High Culture versus Pop Culture: which is best for engaging students?

Introduction[1]

‘A high culture is the self-consciousness of a society’, Roger Scruton recently wrote in Aeon Magazine, ‘It contains the works of art, literature, scholarship and philosophy that establish a shared frame of reference among educated people’.[2]

As a teacher, the last part of this statement interested me because one of the aims of schools should be nurturing ‘educated people’. Moreover, as a Religious Studies (RS) teacher, the issue of culture concerns me as the subject matter in RS arguably permeates through our ‘shared frame of reference’ in terms of cultural heritage and cultural identity.

‘High culture’ includes things such as renaissance art, classical music and opera. It is arguably more sophisticated, intellectually challenging and intrinsically rewarding than ‘low culture’ and can be easily referenced in RS. For example, the Biblical story of creation has had an immense cultural impact on the English speaking world. Whether we use common phrases from the King James Bible, such as “let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), listen to the music of Joseph Haydn or admire the genius of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Creation of Adam’, the creation story has had an obvious influence on high culture and the arts. As a consequence, I have a mine of cultural references in which to enrich my lessons. It would be wonderful to think, therefore, that I am developing culturally literate and ‘educated’ people through RS (see evidence of this on the PowerPoint slides below).

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However, since becoming the head of RS in a school where student apathy towards the subject was the norm and, in some cases, there was outright hostility, I needed to liven up my lessons and make the content seem relevant. One way of doing this was to link all topics to aspects of the wider world and, specifically, the abundant cultural references to religion in popular culture. The problem here was that my choice of culture is not, in Scruton’s words, high culture.

In terms of teaching, learning and the curriculum, my dilemma was relatively simple, but not trivial; should I endeavour to reference high culture in my lessons so that students can appreciate cultural life at its finest, or, in order to engage students and make learning enjoyable, should I litter my lessons with references what might be perceived as ‘low culture’, which is probably best defined as ‘pop culture’ in the context of young people.

Research Focus: can ‘pop culture’ engage students and enrich students learning in a subject previously seen as ‘boring’

Importantly, I feel that the infusion of ‘pop culture’ into staid RS lessons can bring the subject alive and make it more relevant. The focus of my research is to prove this. In additional, I also want to demonstrate that teachers must not be adverse to using types of culture deemed ‘low’ by philosophers like Scruton, as education is a means to an end, not necessarily an end in and of itself.

However, in order to carry out my research, it is essential to have an operational definition of ‘pop culture’. Pop culture is a deviation of the term ‘popular culture’ which includes just that; culture which is popular, easy to understand and entertaining to the majority of people; for example, pop music, Hollywood blockbusters and soap operas. The only thing that differentiates ‘pop culture’ from ‘popular culture’ is an emphasis on the young. The online Urban Dictionary, for example, defines pop culture as:

The lifestyle and tastes of the majority of mostly younger people. Music by people like Britney Spears and Hillary Duff are examples of pop culture, as is emo and prep. Pop culture changes with the youth of the world.”[3]

With the idea of ‘pop culture’ as my modus operandi, I started linking the religious and ethical content of my lessons to examples from ‘pop-culture’. For instance, lessons on karma incorporated music and lyrics from Alicia Keyes’ song ‘Karma, a lesson on saviour siblings included readings and clips from the novel and Hollywood film My Sisters Keeper and lessons on Wealth and Poverty included games based on TV’s Supermarket Sweep in order to assess how altruistic students really are, if given the opportunity to grab what they want (see the PowerPoint slides used in the lesson below).

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Over a two year period I have used multi-media to access the type of clips, tracks and texts exemplified above. Although still used, textbooks and handouts are kept to a minimum and are only used in conjunction with other types of media. During this period the RS department has seen a move from the core (compulsory) course results hitting a low of 36% A*-C when I took over the department to 74% last year and with a projection of 84% based on recent mock results for this year’s entries.

This research, then, will seek to find further evidence as to whether the increase in grades is due to an emphasis on ‘pop culture’ and whether the uses of ‘pop culture’ should not be deemed educationally lower than the use of ‘high culture’ in the pursuit of student engagement and academic success.

