Tag Article List: Communities of Practice

(Re)learning about Learning: Using Cases from Popular Media to Extend and Complicate Our Understandings of What It Means to Learn and Teach

Kelli Bippert

Dennis Davis

Margaret Rose Hilburn

Jennifer D. Hooper

Deepti Kharod

Cinthia Rodriguez

Rebecca Stortz

San Antonio, Texas, USA
The University of Texas at San Antonio



This article utilizes sociocultural and socio-constructivist learning theories to analyze incidents of learning, and by extension teaching, in six different popular media selections. The authors describe their shared theoretical framework and the nature of the original analyses, which were completed as part of a doctoral course assignment. Each of the six excerpts is then described and discussed employing unique theoretical perspectives. The use of popular culture as the context for examining learning and teaching provides a space untethered from traditional notions of schooling through which typically accepted assumptions about pedagogy are revealed, re-examined, and reframed.



Sociocultural, Socio-constructivist, Learning, Teaching, Popular Culture, Media Studies, Pedagogy, Education, Communities of Practice

In this article, we describe an innovative pedagogy used in a higher education setting to facilitate reflection and unpacking of a complex construct that often goes unexamined in our field. We (the authors) are doctoral students and a faculty member in an interdisciplinary PhD program in learning and teaching, and we all identify as current and prospective teacher educators dedicated to the development of high quality and critically conscious PK-12 teachers. Our doctoral program intentionally highlights the importance of interdisciplinary inquiry as a stance and a methodology for approaching complex problems in educational scholarship (Repko, Klein). Because of the interdisciplinary nature of this program, our departmental membership represents a community of practice (Lave and Wenger) that intersects different educational and teaching backgrounds—art, literacy, early childhood, educational technology, mathematics, and science education—each with its own socio-historically developed commitments to different theories and perspectives on learning and teaching.

Given the variations across our individual perspectives and our goal of finding common understandings that transcend disciplinary boundaries, we have found it useful in our shared conversations about what it means to learn—and by extension, to teach—to identify common accounts of learning/teaching in popular media. Popular culture, including television, literature, and film media, often portrays a snapshot of our world through compelling fictional and historical characters (Storey). In this article, we leverage the potential of popular media to provide common spaces for counternarratives that problematize the givens of learning and teaching. 

Traditional accounts of learning/teaching are often corrupted by the assembly-line structures of contemporary schooling (Rogoff, Paradise, Arauz et al.; Sawyer) and the ideological perspectives built into standards and curriculum surrounding knowledge (Luke 13). In this article, we assume that examples of learning in popular media, particularly those that are untethered from traditional schooling, can be illustrative cases for re-conceptualizing what it means to learn and teach. Beyond providing entertainment, popular culture is a space in which our perceptions and taken-for-granted assumptions about the world are shaped (Grossberg 94). The pedagogy described in this article was designed to help us “[turn] a skeptical eye toward assumptions, ideas that have become ‘naturalized,’ notions that are no longer questioned” (Pennycook 7). This “problematization of the given” is an important part of our ongoing work to re-configure our own conceptualizations of learning/teaching so that we can be more effective and critically conscious in our work with prospective teachers. The analyses detailed here center on the following questions: In what ways do the fictional worlds within popular culture create a portal for analyzing the ways that learning and teaching occur in out-of-school contexts; and How might these analyses offer new understandings about learning/teaching that can enrich the way we model and discuss learning with future K-12 teachers in higher education?

The analyses detailed here began as part of a doctoral course, titled Socio-constructivist and Cognitivist Perspectives on Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching, focused on socio-culturalist, socio-constructivist, and cognitivist theories as related to formal and informal learning and teaching. The primary assignment in this course was an ongoing inquiry in which we applied these theories to analyze learning and teaching events found in popular culture. Each student-author identified a “narrative of learning” in popular media, defined as an event or series of events in which someone is observed learning or changing, either incidentally or as a result of intentional teaching. Each individual student-author’s contribution featured different modes and theories that encompassed their learning and teaching event. The power of analyzing learning and teaching through six different socio-cultural lenses helped solidify these doctoral students’ understanding of how sociocultural learning and teaching occur in the everyday.

