Popular Culture: alive and kicking in the Australian Curriculum

There is a critical place in the Australian Curriculum for youth popular culture and its associated texts. In fact, it is already there for educators to use to engage their students. Youth popular culture and the curriculum, as explored in Module C is a relevant conversation for all educators and parents of school aged students. Students learn best when they are engaged in their work and using popular culture to ignite their interest is an effective tool. Regardless of a teacher’s own personal taste, popular culture should be integrated into the curriculum. Popular culture engages and bridges the gap between out of school and school. It also allows students to build on prior knowledge but most importantly it draws on the expertise that students bring into the classroom. The Australia Curriculum has been designed to enable students to become successful, confident, creative, active and informed citizens of the 21st Century. It offers students multiple junctures to explore popular culture either through History or the studying of Languages. The Australian Curriculum allows schools and teachers the freedom to choose a variety of appropriate texts for the study of English, however it emphasises the importance of the enjoyment of reading. Popular culture is also seen in The Arts which aim to build an understanding of cultures, both traditional and contemporary. Through engaging with the world of artists students are encourage to value and share their own life experiences. Popular culture should be used in every subject area because the Australian Curriculum encourages the use of ‘everyday’ items of life in every year level of every subject. Whether the specific intention was to highlight the use of popular culture or not, Australian teachers have the freedom to implement it into the classroom. However, Hall (2011) recommends that thoughtful and systematic planning needs to take place for rich and meaningful learning to occur.

Young students will bring popular culture into their learning to make sense of the new things they are learning (Hall, 2011). The decision to either ignore, accept, engage with or introduce popular culture into the classroom has been a controversial issue for many years.  Many teachers are reluctant to engage with, or to introduce popular culture into the classroom due to the generational differences between them and their students. Tisdell & Thompson (2007) found that while teachers have fond memories of their own childhood memories of popular culture texts (including comics, music and television shows) they disliked the popular music and texts of their students. Therefore, why do teachers show a reluctance to bring popular culture into the classroom? This is explored through the traditional and the contemporary view of education that not only teachers, but parents view as how student’s interact and learn.

Traditional education focussed on direct teaching of content, where the teacher stood out the front and delivered facts, opinions, values and language. It was believed that if students were presented with the best literary texts that society had to offer then they would apply it to their lives and be active adult citizens. The ‘best texts’ presented the ideal of high society, and harder texts were considered to have the greater knowledge. Students learned through imitation and repetition. Any involvement with popular culture was seen as for pleasure and therefore not worthy of a place in education (Benson & Chik, 2014).

Contemporary education is based on the principles of constructivist theory. Piaget’s research led him to conclude that the way children construct meaning is through the interaction between their experiences and their ideas (Halpenny & Pettersen, 2014). Every child has a natural desire to explore, understand new things and to master concepts (Follari 2014). Students are seen to be active learners from the beginning, where they interact with the world around them and use prior knowledge to construct meaning and new avenues of learning. Therefore, popular culture has a place in education because it serves as a tool of engagement, links in-school and out-of-school, builds on prior knowledge and draws on the expertise of the learner.

Defining popular culture is difficult due to factors such as numerical value, mode of delivery and a culture of resistance (Takas, 2015). Benson and Chik (2014) term popular culture for educational purposes as the “culture of everyday life”. Similarly Browne (2005) refers to it as “culture of the people”. It is the way we make sense of the world rather than just mass media or entertainment. The reason why popular culture is so difficult to define is because it is of the people and not a TV show or a particular comic book (Marsh & Millard, 2013). It is often seen as entertainment and is contrasted with the traditional concept of formal education. This had led to concerns about the infiltration of popular culture into education. However, the value of student engagement, critical analysis and student expertise warrants its inclusion in any curriculum area.

Popular culture is effective in engaging students in learning. Scherff (2011) explains that using young adults’ literature allows all students, regardless of academic or reading ability, to engage in the curriculum. The syntax of the texts allows students to understand that it is written in their language. However, just reading the text is not enough; it is important to scaffold critical thinking and questioning into their learning experiences. Scherff highlights a need for connection with the students’ personal lives for learning to be effective. Similarly, Hall’s (2011) background research indicated that students often do not see the connection between the curriculum and their everyday lives. The Australian Curriculum (2015) needs to be contemporary and be relatable to the lives of students so that they can be active citizens. Therefore, students need to be able to relate to the content and be able to build on their prior knowledge. In fact, students are experts in these texts which enables them to be interrogated and critically analysed. Through this process students are becoming active and informed citizens.