The context: why research ‘pop culture’

The views expressed by Scruton above have also been echoed by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, who has promised an ‘unashamedly elitist’ approach in state school education in order to give today’s children the same opportunities as those ‘previously enjoyed by grammar school pupils’.[4] Although Gove’s ‘elitism’ is essentially about producing academic high achievers, he has indicated the need for advocating high culture in schools, especially if education is to be ‘rigorous and challenging’. He has cited students marvelling at Wagner, for example, and has used an example of a “a girl of 13 in care finding solace – and stimulus – in Keats and Tennyson”, as a cultural goal of education.[5]

Perhaps students from all backgrounds can appreciate ‘high culture’, but high culture is not necessarily the best way of initially engaging teenagers in a subject they have pre-judged as old fashioned and irrelevant. For example, the Judeo-Christian emphasis in RS is often seen by secular students as an irrelevance; and any pretence on my part that religion permanents ‘high culture’ would probably do little to engage them, regardless of how important one views Verdi’s Requiem. However, relating Christianity to ‘pop culture’ may be more fruitful, especially as Christianity is evident in hip-hop (Kanye West’s Jesus Walks, for example) and trashy novels, such as the De Vinci Code.

However, I do not want to fall into the trap of assuming that children cannot initially and intrinsically appreciate the richer tapestry of our cultural heritage and the more challenging aspects of modern culture. To help get my head round where I stand on this, I turned to the philosophical debate between high order and low order pleasures to see if I am genuinely in the business of creating ‘educated people’ or simply dumbing down the curriculum.

Moreover, this distinction is central to AS Religious Studies lessons I have taught on the moral philosophy of both Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

For Jeremy Bentham the approach to engaging and enjoyable lessons could be through referencing pop culture and thereby making learning more pleasurable. Bentham’s basic idea is that pleasure is good in and of itself and that increasing pleasure is the right thing to do. In contrast, Mill argues that higher order pleasures are superior. This is based on his consequential view that deferred gratification of pleasure will benefit the individual in the long run, as they will develop an appreciation of the finer things in life, such as poetry and classical music; what Scruton deems ‘high culture’.

Mil and Scruton cannot be dismissed as academic snobs, as there is plenty of research on the positive effects of high culture and what is often termed ‘cultural capital’ on educational achievement (Jæger 2011), which is even recognised, albeit critically, by Marxist sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu (1973).

Nonetheless, if I am to add ‘educated people’ to society, can I really do it through referencing and advocating fine art, poetry, classical music and opera, or will this just switch the students off. Ironically, the answer is in the utilitarian philosophy of Mill himself; pop culture can be seen as a means to an end. Its use as a teaching tool paves the way for a greater appreciation of the issues addressed in RS and, subsequently, a better understanding of their use in ‘high culture’.

As Mill himself stated, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” (1993: 10). Mill’s point here is that pleasure is a mean to an end, which is happiness. Therefore, if learning can be pleasurable because students enjoy learning, then it justifies itself in attaining the end; and that end could be the deeper knowledge conveyed through learning RS via the help of ‘pop culture’. In the context of this research, this could suggest that treating ‘pop culture’ as a hook in which to engage learners promotes happiness in the sense that students enjoy learning.

Of course, it is possible to unite the two categories of culture. My colleagues and I have planned lessons on Heaven and Hell that mixed clips from Tom and Jerry with Gustave Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Furthermore, lessons on suffering include the literature of Elie Wiese and the paintings of Francisco Goya. And, essentially, there are multiple references to the King James Bible. I would argue, therefore, that pop culture has allowed me to introduce aspects of ‘high culture’ in a way that prevents the initial dismissal of culture that often seems alien to my students. Clearly, then, the ends justify the means.

The research questions

In order to carry out my research I needed to ask my students the following questions:

  1. How interesting was RS before the introduction of regular references to ‘pop culture’?
  2. How interesting is RS now that the subject references ‘pop culture’ where appropriate?
  3. What is it, exactly, that makes the subject enjoyable?
  4. Does ‘pop culture’ make RS more relevant?
  5. Is the use of ‘pop culture’ a good way of teaching RS? (Students should be asked to find an example from their classes on how ‘pop culture’ has helped them understand RS).
  6. How helpful is ‘pop culture’ to your learning?
  7. Do you think the use of ‘pop culture’ is a better way of teaching RS than using classical music, opera, classical literature etc?