The analysis in this paper is undergirded by socio-cultural and socio-constructivist perspectives that establish learning as an interactive relationship between the individual and the social environment. Several general themes can be extracted from these two theories regarding learning and teaching. One claim is that all learning exists within the social setting and is internalized by the individual and then transmitted back to society (Vygotsky). A second notion is that learning requires the use of cultural tools (Vygotsky; Wertsch), both physical and abstract, which are inseparable from the individual. More so, in order for learning to occur, individuals must be active participants in their situated environment (Lave and Wenger).

Principally, learning is seen as an interactional process, where the learner is in a constant reciprocal relationship with the environment. These interactions cause the learner to act and react to socially-defined practices by adapting, engaging, contributing, and using past experiences (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds; Cobb). These actions change the learner and the community in various ways. First, the learner evolves, by developing past practices and making new contributions. Second, the transformation of the learner affects the situated setting, which can lead to changes in cultural norms, tools, and practices. Consequently, this interplay between learner and society causes learning shifts that are constantly impacting both the individual and their community (Lave and Wenger 51; Wenger 227). This leads to the notion that learning and teaching form a continuous and transformative cycle; “a process results in a product that in turn influences subsequent processes” (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds 180).

However, these ideas produce only a general viewpoint of the learning and teaching process. Although there are many social learning theories that seek to further explain these elements, there is an ongoing debate about what learning is (Bruner; Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds), how it develops (Greeno, Collins, and Resnik; John-Steiner and Mahn), and how varying perspectives on learning might inform the practice of teaching (Sawyer). Because social learning views argue that the learner is inseparable from the environment and cultural tools, examining novice learners in their authentic setting is critical. It is important to consider how new members experience their environment, interact with new cultural tools, and seek support from other community members. In this sense, popular culture provides a unique space to examine a range of diverse learning and teaching scenarios.

The Process

We engaged in a three-layered process that helped question, reframe, and clarify our understandings about social perspectives of learning and teaching. The process began with unpacking various theories in the context of a doctoral course, then using those understandings to undertake an individual analysis, and finally collaborating with our peers to uncover shared findings to write this article.

First, as authors of our individual analyses, we began with certain shared premises grounded in sociocultural theory. Learning and teaching were understood as mutually transformative practices situated in a common space (Lave and Wenger; Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds). The space provided opportunities for learning and feedback. The learning process also relied on the use of tools, both physical objects and strategies or practices. Finally, the learning resulted in mastery, making what was internal to the learner visible to the community.

From there, we employed unique lenses to view what was being learned, how it was learned and evidenced, and what was the role of explicit teaching in that process. Our experiences as classroom teachers in varied school settings informed these decisions, as did our different disciplines, and personal preferences regarding popular media.

Finally, the decision to collaborate in this joint analysis emerged from a shared value of interdisciplinarity. The process of reading each other’s original papers, exploring common findings, and appreciating varied viewpoints has uncovered understandings that run deeper than a typical co-authoring experience. We have gained insight as to how art, literacy, math, and science intersect with each other, and with early childhood, elementary, secondary, and undergraduate learning and teaching. These common grounds are not simply in the space of lessons or learning activities, but more fundamentally in terms of how we view our students, ourselves as students and teachers, and the very meanings of learning and teaching.

Findings from Individual Analyses

This study aims to analyze learning and teaching episodes found within popular media. Using excerpts from Orange is the New Black, The Walking Dead, Megamind, Sherlock, Exit Through the Giftshop, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the student-authors follow novice learners as they interact with their respective environments.

In the popular Netflix series, Orange is the New Black (http://www.netflix.com/WiMovie/70242311), Piper Chapman, a co-owner of an artisanal soap-making business, is living in an upper-middle class neighborhood. In the initial episode, Chapman self-surrenders at Litchfield Women’s Prison due to an international drug smuggling crime she committed ten years prior. On her first day, Chapman accidentally insults Red, the veteran kitchen manager, and instantly loses her food privileges. Consequently, she begins a series of problem-solving events to amend her relationship with Red. In order to survive, Chapman has to learn the hidden rules, overcome obstacles, and earn a respected place in the prison community. The social learning concept articulated in Rom Harré’s Vygotsky Space model was utilized to understand Piper Chapman’s interactions as she learned to adapt, participate, and contribute in the established prison environment in the first episodes of the series.

