’. Fan culture is different in the sense that the most traffic emerging from fan culture is born through the frustration experienced (Jenkins, 2006). The Team mentality divides us, but also allows us to critique, explore and justify our choice in a participatory culture. Establishing a virtual debate on a global level, provides an opportunity for the intricacies and nuances of popular culture to manifest into a tapestry of opinions and ideas that do explore both the fascination and frustration of popular and fan culture.

Zimmer, B. (2010) Team Conan: The Latest Pop-Culture Posse. Retrieved online at: https://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/team-conan-the-latest-pop-culture-posse/

Jenkins, H. (2006, July 26) Can One be a Fan of High Art?: A Tale of Two Checkovs. Retrieved from henryjenkins.org

Image sources:

Beck and Beyoncé Meme black and white: http://www.postconsumerreports.com

Twitter Keaton Stewart: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

Kanye Twitter apology: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

Popular culture and Play: A LEGO Professor at Cambridge University


Image Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

When thinking about popular culture and curriculum and finding ways to link these better than we currently do, I found this media story compelling when I read it a few months ago. I must have found it interesting enough as I shared it on Facebook, largely because I found the terms ‘Cambridge’ and ‘LEGO Professor’ very interesting juxtapositions but also the term play is still largely situated in contrast to learning.

The importance of play and entertainment upon learning will potentially be researched by a Professor of LEGO. A LEGO expert is not being sought (supposing these exist and I’m sure they do) but a professor who will  lead a research centre on Play in Education, Development and Learning known as PEDal at Cambridge. The LEGO foundation will fund the professorship and centre with around USD $4,000,0000.

Lego is a popular culture artefact perhaps seen to have higher cultural capital, than some other products such as Disney or Mattel products which can be seen to provide a deficit model of irrelevance or even potential damage (Robinson & Turnbull, 2005).  Classified as a construction activity, with mathematical and problem solving outcomes, its global popularity for decades has firmly cemented it as a quality toy with learning potential. However, in using a commercialised product to research play, there are some fundamental factors we should consider.


It is acknowledged that in industrialised nations, popular culture is a major source of pleasure for children (Hilton, 1996 cited in Marsh 2000).Lego has often been seen as a toy or play device in the classroom context, in contrast to a learning resource promoting deep and sophisticated learning opportunity. On a personal level, I remember in my classroom when I was teaching year 2, we had a sparse box of (sticky) Lego for free time play. We never used it purposefully for learning. Luke (1993, as cited in Marsh, 2000, p. 120) contends that the popular culture interests of children are not taken into account in curriculum development. They are situated outside of traditional learning and form a tension with white middle-class cultural norms. Intrinsic motivation bears a relationship to interest in the subject material. If we only present canons and adult-selected areas of valued culture and curriculum, children’s motivation, engagement and ability to navigate the world through known systems that are intrinsic to their world, a disjunct between what children need for their futures and what we are providing in curriculums occurs.LEGO could be used within the classroom for a range of learning opportunities that are presented as standards within the Australian Curriculum. Some examples include developing vocabulary through role play, planning narrative storyboards, mathematical thinking and problem solving and development of character and settings for pre-writing. For older children, LEGO can be used to re-enact historical moments, design buildings, public spaces and learn about construction and spatial design. In Denmark, young adult Engineering students are using LEGO to learn basic structural engineering rather than relying on textbooks and lectures alone.

The Smithsonian Institute writes about this here

lego image

LEGO, is however, a very expensive ‘commercialised supersystem’ (Clark, 1995 as cited in Marsh, 2000) and this leads to something problematic that is often referred to as popular culture poverty. Children of middle-class backgrounds can tend to have more popular culture artefacts in their homes and bedrooms than children of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, despite popular culture being appealing to all socioeconomic groups. Technology is also adopted earlier, of higher quality and greater capacity in homes of children whose parents have higher levels of disposable income (Buckingham, 2007). The social and media worlds of disadvantaged children are different worlds tochildren in middle and upper-class families.