The questions were rephrased and can be seen in ‘findings’ section below. Nonetheless, question 1 was used to investigate whether students were enjoying RS prior to the introduction of ‘pop culture’ and the arrival of the teachers that delivered the lessons. Question 2 then asks how enjoyable the lessons are now, which allows for a direct comparison. However, a weakness in the survey is that students are asked what RS was like before their current teachers started teaching them. This could mean that the students mix the popularity of teachers with the actual information the question is seeking. Despite this, the terminology was still used as it was easy for the students to demarcate the different approaches to teaching.

Question 3 asks what makes the subject interesting. This could give an indication of whether it is ‘pop culture’ or the teachers that change the level of student engagement.

Questions 4 – 7 ask about ‘pop culture’ and whether this improves learning. One flaw in this is whether students fully comprehend the meaning of ‘pop culture’, although this was defined both verbally and in the questions. Another issue is the reference to ‘classical music, opera, classical literature’ in question 7. This asks whether pop culture is more effective, but results will be affected by students own prejudices and stereotypes of those genres.

Research Methods

In considering methods for conducting this research, I decided to combine two types of data: quantitative and qualitative data through student questionnaires asking both closed and open questions. By doing this, I combined three important aspects of social research (Denscome 2005: 5):

  • Relevance
  • Accuracy
  • Feasibility

Firstly, in order to make the research relevant, I used open questions to gage the perspectives of students. Importantly, student questionnaires allowed me to find out what they think, thus making it relevant by allowing criticism of the use of ‘pop culture’. Secondly, questionnaires included quantitative questions in order to show some measurement of student views and to compare positive and negative views on the use of ‘pop culture’. In combining these two types of data I hope to provide an accurate picture of what students really think. Thirdly, by limiting the research to 3 classes, I hoped to make the research feasible, but still representative of the students as a whole as the data covers a mixture of abilities.

There are limitations, though, as the opened ended ‘qualitative’ answers were only brief. This was also to keep the scale of the research feasible.

Findings: what do the students think?

Year 11 was overwhelming positive when asked if RS had improved. For example, the table below indicates students responses to the question, ‘How interesting was RS before Mr. Jones and Mr. Cahill started teaching you’?

Very interesting Mostly interesting Occasionally interesting Not interesting Very boring
2 0 1 4 15

Of the 22 students asked, 15 had found it ‘very boring’. However, since the introduction of ‘pop culture’, 15 students now find RS ‘very interesting’, as illustrated by the responses to the question, ‘How interesting is RS now’? (See below).

Very interesting Mostly interesting Occasionally interesting Not interesting Very boring
15 7 0 0 0

When asked, ‘Does ‘pop culture’ make RS more relevant?’ 20 students answered positively. The full responses are shown below.

Much more relevant More relevant Makes no difference Less relevant Completely irrelevant
8 12 2 0 0

Lastly, when asked to consider how ‘helpful pop culture is to their learning”, 20 students answered affirmatively, whereas only 1 student gave a negative response (see below).

Very helpful Quite helpful Makes no difference Not very helpful Stops me learning
9 11 1 1 0

Year 10 gave similar responses to the Year 11s. For example, most found the subject ‘very boring’ or ‘not interesting’ before the teaching changed.

 

Very interesting Mostly interesting Occasionally interesting Not interesting Very boring
1 6 15 17 19

 

Nonetheless, their current perception of RS is generally positive as the majority are finding it interesting (see below).

 

Very interesting Mostly interesting Occasionally interesting Not interesting Very boring
9 42 6 1 0

The corresponding trend continues when students were asked if ‘‘pop culture’ made RS more relevant?’

Much more relevant More relevant Makes no difference Less relevant Completely irrelevant
16 32 8 0 0

 

Lastly, the same pattern is clear when asked is ‘pop culture’ is helpful to learning. 47 were positive, whereas 8 said it made no difference. Only 1 said it was not helpful.

Very helpful Quite helpful Makes no difference Not very helpful Stops me learning
10 37 8 1 0

If the focus of the research was to prove that students are engaged by the use of ‘pop culture’ in RS lessons, then the quantitative evidence confirms my hypothesis. Out of the 80 students asked 69% found RS boring before my colleague and I started using music videos, popular fiction, clips from films etc. Moreover, the amount that found it interesting after the inclusion of pop culture rose to 91%. In addition, 85% said ‘pop culture’ makes RS more interesting and 84 % affirmed that it was helpful to learning.

