Pop Pedagogy: the benefits of embracing popular culture in the classroom

Written for SecEd Magazine and first published on 24 April 2023.

Defending his decision to join I’m A Celebrity Get Me Outta Here, Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, said that: “Although some may think I’ve lost my marbles (politicians) must wake up and embrace popular culture.”

Writing in The Sun, he argued: “We should see it for what it is: a powerful tool to get our message heard by younger generations.”

Although I might not agree with everything Hancock has said and done, in a previous SecEd article on using short five to 10 minute “hook” activities to grab pupils’ attention, I suggested that the use of music, video clips and references to popular culture can be an effective tool in stimulating excitement around the content to be taught.

Therefore, perhaps teachers – like politicians – should embrace popular culture.

Pop culture

Popular culture, or pop culture, refers to popular cultural products such as films, music, comics, and mass market novels. This is different from high culture, which includes fine art, classical music, great works of literature and so on.

For some, high culture is “…a shared frame of reference among educated people” whereas popular culture is evidently not (Scruton, 2012). However, this view could be deemed elitist in the sense that it demeans the shared frames of reference, in terms of culture, found in many of our communities – something the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron (authors of the term “cultural capital”) termed “symbolic violence” (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990).

Besides, many of our pupils engage with popular culture on a daily basis and its use in educational settings has been advocated since the 1980s (Rets, 2016).

Studies on the benefits of popular culture on learning have centred on using songs and films in language lessons (see for example, Luo, 2014), but others have considered the use of anime in Japanese classrooms (Fukunaga, 2006), youth identities and literacy (Petrone, 2013), video games and chemistry (Dietrich et al, 2021) and even using K-pop to teach the principles of economics (Wooten et al, 2021).

Moreover, a study I completed with the University of Cambridge’s CamStar (Cambridge, schools, and teacher research) network on the use of popular culture in religious education suggested that reference to popular texts, music and film impacted on pupils’ enjoyment of the subject, arguably resulting in higher uptake at GCSE and improved attainment (Jones, 2014).

Bridging interests

Some researchers argue that “bridging” pupils’ interests with curriculum content improves motivation and ultimately attainment (Morrell & Duncan-Andrade, 2002). For instance, a US study showed that an in-school acceptance of the out-of-school reading preferences of teenagers improved the students’ interest in prescribed curriculum-based texts (Brass, 2008).

Furthermore, measured references to popular culture can create space for cultural references that are meaningful and important for pupils, but absent from the wider curriculum, particularly in culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms. Zaretta Hammond (2020), for example, suggests designing and implementing culturally responsive instruction, of which popular culture can form a small part.

This is not to say we need to overdo this. The idea of using popular culture as a hook means it is limited to short, five or possibly 10-minute bursts. The rest of the time will be spent on tasks focused on retrieving, imparting, or applying subject knowledge regardless of how intrinsically interesting it is to our pupils.

Examples of pop pedagogy from my own school:

  • Art: Constantly engaging pupils with appropriate but provocative pop art, including images used in advertising and the wider mass media.
  • Business: Reference to popular consumer brands, which also uses advertising media to stimulate pupils’ interest, in lessons on marketing. I have also seen business teachers emphasise oracy skills in lessons simulating popular shows like Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice.
  • English: Using Alanis Morissette’s Ironic as it is not actually full of examples of irony. My colleagues also use pop songs to teach metaphor and simile and music videos, such as Lily Allan’s LDN, which uses footage of 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, to aid the teaching of William Blake’s London. Clips from the ITV show Spitting Image are used to help explain satire and caricature.
  • History: Use a Pizza Hut advert featuring Mikhail Gorbachev when teaching the fall of the Soviet Union. History also uses plenty of examples of popular culture as historical sources, including comics, posters, and cinematic newsreels.
  • Food technology: Show short clips from celebrity chefs performing basic cooking skills as worked examples. They have also based competitions on the Great British Bake Off as part of their extra-curricular offer.
  • Music: Use examples from pop music to demonstrate how musical elements are used. For example, when introducing chord progressions teachers use songs pupils are familiar with such as All of Me by John Legend before introducing them to more complicated pieces.
  • Religious education: Pupils read selected pages from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban describing “dementors” when learning about the soul (or its absence) as well as appropriate clips from popular televisions shows, including Alice Tinker and Hugo Horton’s wedding in the Vicar of Dibley.
  • Spanish: Interviews with celebrity footballers on their favourite hobbies, which pupils had to answer questions on.
  • Science: Snippets from movies to use real time data to formulate graphs. For instance, The Matrix car chase scene – pupils plot distance/time on a graph to work out acceleration. Another lesson included explaining metal ore extraction with the help of the video game Minecraft (referenced, not played).

Some things to be aware of:

  • Choose relevant and unambiguous content: Make sure there is a clear link between what you are using and the content of the lesson. If the content is too abstract, then you risk confusing pupils. If it is not linked to the subject taught, then what is the point.
  • Choose age-appropriate material: Don’t teach Spanish using Netflix’s Narcos or Chemistry with Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Be wary of explicit and offensive lyrics. For example, only use edited or clean versions of popular songs.
  • Keep it short: As I have said, I am not advocating the showing of whole films or television shows nor the need to listen to a piece of music all the way through. The use of popular culture should be purely as an engaging hook for the more serious learning to come.
  • Be wary of copyright: If using music, television, or film, be familiar with fair use guidelines that govern copyrighted material. Some material, particularly music, may not be used in its entirety or distributed among staff and pupils.
  • Don’t bypass high culture: It is important to still build pupils’ cultural capital and literacy through numerous references to high culture. Our pupils should be exposed to the richness of our cultural life regardless of whether something is considered “high” or “low” culture. In the modern world these two forms of culture often overlap anyhow.

Final thought

There is clear evidence that referencing popular culture in lessons can have positive effects on motivation, understanding and attainment. While some colleagues have accused me of trying to “be down with the kids”, I feel that meaningful and appropriate use of popular culture can enliven learning and enrich the scope of the subject being studied.

Further information & resources

  • Bourdieu & Passeron: Reproduction in education, society and culture, Sage, 1990.
  • Brass: Local knowledge and digital movie composing in an after‐school literacy program, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (51), 2008: https://bit.ly/3hVqUuO
  • Dietrich et al: Using pop-culture to engage students in the classroom, Journal of Chemical Education (98,3), 2021: https://bit.ly/3hKRZB8
  • Fukunaga: Those anime students: Foreign language literacy development through Japanese popular culture, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (50), 2006: https://bit.ly/3BW7nBe
  • Hammond: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Sage, 2015.
  • Jones: High culture versus pop culture: Which is best for engaging students? CamStar Network, 2014: https://bit.ly/3ClUUY7
  • Luo: Using popular culture to promote learning in EFL classrooms: A case study, Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences (112), 2014: https://bit.ly/3PTLAAe
  • Morrell & Duncan-Andrade: What do they learn in school: Using hip-hop as a bridge between youth culture and canonical poetry texts. In What They Don’t Learn in School: Literacy in the lives of urban youth, Mahiri (ed), Peter Lang, 2002.
  • Petrone: Linking contemporary research on youth, literacy, and popular culture with literacy teacher education, Journal of Literacy Research (45,3), 2013: https://bit.ly/3jq24nk
  • Rets: Teachers’ perceptions on using popular culture when teaching and learning English, Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences (232), 2016: https://bit.ly/3WpE1nk
  • Scruton: High culture is being corrupted by a culture of fakes, Aeon Magazine, 2012: https://bit.ly/3VlZImE
  • Wooten, Geerling & Calma: Diversifying the use of pop culture in the classroom, International Review of Economics Education (38), 2021: https://bit.ly/3HTF7mO

Picture credit: Pixabay (used under a Creative Commons Licence)

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