Harry Potter, Metallica and concept mapping

Why is some stuff difficult to learn whilst other stuff just gets into your head and stays there? It can be really frustrating for teachers that students sometimes fail to recall facts and figures that are quite simple and obvious to the expert, and yet can recall all sorts of trivia from modern culture. Most teenagers are more likely to be able to remember the name of Bart Simpson’s dog than recall the chemical formula for glucose. And it is clearly nothing to do with immediate relevance to life, or usefullness in dinner time conversation.

Kidd (2007) talks about popular culture as a social norm and as a tool in creating social boundaries. Though I agree with much of what he says, Kidd does adopt a shamelessly Amerocentric stance within his comments, and even explains why certain passages of text within the Harry Potter books have been Americanized for the US audience.

But his comments about ‘legitimate culture’ and ‘illegitimate extra-curricular culture’ are worth exploring. By conferring the status of illegitimate culture on certain artefacts, they sudenly become more interesting to learn.  So students probably read Harry Potter for fun, but wouldn’t think about reading a Shakespeare play for the same reason – that’s what you read in school! But I wonder if this boundary can be crossed – to blur the legitimate and the illigitimate? Is it all about manipulating different perspectives?

The concept map below was produced by two teenage Harry Potter readers to summarise the overall story represented across the series of books:Harry%20Potter%20[2]

Harry Potter concept map PDF version: Harry%20Potter%20[1]

In some ways this represents an approved version, what the map authors consider to be the answer expected by a teacher.  Perhaps even, the ‘right answer’. But what about a concept map that portrays the book through the eyes of Draco Malfoy?  How different would that look? This visualisation of an alternative perspective is made easier to achieve by using concept maps. Partly because we already have the legitimate version to hand, a starting point that is ready to be manipulated and corrupted.

This it seems is what popular culture often tries to do, and why it is often so shocking to the older generation.  For a generation that was brought up on Tom and Jerry cartoons, the content of newer products such as South Park or Family Guy cross lines that wouldn’t have been accepted 30 years ago.  That’s what makes them attractive. Look at the ‘story within the story’ in the Simpsons.  Whilst many parents may see the Simpsons as providing a poor role model to their kids, Marge Simpson sees the ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ cartoons that Bart and Lisa watch as providing a poor role model for her kids. This is one reason why the writing in the Simpsons is so good as it reflects and parodies real life.

Kidd (2007) quotes others who have described heavy metal music as a “threat to our children” where observers see popular culture as ‘bizarre’ or ‘evil’.  Just as parents in the 1950s saw Elvis as a threat to the norms of society. But let’s just consider some of the most popular heavy metal as providing an alternative, or illigitimate perspective. For example, the lyrics of ‘Enter Sandman’ by Metallica provide a different perspective on the notion of children’s nightmares:

Hush little baby, don’t say a word
And never mind that noise you heard
It’s just the beast under your bed,
In your closet, in your head

Rather than bizarre or evil, I find this an interesting perspective on a widely encountered phenomenon. And it doesn’t really matter if musically you are more comfortable with Barry Manilow rather than James Hetfield, the interest is getting access to students’ attention so that they are not looking at their watches in anticipation of returning to their own social norms. What would a concept map of the entire song look like?  Would it raise questions and trigger a debate?

This is not to say that teachers can just highjack popular culture to make their lectures interesting. Nor should we attempt to invade private spaces for th purposes of education. Colleagues who have tried to put academic work on facebook have found that the students just abandon facebook once it has been ‘polluted’. But there must be potential in applying some of the techniques of popular culture to access young minds? One of these is to show alternative or unanticipated perspectives.  Once a particular perspective becomes the norm, it becomes routine and monotonous and ‘so last year!’. Expecting students to act as consumers of a single perspective may now seem dull (and even dumb teaching – look at my earlier post on dumb teaching), whereas working with the ‘student as producer’ conception of teaching may be more likely to generate multiple perspectives and make teaching a more dynamic activity that is fit for the 21st century.  It does, however, require teachers to be active participants in the process of teaching.

Further reading:

Kidd, D (2007) Harry Potter and the functions of popular culture. Journal of Popular Culture, 40(1): 69 – 89.

Enter sandman video at:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=CD-E-LDc384

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