The qualitative data backed up the quantitative evidence; examples of positive comments included, “pop culture helps explain [RS] really well and [the teachers] use more than textbooks (e.g. video clips, music)”. This was a typical Year 11 response. Many said the lessons managed to be both “interesting and funny”, which is surprising considering the often controversial content. Some enjoyed the mixing of “group work, debates and being able to put opinions across” with references to ‘pop culture’.

There were a few negative comments, including one that we should write our own songs and perform them. There was an occasional complaint that music used was not liked.

Despite the positive results, there are limitations in this research. One is the small sample of 80 students. As the data was quantifiable, it might have been wise to have extended the survey. Furthermore, there was little room for student elaboration on why ‘pop culture’ engages them. It could have been beneficial to have a small focus group of students to ask unstructured questions and improve the qualitative side of this research. Nevertheless, the quantitative data can be backed up by the fact that 123 Year 10s have opted to study the GCSE Full Course in Year 11. This is 57% of the year group.

Conclusion/recommendations:

I feel that ‘pop culture’ is an excellent tool to use, in the right context, to engage students in topics that might often seem abstract or alien. I hope that the above evidence suggests that my department (www.goffsrs.com) is enlivening and enriching students experience of RS through the use of multi-media and, of course, ‘pop culture’.

Importantly, ‘pop culture’ is a ‘shared frame’ of reference’ that students recognise, feel comfortable with and enjoy. It can, therefore, be used to scaffold students learning as they are introduced to more ‘rigorous and challenging’ concepts that they may other wise not engage with.

Despite my lessons including generous dollops of ‘high culture’, I would not dismiss the effectiveness of pop culture or, rather, ‘low culture’ in the development of ‘educated people’. There is arguably a creeping elitism amongst some policy makers concerned with education, but it is worth remembering that ‘a shared frame of reference’ often centres on what is popular, and accessing it, even celebrating it, is a good way to initially engage learners.

 

Bibliography: 

Bentham. J. (1980) Utilitarianism (London: Progressive Publishing Company)

Bourdieu, P. (1973) ‘Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction,’ in Knowledge, Education and Social Change: Papers in the Sociology of Education (London: Tavistock Publications), pp. 71–112.

Chapman, J. (2013) ‘Restore Elitism to Or Schools’, in The Daily Mail (Online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2065907/Michael-Goves-rallying-return-traditional-teaching-values.html)

Denscombe, M. (2005) The Good Research Guide: for small-scale research projects (Milton Keynes: Open University Press)

Gove, M (2011) ‘How Reform Patronising Schools Stifle Ambition’ in The Daily Mail (Online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2066141/MICHAEL-GOVES-SPEECH-How-reform-patronising-schools-stifle-ambition.html)

Gove, M (2013) The Progressive Betrayal (Online: http://www.smf.co.uk/media/news/michael-gove-speaks-smf/)

Jæger, M. M. (2011) ‘Does Cultural Capital Really Affect Academic Achievement?’ in

Sociology of Education October 2011vol. 84 no. 4 281-298

Mill, John Stuart (1993) Utilitarianism (London: Everyman)

Scruton, R. (2012): The Great Swindle: From pickled sharks to compositions in silence, fake ideas and fake emotions have elbowed out truth and beauty (Online: http://www.aeonmagazine.com/world-views/roger-scruton-fake-culture/)

NOTES

[1] An early draft of this appeared on the Guardian Teacher Network’s website (see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/feb/20/pop-culture-teaching-learning-engaging-students).

[2] Roger Scuton wrote this in a recent addition of Aeon Magazine, which is available online: Scruton R. (2012) ‘The Great Swindle’ in Aeon Magazine (Online: http://www.aeonmagazine.com/world-views/roger-scruton-fake-culture/)

[3] See: www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=pop%20culture‎ interestingly, this useful dictionary is block by the Hertfordshire Grid for Learning’s firewall.

[4] For an exposition of Michael Gove’s views on education and an explanation for his ‘elitism’, see Gove, M (2011) ‘How Reform Patronising Schools Stifle Ambition, in The Daily Mail (Online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2066141/MICHAEL-GOVES-SPEECH-How-reform-patronising-schools-stifle-ambition.html

[5] Gove’s statements on this can be viewed online too, see: Gove, M (2013) The Progressive Betrayal (Online: http://www.smf.co.uk/media/news/michael-gove-speaks-smf/)

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