The Vygotsky Space model explores how learners interact within their social environment, internalize learning, and create contributions. The theory states that the learner is always situated within two dimensions: the public/private and the individual/social. Furthermore, it claims that these two dimensions interact with each other to form four quadrants of learning (Gavelek and Raphael 187). As learners transition through the quadrants, they engage in the developmental activities of Appropriation, Transformation, Publication, and Conventionalization (see Table 1, adapted from Gavelek and Raphael).

Table 1 Dimensions of Learning


During Appropriation, knowledge is social and public, allowing the learner to acquire it. In the Transformation phase, the learner’s appropriated knowledge is transformed into his or her own, yielding changes in the individual. These changes allow the learner to make visible contributions to the environment in the form of Publications. The acceptance of these contributions by society is seen as Conventionalization. Thus, the product is an ongoing cycle where the learner interacts within various private and social sectors that ultimately alter the individual and social context.

The Vygotsky Space assists in understanding the process of learning by examining both individual and social changes that occur throughout the four quadrants. This theoretical lens was employed to examine the actions of Piper Chapman during her initial stay at Litchfield Women’s Prison. Several key findings emerged from the analysis.

First, it was evident that Chapman’s initial lack of social knowledge in the prison environment led to immediate mistakes that changed her course of action. This created a need for specific knowledge, which placed her in various developmental opportunities. These included learning the bartering system and understanding the prison’s social hierarchy in order to obtain and exchange goods. A second finding was that cultural tools restricted and supported the learner during Appropriation.When the learner encountered physical items, they initially posed obstacles because they were used differently in the prison setting. However, as Chapman practiced using the items through trial-and-error, the tools became supporting elements of learning. Lastly, the examination found that the Transformation and Publication of cultural tools by the new member were substantial in gaining confidence, power, and acceptance. By creating and introducing tools, Chapman showed the community that she had mastered useful practices. The prisoners acknowledged Chapman’s actions and accepted her Publications. An example was apparent when Chapman learned to use the bartering system and gathered items to create a therapeutic lotion that she presented to Red. As a result, Chapman regained her food privileges and the respect of the senior inmates.

From this analysis it is evident that the new learner’s lack of initial social knowledge placed her in specific developmental opportunities. These led to individual contributions in the form of publicized practices and newly created cultural tools, transforming both the individual and her social context.

The next analysis focuses on The Walking Dead (http://www.amctv.com/shows/the-walking-dead), the AMC television series about a group of people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. The presence of the walkers, or zombies, is the driving force behind the group dynamics and the reason their society becomes focused on survival. This analysis examines the motivations between Shane, an established leader in the survivor community and Andrea, a member with less authority in the community with a sociocultural lens. Shane teaches Andrea through a scaffolding approach, enabling him to assess her learning and motivation. (See Neely for another analysis of this same event.

This analysis assumes that the standards and values that motivate individual learning are socially constructed (Hickey and Zuiker 288). Learning and behavior, as well as the society and culture in which they occur, are the forces that drive individual motivation. It is also understood that individuals have different motivations for learning. For example, Andrea is motivated to learn how to shoot so she can protect others and prove herself as a valued member of her new community; however, her ability to handle a gun has been questioned. Shane on the other hand has a different motivation. As one of the leaders, it benefits him to train others for two reasons: first, he does not have to work as hard shooting the walkers because others are helping him; and second, he does not have to continually watch over others while shooting the walkers.

This analysis focuses on three excerpts from Episode 6 in Season 2 that depict motivation through scaffolding. The intrinsic motivation felt by Andrea and Shane emphasizes the importance of learning; it also is essential to the human need for survival. Feedback is essential for one’s sense of control, is vital to intrinsic motivation, and improves learning. Unlike the others, Andrea bypasses the beginner tasks in her training and challenges herself to shoot at a harder target found in the “No Trespassing” sign. In response, Shane challenges her to the advanced class. This challenge to prove herself piques Andrea’s interest and increases her motivation. It also capitalizes on Shane’s motivation because he can nurture Andrea’s skills and help him reach his own goal of having more trained individuals in the community.

In this  particular scenario, Shane is badgering Andrea to shoot a moving target, trying to simulate a stressful interaction with a walker. After many failed attempts, her motivation begins to diminish. Illustrated by Madeline Hunter’s observation that degree of success is an important variable in motivation, Andrea’s low degree of success leads to low motivation. Eventually, as a result of her failure and Shane’s negative feedback, she quits and walks off.

