Do you need to get down with the kids?

From hip hop to the Hunger Games, students' cultural interests can be used to boost engagement in lessons - just don't take it too far

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Are you a Belieber? Do you keep up with the Kardashians, know how to dance "Gangnam Style" or how to play the Hunger Games? If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, it's likely that you already have a good grasp of popular culture. But if you had no idea what any of it meant, does that mean you are any less of a teacher?

In a 2004 paper published in The English Journal entitled "At the crossroads of expertise: the risky business of teaching popular culture", American professors Meg Callahan and Bronwen Low acknowledge that popular culture is often used as a "hook" or "attention grabber" to draw students into more traditional elements of the curriculum, a "fun way to begin before moving on to more serious fare". This would suggest that an intimate knowledge of students' cultural interests is desirable but not essential.

Callahan and Low go further, though, arguing that incorporating forms of popular culture into the classroom provides a "meeting place" where students and teachers can share their expertise, a "site where the intersection of student and teacher expertise results in genuine dialogue".

This proposition of popular culture as learning interchange has plenty of support. Many argue that knowledge of what students are watching, listening to and playing with is a key tool in helping those students to learn.

Tony Eaude, an honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford's department of education, is one advocate of this approach. He says that teachers should build long-term relationships with children and show an interest in their lives outside school. Part of that interest should be finding out what makes them tick, he argues, and that means a knowledge of and appreciation for popular culture.

"Teachers should understand and make use of those interests and apply them to the classroom," he says. "It can help to build the sort of relationship that encourages children's learning because the teacher is interested in the same sort of things."

There are a number of ways of putting this theory into practice. Low worked with an English teacher at an arts school in the US who adopted the hip-hop culture that interested his students in order to teach a number of subjects. He used CDs and videos of rap music and slam poetry in his lessons. This led to class discussions about the use of language and offensive terms in rap and youth culture. He also had students do frequent free-writing exercises after watching spoken-word performances. As a result, the children had a familiar context in which to place discussions about language and culture.

Similarly, teachers could use female artists such as Lady Gaga to teach feminism and women's issues, or reference sports stars to teach aspects of human biology. A good example recently was a school using television cookery shows presented by the likes of Gordon Ramsay as a basis for home economics lessons, bringing boys, in particular, on side in the kitchen.

But the theorists admit that incorporating youth culture can be difficult for teachers. In their 1999 book Popular Culture in the Classroom, American researchers Donna Alvermann, Jennifer Moon and Margaret Hagood write: "Our elementary knowledge of popular culture as adults and educators seems to lag behind the `real time' expertise and understanding of the youth and students we teach."

Callahan and Low concede the point. "The fleeting nature of the `popular', its questionable content, and countercultural values make its introduction into the classroom risky," they admit. "Even the youngest and most `hip' teachers may feel out of touch and hopelessly inexpert regarding youth and popular culture."

Rather than attempting to keep up, they say teachers can draw on their expertise in lesson design, language and questioning and rely on students to bring their own pop culture knowledge. That way, the teacher does not have to spend hours soaking up youth culture but can get the information first-hand, which is likely to be a more accurate reflection of student interests.

This approach makes referencing youth culture to increase student engagement an easier task for teachers. Eaude does have a final warning, though: "There's a distance that must be kept between teacher and child because they live in different worlds. Teachers must make links with that world rather than pretend they live in it."

In short

Academics suggest that referencing the cultural interests of students can help learning by encouraging greater student engagement.

This can be done by finding relevant cultural references to introduce learning topics - for example, using hip-hop lyrics in poetry classes.

Academics concede that keeping up with youth culture is difficult but suggest that a teacher can make things easier by listening to and questioning students about their interests.

Teachers have to be careful simply to link to the youth culture, though, rather than try to live it themselves.

Photo: Are you a belieber? Justin Bieber and friend entertain the singer's fans in Sweden. Photo credit: IBLRex

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