The Australian Curriculum already has many intersections with popular culture. The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (MCEETYA 2008) declared that young Australians should be supported to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens. Whether it is under the official title of ‘Popular Culture’ or cultural diversity or links to students’ everyday lives, the writers of the Australian Curriculum have placed significant emphasis on popular culture’s role in educating young people.

The Australian Curriculum explicitly outlines the study of Popular Culture in the subject areas. In fact a total of 55 explicit references are made in the documentation. An example of this is a History unit for Year 10, where students study the nature of popular culture in Australia. In the Languages students analyse texts from a cultural perspective as well as comparing the changes in foreign languages due to popular culture. Another example where the Australian Curriculum is clearly identifying the use of popular culture is in Year 9 English. Here students investigate how cultural perspectives can influence texts, including media texts.

The Australian Curriculum allows schools and teachers to make decisions about the types of texts used with students. The English area encourages the exploration of a variety of texts enabling teachers to choose popular culture texts. However, as Tisdell & Thompson discovered, teachers are reluctant to use popular culture with students. Upon further investigation the Australia Curriculum, English stipulates that “students engage with a variety of texts for enjoyment” (ACARA, 2015). This reoccurring statement emphasises the importance of student enjoyment in achieving deep understanding and learning. It states that literary texts should be drawn from classic and contemporary world literature. The recommendation of the authors is that schools and teachers are best placed to meet the needs of students however the texts should “…engage students in the study of literary texts of personal, cultural, social and aesthetic value” (ACARA 2015).

Teacher choice and direction to use a variety of texts including popular culture is also found in other subjects. The Arts aims for students to “value and share their arts and life experiences by representing, expressing and communicating ideas, imagination and observations about their individual and collective worlds to others in meaningful ways”. The use of emerging technologies and understanding how technologies have developed over time is also emphasised in this area of the curriculum. Therefore, educators should be using popular culture technologies to achieve this learning goal.

The Australian Curriculum highlights the need for students to have a strong sense of identity and a connection with their world where they make contributions confidently and effectively. Popular culture and its related texts enable students to engage and achieve goals outlined in the Australian Curriculum. With such an emphasis on relating students’ learning to their world, it would be incomprehensible not to use popular culture and its related texts in the education of Australia’s youth. The worldview of students is formed by critically and creatively analysing the world around them. Many popular culture texts, whether print or other media, allow students to make connections with their own lives and the world. The identity struggles of characters in books encourage young people to explore concepts of self and social awareness. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is a general capability that all students are immersed in within and outside of school situations. However, Crook (2012) discovered that students are not as keen for the link to be made between the culture of social media and school. He argues that students want to keep social media for recreational purposes rather than as an educational tool. It may be argued that their main concern is having their personal content viewed in a school situation. However, Crook’s conclusion has been negated by the popularity of social media programs designed for educational purposes, including Collaborate and Edmodo.

Based on Benson and Chik’s definition of popular culture as “the culture of every-day life,” there is convincing evidence that it has a place in the Australian Curriculum. References are made throughout the documents, in every subject area and at every year level. Educators do not need to question whether the use of popular culture is recommended by the Australian Curriculum because it requires its use.

Ives and Crandall (2014) outline certain challenges with using popular culture texts in the classroom. They often lack the literacy sophistication needed to grow students’ literacy and many titles contain inappropriate content. Newkirk’s gender and literacies study (2000) found that boys focussed on themes of identity, power and masculinity, namely violent texts. Many teachers and parents find this an inappropriate topic to study. Hall (2011) contends that just immersing students in, and giving them the opportunity to read popular culture texts is not the answer. These challenges highlight that, as with any educational experience, careful planning is needed. Teachers must thoughtfully integrate these texts into the classroom to support the curriculum.

Popular culture and its related texts have a central place in the Australian Curriculum. It is already referred to explicitly and inferred in references to ‘everyday’ occurrences. Contemporary education focusses on student learning, where students build on prior knowledge by making connections between out-side-of-school and in-school experiences so that they can be fully active citizens. The Australian Curriculum allows teachers the freedom to choose a variety of texts that engage with, and are relatable to, students’ experiences. This variety should include popular culture texts as well as traditional literary material. The challenge is to use these effectively in education to enhance children’s learning.




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