By the end of the episode, Andrea’s and Shane’s different personal motivations intersect in pursuit of a common goal of survival. Thus, the urgency to shoot the walkers provides a common motivation for learning and teaching. As Yrjö Engeström explains from his situated learning perspective, the motivation to learn stems from participation in culturally valued, collaborated practices in which something useful is produced (141). Barohny Eun states that when you scaffold the learning process like Shane does, the learner (Andrea) needs to have each skill be both solid and well-embedded (410). It is these scaffolding situations that will help Andrea be able to utilize her gun, effectively utilizing the skills learned in prior situations. When faced with walkers, Andrea is able to apply her learning in a real life situation; she is more motivated and committed in her learning process.

The third individual analysis examines issues surrounding learner identity in the DreamWorks movie Megamind (http://www.megamind.com/). What forces shape a person into becoming a superhero? What forces shape others in becoming villains? The film Megamind acts as a social commentary, addressing the formation of identities by peer groups and the larger society. Through his experiences with society, the film’s protagonist, Megamind, learns as a child to accept villainy as his destiny, resolving to become the “baddest boy of them all.”

Two theories were addressed in the analysis of the opening scene: identity theory and positioning theory. According to James Paul Gee (“Identity as an Analytic Tool”), identity is described as the way a person is seen, a type of person, in society. A person’s nature-identity describes his or her physical traits and other aspects of the person that have been shaped by forces outside of the individual’s control. The institution-identity comprises the person’s official identity within society and his or her related powers and rights. Discourse-identity is shaped by the interactions that take place between the individual and others in the community. It reflects the individual’s relationship with others and is shaped by interactions within society. The fourth type of identity is the affinity-identity related to a person’s involvement in particular groups based on similar interests or activities. An individual’s position in society, and the power associated with it, is directly related to that person’s view of self (Davies and Harré 6). Of course, a person may choose to write his or her own “storyline,” pushing to increase rights and duties within the larger society. According to Rom Harré (“Positioning Theory” 3), positioning theory describes how rights and duties are distributed, change, and challenged over the course of a lifetime.

The film’s exposition was divided into four major parts, each occurring where the account of Megamind’s young life made major shifts. The exposition of the film Megamind was analyzed using discourse analysis (Gee, “How to do Discourse Analysis”). Each utterance within these parts was analyzed using Gee’s four types of learner identity (Gee, “Identity as an Analytic Tool” 100) and the expansion or retraction of rights and duty related to positioning (Harré, “Positioning Theory” 3).

Four patterns emerged based on the content of the exposition. In part one, the most commonly coded example of identity was nature-identity; at this point the exposition, which displayed Megamind’s earliest memories, showed very limited social interactions. In part two, institution-identity and reduction of rights were coded most frequently as he makes his home among prison inmates. In the third part, Megamind begins school and interacts with his teacher and classmates, and discourse-identity was coded more than in any other part of the transcription. The consequences of his perceived bad behavior result in his removal from much of the social interactions that occur in the classroom, limiting his rights and duties. Finally, part four of the exposition features the main character continuing the trend of negative discourse-identity formations and reduction of rights, as he chooses to push against social norms and positioning, creating his own storyline, starring Megamind as the “baddest boy of them all.”

By closely analyzing student, teacher, and peer interactions with at-risk children, we can gain better insights to reasons that many children push against norms set in the classroom. Megamind’s experiences in school could describe situations in which many marginalized children find themselves. Megamind, the protagonist in this film, is very much like many students who attempt to participate in school learning community, yet for various reasons fail to thrive as members of their learning environment. Be it intentional or not, the writers of the animated film Megamind described the very essence of how and why many children struggle in the traditional classroom.

The fourth vignette investigates identity formation in a different context. Over the course of the three seasons of BBC’s Sherlock (http://www.bbcamerica.com/sherlock/), John Watson develops from a damaged survivor of the Afghanistan war to a fully-realized, deductive-reasoning, consulting detective’s assistant. He forms and recognizes this new identity through his social interactions and experiences of working alongside Sherlock Holmes as they investigate and solve crimes at various locations within a period of three years. Watson’s cognitive, social, cultural, and psychological identities undergo a transformation that would be impossible without these social experiences. More than just the building of ideas from within the mind, learning for Watson must be analyzed from within the larger context of his place in society.