In using a commercial popular culture product to study play, problems arise in terms of equity, gender and class. Play is not always commercialised, although ‘integrated marketing’ of movies, books, toys, clothing and personal products seem to be increasingly popular and standard (Buckingham, 2007).  Furthermore, Buckingham (2007; p. 84) contends ‘polarization between rich and poor is positively reinforced by commercialisation of the media’. Gender is articulated and socially constructed through popular cultures and popular culture artefacts including toys (Trier-Beniek & Leavy, 2014). The LEGO company now presents girls with a range of girl LEGO that is packaged in pink and purple, gender stereotyped and often collides with Disney products such as films including Frozen.  It is interesting to note that Target stores are currently in the process of dismantling their boy and girl sections of their toy departments, which has long been standard in stores.  In an attempt to gender- neutralise toys and allow children to choose toys based on interests rather than what is normative and dictated as gender-specific, Target will most likely establish a precedent. They are certainly not the first to consider this, however, as a large multinational department store, they possibly are leading this innovation.


Studying play through a commercialised popular culture product funded by the popular culture creator symbolises an increasing interest by cultural and technological companies to invest in the future of children’s education through commericalised products.  The coding movement, in which school children use simple programming software to create basic computer programming code has been adopted in the UK, the USA and mentioned by Australian politicians as an important skill for the future, is largely funded by Microsoft and Apple.  We can not deny, however, the pull of popular culture for engagement and interest even in our youngest learners. The importance of bridging home and school literacies is also well acknowledged in relation to academic success. Children’s interests and experiences are often left behind when entering school, largely due to negativity surrounding their cultural practices in relation to popular culture (Marsh, Brooks, Hughes, Ritchie, Roberts & Wright, 2005 ). Many argue understanding of narrative is not diminished but rather enhanced through complex engagement with multiple forms of popular culture based on interests (Robinson, 2005; Marsh & Millard, 2000; Mackey, 2002). Cambridge’s decision makes for interesting research even if there are some important considerations around popular culture and play. Stay tuned…


Buckingham, D. (2007). Digital Childhoods?. In Buckingham, David, Beyond technology, (pp.75 – 98). Cambridge UK: Polity Press.

Marsh, J. (2000) Telletubby Tales: Popular Culture in the Early Years Language and Literacy Curriculum. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood , Vol. 1, 2, pp. 119-136

Marsh, J., Brooks, G., Hughes, J., Ritchie, L., Roberts, S. & Wright, K. (2005) Digital Beginnings: Young Children’s Use of popular culture, media and new technologies. Literacy Research Centre. The University of Sheffield. Retrieved from: http://digitalbeginnings.shef.ac.uk

Marsh, J & Millard, E. (2000) Literacy and Popular Culture : Using Children’s Culture in the Classroom. London: Paul Chapman

Robinson, M. & Turnbull, B. (2005) Veronica: An Asset Model of becoming Literate, in J. Marsh (eds) Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy, London, New Delhi, Thousand Oaks CA: Sage

Trier- Bieniek, A. & Leavy, P. (2014) Gender and Popular. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Please Turn your Mobile Devices off until Landing at 3pm.

Image source: http://learninginhand.com

Mobile phones and hand held mobile devices such as iPods and small tablets are often unwelcome guests in schools and classrooms. Hibernating throughout the day in school bags and frustrated teacher’s top drawers, these cultural artefacts lie inactive, on silent or airplane mode, resuming life at 3 o’clock.

Despite the pervasive ownership and ubiquitous usage of the mobile phone by children, adolescents and adults on a global level, the mobile phone largely beleaguers schools rather than inspiring and transforming them.  The contrast of digital practices within schools and outside of schools is often stark (Buckingham, 2007). Derby (2001) defines the contentious nature of the mobile phone largely emerging from the perceived use of the phone as largely for purposes of entertainment and media consumption. It is common to place mass media in the realm of entertainment (Alvermann, 2012). Texts, devices and resources that align with popular culture, leisure and entertainment provide potential for formal learning, however, if traditional formal learning artefacts such as the essay aren’t associated with the artefacts, a reluctance to adopt persists. This can be seen as a continuation of the dichotomies that exist between formal and informal learning, leisure/play and academic learning, home and school literacies, popular culture and high culture, toys and tools, all of which still provide adequate tensions in schools and curriculums.

Treating the mobile phone as something to be hidden, buried during school hours sends a resounding negative commentary to students. Devaluing the phone as a contraband intellectual and cultural deadbeat deserving no place within the school or the curriculum ignores the relevance of the mobile device to adolescents in their authentic learning experiences and real world contexts. Ignorance is bliss according to the famous adage; but only for so long, perhaps.

