How using pop culture references in class can spark student engagement

Project Tomorrow's CEO notes the ‘poptential' of clips that are relevant to young generations

Teachers can sense when specific subject matter has the potential to flop. Tomorrow’s lesson on the American Revolution or a deep lecture on supply and demand might put students in a trance rather than get them to raise their hands. So teachers often look for a hook, something that can grab their attention and keep them engaged.

Increasingly, they’re turning to multimedia resources to create that spark. In fact, a study released by nonprofits Project Tomorrow and Certell shows that 60% of the teachers they polled say digital tools and content are helping drive their lessons. That is double what it was five years ago.

But what really seems to inspire dialogue and interaction from this highly visual, meme-driven, want-it-now generation are pop culture references. Take a video clip or commercial and run it alongside a relevant lesson, and suddenly they’re riveted.

History and social studies teachers are finding them especially helpful. After all, what student being asked to study politics in the 18th century wouldn’t be coaxed by references to Hamilton … the musical?

“Just that by itself kind of opened up the door for people to start thinking about different ways to share information, particularly historical information,” says Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow who also heads the Speak Up Research Project. “Does it always have to be that we just go to the textbook, or are there different ways to explain what some of the challenges were, where the alliances were between people, how decisions got made? So much of history is about relationships. Hamilton really opened up the door to humanizing history.”

There are scores of ways to integrate popular culture into classroom discussions, lessons and projects to get students engaged. Educators have been taking advantage of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the on-and-off switches to remote learning by testing creative ideas and clips on students. Armed with digital tools both in the classroom and online and buoyed by free curriculum offerings and multimedia from Certell, they have been reaching students with more relevant content and allusions from modern-day interests to pair with historical information.

“It’s interesting how [teachers] are adaptable to some of these new ideas,” Evans says. “They really want to have an impact on this generation. They want the students to have a good understanding of the birth of the nation, to understand the struggle that different people have had over the years to understand, how wars and different events really impacted not only the United States but the world. Students are very passionate about these topics.”

Students: ‘It’s a more effective way to learn’

For the study, the two nonprofits asked 500 high school history and social studies teachers across the country about how they’re engaging students in learning and what they think about the use of pop culture within those classrooms. More than 95% said that references to pop culture were valuable in piquing student interest.

“Teachers said that the use of TV show clips, video clips, references and commercials actually stimulated better class attention,” Evans says. “Kids really want the learning process to be more contextually relevant for them.”

Poptential’s curriculum, which covers American History, Government and Economics, includes access to numerous videos—from SpongeBob Squarepants to Family Guy to Jimmy Fallon—so teachers don’t have to search for them. For example, a clip from movie Wall Street can drive home points to students, “about the way Wall Street works, the way trading is done, the way people think about buying and selling,” but in a visual way.

“Maybe it’s a little bit of a ploy to get them engaged, to get them to pay attention, to get them to sit up in their seats,” Evans says. “It’s just doing it in a different way than saying to kids: all right, read Chapter 12. Then answer questions 1, 2 and 3. Students themselves tell us that they felt it was a more effective way to learn. They’re making history come alive for kids in whole new ways. It’s really exciting.”

When subject matter is dry and students already have deep access to content online, it can be a challenge for teachers to stay relevant and competitive. One staggering statistic from Speak Up data is that 50% of middle school and high school kids admit that they are not engaged in what they’re learning in school most of the time.

“We can’t keep doing the teaching and learning the way we’ve done it in the past if we’re only meeting 50% of our audience,” Evans says. “We need to think about different ways to engage students. That doesn’t mean it has to be all about entertainment. But it is understanding the context of the world that these kids are living in. For the teachers that can effectively leverage all the different tools they have, particularly taking advantage of multimedia, they’re going to have a leg up on increasing engagement in their classroom.”

By leaning on devices and multimedia, educators can help close those gaps.

“There’s so much more technology access in the classroom than there even was three years ago,” Evans says. “As teachers are thinking about their physical classroom and using access to a YouTube video, a song or something from a musical, they have better access to those resources now than they ever did before. That’s making them more comfortable using these types of things. It’s not just using the pop culture reference as part of a lecture or discussion in class. Sometimes they’re assigning it to the student. They’re saying watch this two-minute clip, and then answer these couple questions about what your impressions are. They’re really embracing this as not just a stand-and-deliver type tool, but something that could be facilitated as part of homework.”

The results, Certell and Evans point out are astounding. Students are not only more engaged, but they are having deeper classroom discussions. Writing and reading retention skills also have improved.

“94% of teachers said that they would recommend the Poptential curriculum to a colleague, and nine in 10 who use it said it made them more effective,” Evans says. “Teachers are seeing the potential. Some of them had to dip their toe into this pop culture thing. But on the other side of it, they realize, I need to do more of this.”

Embracing technology now also will prevent educators from feeling like they’re behind in trying to reach students in the future.

“I do think that we’re probably in for some more challenges, particularly as students become savvier and savvier about the content that they’re consuming, the multimedia that they’re creating themselves, and what their expectations are from a learning standpoint,” Evans says. “How do we continue to engage our students in learning content in a meaningful way?”

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