George Herbert Mead’s seminal work on identity formation stresses the impossibility of separating the self from the society in which it is formed. He further transfers the concept of communication between two or more people into an internal conversation within the individual. The person therefore becomes his own inner community. This concept, which he calls abstraction, cannot be the only interaction within a society, of course, but it helps to explain how identity formation becomes an internalized process, one that ultimately requires full participation of the individual.

Sheldon Stryker further explores the concept of identity theory by refining Mead’s work into a simple model explained as “society shapes self shapes social behavior” (Stryker 28). He likens identity to a mosaic, blending bits and pieces of social interaction to form a complete whole. It is relatively patterned, yet crosses new boundaries as new social interactions take place. Stryker finds that a shared meaning of a concept or idea provided the commonality to link identity and behavior (31). The practices within the identity and social community, and the common usage of the meaning, provide an extension of how identity is created.

In the beginning of the series, John Watson is a returning soldier and a doctor from the Afghanistan war, clearly affected by the violence and trauma of his experiences there. In therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, his therapist has advised him to stay calm, get involved in “normal” society, and reintegrate himself with civilians and a quiet life. He has difficulty reckoning his inner desire to experience more danger and violence with the socially accepted reaction that he should be feeling. Scenes from the first season emphasize this dissonance, showcasing situations where Watson fluctuates between settling down in the life of a clinical doctor and relishing the high energy of detective work. His time is ripe for learning a new life, one where he is both in control and in enough danger to satisfy his needs. This new community Sherlock Holmes provides comes at the perfect time for Watson’s emerging identity.

By season three, Watson proves himself a fully-formed identity as an investigator. One key scene in the final episode depicts both his skill as an investigator and his mentor’s awareness of these skills. Holmes has been shot and has left clues for Watson to figure out the case, knowing that Watson will be able to separate his emotions from logic and connect the dots, realizing that his own wife is the person who has shot his best friend. If this identity as an investigator had not been fully formed, Watson’s denial of evidence would have hindered his conclusions. The clues he collects, and the conclusions he makes from them, are symbolic of the larger ability to think like an investigator. This ingrained methodology has become a natural practice, one in which Watson engages without conscious thought. Watson’s identity arc corresponds with the narrative arc of the show; while he will continue to grow and develop as an investigator, as all learning continues, he now has ownership of his identity. The social context in which Watson is placed at this time has shifted yet again. A married man, practicing doctor, part-time investigator, this Watson has finally claimed ownership of his new identity.

The next analysis centers on cultural tools and co-construction. The 2010 documentary film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, examines Thierry Guerra’s induction to the secretive community of some of the world’s most famous street artists (http://www.banksyfilm.com). Initially, Guerra is allowed access to the exclusive group under the assumption that he is a documentary filmmaker. However, Guerra is not content with simply standing by as an observer, and through an unintentional apprenticeship, remakes himself into the street artist known as Mr. Brainwash. This analysis of Guerra’s transformation reveals insights about how cultural tools help to scaffold artistic meaning making.

From a social constructivist perspective, cultural products such as language and signs semiotics are considered to mediate our thoughts and mold our reality (Vygotsky). Sign mediated activities include “systems of counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; works of art; writing; schemes, diagrams, maps and mechanical drawings; all sorts of conventional signs and so on” (Vygotsky 137). These semiotic means are referred to as tools, and it is with the aid of these tools that we construct our knowledge. James Wertsch believes that these cultural tools manipulate human action within the mind and in the world. He emphasizes the importance between the relationship of external cultural tools and their influence of internal processes.

The concept that individuals employ internal cultural tools to make sense of the external world is referred to as co-construction. The mastery of a new concept, skill or tool is the process of internalization. Furthermore, a skill or tool can be appropriated, meaning that it has been used in a unique or individual way. It is through an internal conversation that individuals appropriate and reconstruct their understanding (Harré). Semiotic representations, shaped by and indistinguishable from culture, aid our processes of internalization. Ernest Gombrich (as cited in Cunliffe) situates works of art not only in the mind of the artist, but also within social and cultural contexts. He proposes that artistic ability is not simply a naturally inherited gift, but that symbolic cultural representations, in the form of tradition, influence the work of artists by providing visual cues and critical feedback.

In Exit Through the Gift Shop, the degree to which graffiti culture influenced Guerra’s artistic decision making is extensive. Often, Guerra appropriates the images, style, and artistic approaches that he observed during his time among the street art community. Throughout the film Guerra is able to engage with and observe how expert artists test and refine their practices through the mechanism of corrective feedback. One such example occurs when graffiti artist Space Invader asks Guerra what he thinks of his mosaic, and then later when he seeks Guerra’s help in installing the mosaic on a building.