Cook, Pachler and Bachmair (2011) recognise the mobile phone as a cultural device that facilitates an interface between school and mass communication. The UK has chosen to ban phones in all public schools. New York also has a blanket ban on phones at school. In the Australian context, the mobile phone is featured in formal policy as both distractor and enabler. Iin two examples, the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development considers the phone should not be out in the classroom during the day, however, it may be used for learning purposes only. It is at the discretion of individual schools to create a policy and to place bans upon mobile phones. The Tasmanian Department of  Education policy document embraces the use of mobile technologies within a policy framework, also specifying the phone is used in learning situations directed by the teacher. It  does consider the value of mobile phones to learning in a statement.

It is understandable to require formal policy around mobile devices in schools. Buckingham (2007) contends there are two constructions of the child when using media outside of the classroom; the child at risk and the child empowered and liberated. Banning should be met with caution as the vulnerable child at risk dominates in this case.  If the mobile phone is considered asynchronous to learning and also responsible for a range of potential issues stemming from a lack of contained and controlled material the internet provides, we will continue to see banning as de rigueur. Critical mobile literacy, teacher professional development and knowledge of how to situate the mobile phone in the context of formal school learning are critical to valuing the mobile phone and enabling its potential (Cook et al., 2011). Fear of banal distraction and loss of teacher control of content provides banning with an opportunity to somewhat remedy these broader concerns in a short-term way. The elephant in the room still remains.

Multi-tasking is a reality of media convergence rather than a postmodern distraction (Prensky, 2001a, as cited in Bradford, 2010). Students aren’t using technology for engagement and entertainment alone, they are also ‘hanging out’ in their natural habitat. If we suggest to them that their habitats are somehow subversive or trivial, we are really providing short-term management and avoidance by adults who are unsure how to merge students realities and learning contexts and needs with curriculum and formal learning.

Mobile learning allows for more spontaneous learning. Lightweight and portable, the size of mobile devices creates opportunities for flexible learning. Physically, learning can occur in any area of the classroom, school and community. Use of the phone can occur with greater immediacy and learning can occur in situ (O’Malley, Vavoula, Glew, Taylor & Sharples ; 2005). Creation of videos and images are often synonymous with cyberbullying and sexting, however, these tasks also potentially contribute to learning, designing and reconstructing. The enabling effects of mobiles need to be considered outside of moral panics and the dichotomies mentioned earlier. We are assuming the adolescent is incapable of using the mobile phone in a range of ways for learning and also incapable of responsible use.

The mobile phone is now the most prolific mode of internet access (Cook et al., 2011), unless you are at school. New technological and cultural practices may have to eventually meet each other head on, or the disparity will become, in the future, no longer the norm, but just too obviously inadequate.


Alvermann, D., & Finders, M. (2012). Is there a place for popular culture in curriculum and classroom instruction? In C. J. Russo, & A. G. Osborne, Jr. (Series Eds.), & A. Eakle, C. Russo, & A. Osborne (Vol. Eds.), Debating Issues in American Education: Curriculum and instruction. (pp. 211-229). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452218465.n13

Bradford, C. (2010). Looking for my corpse: video games and player positioning., The Australian journal of language and literacy 33 (1) pp.54-64.

Buckingham, D. (2007). Digital Childhoods?. In Buckingham, David, Beyond technology, (pp.75 – 98). Cambridge UK: Polity Press.

Cook, J., Pachler, N. & Bachmair, B. (2011). Ubiquitous mobility with mobile phones: A cultural ecology for mobile learning.., E-Learning and Digital Media 8 (3) pp.181-195.

Derby, B. (2011). Creativity in my pocket : No ‘I’ puns here., English in Australia 46 (3) pp.98-100.

O’Malley,C., Vavoula,G., Glew, J.P., Taylor, J. & Sharples, M. (2005) Guidelines for Learning, Teaching, Tutoring in a Mobile Environment. Retrieved from http://sydney.edu.au. Teaching with ICT. Mobile Learning. Faculty of Education and Social Work. The University of Sydney.

