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
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.
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.