Though frequently unsuccessful in his initial attempts at art making, Guerra is able to appropriate the strategies of trial and error and corrective feedback to his eventual success. Guerra’s mastery of these tools is evidence of his internalization of the practices and tools of the street artist community. This internal conversation and transformation was instrumental in reconstructing Guerra’s identity from Guerra the documentary filmmaker to Mr. Brainwash, successful street artist.

Finally, although educators frequently conceptualize learning as an intentional product of teaching, an analysis of J.K. Rowling’s book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, reveals many layers of learning occurring simultaneously, often in the absence of purposeful teaching, and exposes issues of periphery and power (http://harrypotter.scholastic.com). As a new student at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry happens upon the magical Mirror of Erised. His initial interactions are directly with the Mirror, but Harry also learns about its powers from his mentor, Headmaster Dumbledore, before encountering it again in a high-stakes duel with Professor Quirrell (possessed by the evil Voldemort’s spirit).

In their definition of learning, Patricia Alexander, Diane Schallert, and Ralph Reynolds describe it as both “conscious and intentional,” and “tacit and incidental” (178), so learning is continuous (Matusov 338), inevitable (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds 178), and multifunctional (Davis 105). Teachers and students constantly (but not always consciously) send and receive messages about expectations, socialization, power, and other cultural norms of their community. So, within a single activity, a learner typically experiences several types, or layers, of learning simultaneously. This study analyzes Harry’s learning by what he learns (tool, environment, and identity) and how he learns (incidental or intentional, guided by teacher or learner).

Layers of learning across the what categories is evident when the Mirror drops the Sorcerer’s Stone into Harry’s pocket. Harry gains new understandings about a magical tool (the Mirror), norms of the wizarding world (the Stone’s reflection materializes in his pocket), and his changing identity (from loser in his uncle’s household to hero at Hogwarts). Through this single event, Harry experiences three layers of learning.

Harry also experiences multiple layers in terms of how he learns: intentionally through Dumbledore’s explanation (teacher) and Harry’s following his advice (learner), and incidentally when he experiences the Mirror’s magic. Rowling describes Harry’s reflection twice as changing from “pale and scared-looking” to smiling (208, 292). The first time is when Harry originally encounters the Mirror and sees his reflection surrounded by family; the next is when he encounters the Mirror during his final confrontation with Quirrell/ Voldemort. After the first incident, Prof. Dumbledore suggests that Harry avoid losing himself in the fantasies the Mirror shows him, and Harry decides to do so. Finally, the incidental learning occurs in that Harry accidentally encounters the Mirror in the storeroom before he faces it in a high-stakes situation (assuming that Dumbledore did not mastermind the coincidence).

Power is inherent in educational relationships, with the expectation that a learner’s power increases with greater experience, knowledge, and mastery of craft and culture. Although institutional power rests with teachers (compared to students), Jean Lave and EtienneWenger note that the periphery offers a position of power, too (36). Harry’s mastery of certain spells and tools is not valued or even permitted in his classrooms; however, it is invaluable in actual practice. He remains an outsider, even as a hero, because of his unfamiliarity with wizarding culture as well as his own personality and choices. The Mirror episodes afford opportunities to reframe learning, from a planned activity to a continuous, multi-layered experience. Harry’s experiences also highlight the power that a peripheral position can confer in a community of practice.

Uncovering the Givens and Identifying Tensions

While each of these examinations uses a distinct lens in addition to the shared social learning theories, looking across these six vignettes brings further insight regarding teaching and learning.

Through our reflections on the process of examining cases of learning/teaching in popular media, we have identified two broad implications of this work: 1) helping us see learning/teaching more clearly, around the boundaries of what we were accustomed to seeing; and 2) identifying dialectic tensions that expand the complexity of our thinking about learning.