Images Source: http://learninginhand.com




Image source: http//junkee.com

The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are inarguably hugely popular television shows. The mere mention of this television show can often enrage non-viewers, sending them off into judgemental tirades espousing the trashy and vacuous nature of this dating show, they claim they would never watch.  Viewers fall into categories of varying willingness to admit to their viewership.  Perhaps we can categorise these as the closet fan who secretly watches, the ‘I know its garbage but I watch it and please don’t judge me’ fan or the ‘I love it and I don’t care’ viewer who really doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. The correlation with ‘low culture’ shows such as reality shows and the soap opera and an unwillingness to admit to watching as opposed to happily divulging viewership of something such as ‘Orange is the New Black’ is directly related to the value of the cultural artefact. Not too many would be ashamed of their high cultural artefacts and practices as the collateral learning (Johnson, 2005), the value of thinking, is assumed to be higher for texts associated with more complex themes and sophisticated plot lines,  demanding higher levels of cognitive participation. However, culture is not that clear cut.

Convergence theory (Jenkins, 2006a), of a migration between multimedia platforms in order to seek entertainment, allowing one to dip in and out of popular and high culture examples, explains why a diversity of age groups and otherwise intelligent and educated people (I know many- some who are open and some who are closet viewers) are watching a show like the Bachelor/ette to seek entertainment. Often with a drink, depending on age,  and often in the company of others, physically around at friends or relatives houses, or chatting via text message and social media before, during and after viewing.

Livingston cited in McKee (2006) suggests that to a non-viewer, the subtle nuances of shows such as soaps are overlooked and it all looks disastrously similar episode after episode.  This suggests there is a level of sophistication if we are to participate more broadly than from an external gaze that proposes a shallow and hollow ordinariness to these ‘low culture’ artefacts. Furthermore, shows such as the Bachelor/ette that are observed to be simplistic and linear in defining and perpetuating gender stereotypes, normalised ideals, male dominance and traditional domestic arrangements, can marginalise viewership as what they present can be met with disdain and discordance with personal values. We can also tend to think the developing adolescent will be negatively influenced by such stereotypes and values during their assumed period of transition and tumult. Negative effects upon self-esteem, identity and exposure to normalising behaviours and constructs around gender, money and social status assumes the adolescent is passively engaging with texts, incapable of critically approaching the text’s messages, values and perspectives.  Many of the constructs and values being presented I am deeply uncomfortable with. So why then do I, like many others, venture across these platforms in order to seek entertainment within a quagmire of questionable values and troubling representations of gender.

Moje and Van Helden (2005) contend we can experience enjoyment and displeasure at the same time.  Johnson (2005) finds the pleasure we find is not derived from watching people fail or humiliated, but rather from watching ordinary people navigate their way through complex and undefined terrains of high pressure and unfamiliarity. If this is so, we actually like watching people transcend their difficulties and succeed regardless of how trivial it is. Fiske (1989) states that the winners of these shows are not the actual winners who usually ‘underscore the naturalness of our socially produced normality’. It is those who challenge, entertain, fail to comply and measure up to these standards who add character to popular culture.  Furthermore, it is these spaces that are created between norms and ideals and the contesting of these that ‘constitute the terrain where popular culture is most active’ (Fiske, 1989).  Therefore, the nuances and spaces create reconstructions and redefinitions to occur. They may not be revolutionary and still remain imperfect, but they do open spaces for critique and reflection to generate rewriting and reframing of culture constructs that require this ongoing debate and transformation.

Passive viewing of a show like the Bachelor is a rarity in adulthood and it is the participatory nature of these mass consumed productions that gives it cultural capital. The show is dissected, analysed and critiqued on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The spaces created when ‘characters’ diverge from normalised gender stereotypes and social norms, particularly spark discussion and very few would ‘accept’ the show as a ‘reality.’ If they do so, there is a sea of collective thought that allows isolated thinking to be challenged until new status quos of thought emerge through social media forums. It is entertainment. It is fake. It is fun. It is culture. Adolescents should watch this stuff, whilst developing skills of critique, even if it is largely through social media and participatory culture in order to deconstruct and reconstruct the shallow and vacuous fantasy and fairy tale elements associated with this glorified dating phenomenon. There is much to be learnt through the spaces emerging, collectively and more broadly for changing notions on gender, marriage, traditions and social values.


Fiske, J. (1989).Understanding popular culture. New York: Routledge.

McKee, Alan (2006). Beautiful Things in Popular Culture. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Hoboken

Jenkins, H. (2006a). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press

Moje, E. & Van Helden, C. (2005). Doing popular culture: Troubling discourses about youth. In J. A. Vadeboncoeur & L. P.       Stevens (Ed.), Re/constructing “the adolescent”: Sign, symbol, and body (pp. 211-247). New York: Peter Lang.

Johnson, S. (2005) Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead.