Pop Culture in Pedagogy
by Vindhya Kumar
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away a tradition of discrimination of ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ culture existed. Change, that did and soon everyone wanted to be a nerd. Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo and Donatello are now loved like turtles have never been loved before. Everybody cried when Groot died, everyone wants to travel in the TARDIS. This revolution in the popular culture scene happened in the past three decades. Being a nerd is now cool. YouTube changed its algorithm in 2012 because the gaming channels were trending so much that the first 10 out of the 12 videos in the trending page were gaming-related channels. This meant that everyone on YouTube was watching people playing games. Xbox and Play Station became more popular. Game of Thrones is now extremely popular with their fan base crossing millions. Marvel and DC came out with hugely successful movies. Superhero movies are singlehandedly the most successful. Shows like The Big Bang Theory are super popular.
The definition of popular culture depends on who is defining it and the context of use. It is commonly defined as the cultural ideas (the vernacular) that predominate in a society at a given point in time. This means ‘pop culture’ includes the way of dressing that is in vogue, the slangs used on the internet and otherwise, movies, music and (hopefully) books. It was a gloomy Monday morning and I remember being awestruck by this idea (when my teacher said) – popular culture to us is like water to the fish in the ocean. It’s everywhere, omnipresent and pervasive that we don’t even realise how it is impacting us. Yet, we still hear the phrase ‘oh it’s just a movie’ all the time.
Popular culture is largely seen as having a negative impact on youngsters. Just type ‘impact of video games on children’ and most of the results that Google throws at you just says that playing video games is bad or that it increases violent tendencies.
This reflects the irony in the way people perceive popular culture. They consume it as much as anyone else but would not want to see it in an academic space. This dichotomy comes from the centuries-old idea that popular culture is ‘low culture’ as opposed to ‘high’ culture. A good example comes from my literature classroom again. My teacher studied in a very conservative Catholic school that allowed and even encouraged students to read Jane Austen, George Bernard Shaw, Shakespeare (of course) but banned all comic books. The idea is that comic books portray tasteless ideas which students should not be exposed to. Doing so would only negatively impact them and nothing else. But this has changed long since. In fact, we see people who read comic books as ‘smart’ or ‘nerdy’ which is no longer a bad thing. In fact, 'nerd' is the new cool.
Thus, the perception towards popular culture is dynamic, in the sense that it keeps changing from time to time, as does popular culture itself. What was popular in the 70s is considered old and if you reference something from that era, you might be shut off by a Gen Z with an ‘ok boomer’ meme. This dynamic nature of popular culture has academic value. Understanding that things aren’t the way they used to help teachers and facilitators model their lesson plans around what would resonate the most in their class.
Popular culture in a QShala Class:
“We are the stories we tell ourselves”, a friend told me, and it stuck with me. I kept thinking about it. We are the stories we see, hear and relate to every day. Our environment has a huge impact on us; it makes us who we are. But the very things that impact us is kept away from our educational spaces. We here at, QShala, realise this potential that popular culture has and use it as well. To give you an example, this question relies heavily on popular culture but brings in several different angles as well.
The answer to this question being the most popular game PUB-G, the question resonates with the demographic of the students we work with. But once the answer is revealed, we also discuss the other angles that a product of popular culture can have. Big corporations, the problems when it comes to gaming addiction, etc.
Staying relevant in the times of the internet:
The role of the teacher is increasingly becoming irrelevant in the digital world. Children have access to the internet and thus have access to all the information in the world. What then, does the teacher do in class? What value can the teachers add inside a classroom (or in an online session) that they can’t find on the internet?
At a time when data is consumed in bits and bytes, the teacher (facilitator) plays the role of someone who connects the dots for the children. Someone who can create a pathway for the kids to follow. Here, at QShala, we choose to do this by using popular culture, a language they are already familiar with. This keeps the teacher relevant in class, the students perceive the teacher as someone who understands their environment and better yet, is a part of it. Using stories from popular folklore (or any story in general) is something that works very well with kids. When there are characters and storyline, lessons don’t feel like lessons anymore, they become more like a Netflix series. Thus, bringing in popular culture references and narrating popular stories keeps the students hooked to the lesson keeps them interested throughout.
Another merit of using popular culture in classroom spaces is that one can gauge the temperament of the students. The zeitgeist, as some cultural theorists would put it, can be clearly seen in a classroom. When I express my opinion about a certain TV show, there are bound to be students for or against it. This gives me a fair idea about what the class thinks where further classes should be conducted.
Further, the teacher/facilitator can play the role of a guide, someone who can suggest what to watch, listen to, etc. Popular culture can be used as a tool to direct the students towards content that is enriching, educational as well as entertaining.
Popular Culture – Brownie points for being relatable
Throwing in a Minecraft reference or the latest meme reference helps create a bond with the students instantly. This is especially helpful in the first few classes and helps you break the ice. An example comes to mind. When I was talking about pencils and the need for a space pen, the kids instantly brought up the infamous Ranchoddas Chanchad from 3 Idiots. The concept was much easier to explain, the kids did most of the explaining themselves. Expect the class to pay attention to you once you’ve come into the familiar ground like Kermit the Frog.
For someone who is not into the latest trends, popular culture and the discussions surrounding it might seem like a whole new world. The number of memes that go viral every day, the latest challenge on the internet, all the new Youtubers and just the amount of information may seem daunting. It might also seem esoteric when someone is having a conversation about a TV show you haven’t watched. This one of the perils of relying too much on popular culture in the classroom. It might alleviate the feelings of being left out or may give a child the feeling of someone else having a head start.
While certain movies/books/TV shows fall under the lowest common denominator, the very basic that everyone knows about, not everyone might be aware of everything. For instance, in one of the classes, I started talking about Haikyu an anime about a high schooler wanting to become the best volleyball player and it resonated with a kid who also loves the adorable Japanese cartoon. I was happy, and we got to discussing various other shows which were when I realised that I was losing the attention of the entire class. As much as popular culture brings people together, it also has the potential to make people feel alienated.
Perils of being relatable:
At first glance, it doesn’t really look like there are any drawbacks of being relatable. You are loved, there is an instant bond, etc. On a closer look and after having some first-hand experience, you know that it’s not always the case. While you’re talking about The Office, the kids might seem extremely interested and might even participate in class but may not take back any kind of learning. The perception that popular culture is not serious and is in opposition to academics is usually passed on from parents to children. This may result in the kids not taking the teacher seriously. So, a facilitator should be wary and conservative in their use of popular culture as a tool for education.
In conclusion, I’d like to point out that popular culture is merely a tool, an effective one at that, to be used inside a classroom space. It is a great way to make a connection with your students and to stay aware of the current happenings around the world. It is an ice breaker and an effective method of pedagogy. Complex concepts can be made easy and accessible through popular culture.
To end, here are some kid-friendly pop culture recommendations:
- SciShow – PBS Studios
- Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell
- It’s okay to be smart – PBS Studios
- Up and Atom
- Cheddar Explains
- ASAP Science
- You Suck at Cooking
- Over Simplified
- Walnut Knowledge Solutions
- Crash Course – PBS Studios
- Atlas Obscura
- Revisionist History
- 99% Invisible
- Stuff You Should Know
- The Seen and the Unseen
- Philosophise This!
- Science Vs.
- Stuff You Missed in History Class
- Talks at Google
- BBC Earth Podcast
- Echoes of India – A History Podcast
- Anthropocene Reviewed
Vindhya Kumar is an Engagement Associate with QShala