Should students study popular culture?


Recent proposals for exam questions to be based on popular culture has once again sparked the debate about its place in the education system. Karen Sullivan argues why students must study popular culture.

There’s been another outcry at the appearance of questions based on popular culture in exam papers, with experts criticising the government for failing to take action. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said that exam chiefs had been competing to make themselves popular with students since the mid-1980s, but that they are “short-changing” pupils because popular culture is “shallow and transitory”.

The proposals in question suggest that students will study the delivery, style, purpose and features of “celebrity” language alongside Shakespeare and Blake, with material from Twitter feeds, speeches from the artist Grayson Perry, newspaper columns, soap operas, music and more. 

It is clear that solely focusing on popular culture would do students a great disservice in the name of education. However, the inclusion of popular culture in the curriculum is not just necessary, but essential, and there is a shedload of research to back that up.

In 1999, Bean, Bean and Bean described the literacies that two young women used over a two-week period of time. In addition to their content textbooks, they used phones, pagers, mobile phones, computers, email, the internet, art, music, drama, film, video games and digital aids of all types. The point of the research was simple and concluded that “being literate no longer means just learning to read and write traditional print texts; people need to be socio-technically literate”.

In Popular Culture in the Classroom: Teaching and Researching Critical Media Literacy, Alvermann, Moon and Hagood discuss the importance of increasing adolescents’ awareness of the social, political and economic messages coming at them from popular media. They point out that these messages are largely ignored, and adolescents’ desires to deal with them are not accommodated, in formal classroom spaces. 

They claim that adolescent literacy is more complex and sophisticated than what we traditionally consider to be school-based literacy activity. Adolescents have multiple literacies (film, internet, popular music, TV, magazines, to name a few) that transcend adult-sanctioned notions of text forms.

The research concluded that literacy plays an important role in the development of adolescents’ individual and social identities. Readers act upon cues from what they read and how they perform in school to shape their emerging sense of self. They need spaces in schools to explore and experiment with multiple literacies and to receive feedback from peers and adults. Schools advocating only school-sanctioned literacy do not currently provide such spaces. 

Using contemporary culture as a tool for teaching not only encourages healthy “sifting” and assimilation of cultural influences, which is important for emotional and even cognitive development, but it encourages interest by making subjects relevant. 

The truth is that pop culture is what surrounds us. It may be transitory, but that is the nature of the beast and that doesn’t make it less relevant. It’s like asking students only to read classics or watch Greek plays. At one point in history, these were popular; their posterity says a great deal about their worth, perhaps, but that’s not to say that what surrounds our students now is less worthy – or will be so in the future. 

A key role of education is encouraging young people to make sense of their world, and ignoring the culture in which they live will do little to support that. There is something to be learned from everything that goes on around us, and using it to support theory and understanding in examinations and in learning in general makes complete sense. Let’s make education relevant to the world in which we all live and teach the past alongside the present.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email


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