As an example of the “givens” in the field of education that we were able to examine more deeply as a result of our analyses of out-of-school learning as represented in popular media, we offer the following list of assumptions, developed through our class discussions, that are often played out in typical classroom practice in K-12 settings and required of beginning teachers in a typical education program as evidence of readiness for leading a classroom:

  • Assumption of designed intentionality: there has to be an observable, measurable objective, written with a clear verb and statement of evidence
  • Assumption of observable and instant mastery: the lesson is successful if all (or most) students at the end of the lesson have “mastered” the objective
  • Assumption of tangible evidence: Mastery is almost always documented through the creation of tangible artifacts (writing), even to the point where some things are written (or copied) simply for the purpose of creating this artifact when they could be more efficiently and authentically accomplished through talk or other intangible practices
  • Assumption of active engagement: the lesson is successful if all students look busy
  • Assumption of structure: there is an expected architecture to the lesson sequence and the lesson is successful if all components are performed for the appropriate amount of time in the appropriate order
  • Assumption of tidiness: the lesson is successful if it is tidy and compliant such that disruptions or meanderings from the architecture are discouraged and instances of dissonance or conceptual struggle are deemed indicators of bad teaching

It is certainly beyond the scope of this article to argue that these normalized practices are universally incorrect or ineffective, and we do not claim to dispute accumulated evidence for the need for these and other features of standards-based and data-driven instruction. Our point is simply that part of our work as interdisciplinary scholars who hope to extend our quality as teacher educators is to engage in thoughtful critique of these and other givens of learning/teaching that are rarely questioned or even noticed because they are assumed to be true and natural. Each of these ritualized practices rests on assumptions about how learning occurs and what is worth learning. Our cases of learning in popular media give us a shared context for examining learning in a way that is less corrupted by these practices so that we can engage in what Gee calls critical learning: learning to notice, critique, rearrange the design features built into a semiotic domain (Video Games 25).

Our reflection on these cases also helped us develop a list of tensions or dialectics—two seemingly opposing states that cannot be easily collapsed into each other or resolved—related to learning that expand the way we now talk about learning with colleagues and students. These four tensions are summarized below.

Coercion/volition is the first tension we identified. Our cases show examples of learners learning through participation in communities they have chosen to affiliate with (or have allowed themselves to be recruited into). At the same time, though, the learners are compelled or coerced to follow accepted pathways of access and to learn a prescribed sequence of practices. There are both individual agency and external authority driving their participation in these communities.

The second tension we identified is labeled replication/innovation. Learners who gain exclusive levels of centrality in their communities do so through the appropriation of tools and practices. which allows them to push the limits of how these tools/practices can be used (Lave and Wenger; Wertsch). Members do not just replicate the conventionalized practices of a community (Gavelek and Raphael). They actually “own” them and transform them, spitting back the transformed forms into the community so that others can also internalize the novelties they have helped build. It is important to point out, though, that replication is not totally removed from the process. There is some degree of absorption of pre-existing practices, things that make the community a community. A learner has to enter into social contracts with other members of the community, and some of these contracts involve the adoption of cultural models, tools, practices, and so forth that bind the community together.

Our cases also reveal a whole/part tension. Most of our cases center on individuals who are recruited into the practices they are hoping to learn in such a way that they are able to experience (at the very least, observe) the whole practice from the very beginning of their community affiliation. Their immersion in the whole practice is what makes their learning possible; it allows them to imagine a possible future in which they are doing all the parts of the process (Gee, Video Games; Lave and Wenger). At the same time, though, a new member in a community cannot do all the parts of the practice instantly (not well, at least). There is a partitioning or sequestration of the content that happens (sometimes incidentally, and sometimes in institutionalized ways). The learner gets access to the whole thing but also works through parts of the whole thing in the sequence that has been deemed acceptable by old-timers in the community (Lave and Wenger).

The final tension exposed in our analysis, intentional/inevitable, reflects our understanding that learning can be launched by an intentional act of teaching or can happen incidentally through interactions or experiences in which there is no nameable agent who purposely fills a teacher role. Furthermore, even when there is intentional teaching, there is always (inevitably) some learning that occurs that is not intended (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds). This can be the result of intentional resistance on the part of the learner(s). But even without active resistance, when teachers launch a learning event, they are launching (or better stated, reconstituting) a community of practice, which calls forth a set of norms, practices, discourses, identities (etc.) associated with the particular community. In addition to (or instead of) the intended content of the learning, the learners will inevitably gain facility with their own ways of “doing” this practice: they will learn the rules, how to follow them, how to subvert them, how to use sanctioned aspects of the social language to gain authority in conversation, and much more.

In conclusion, the use of popular culture as a resource in the higher education community can provide a counternarrative to the traditional pedagogical practices usually accepted in academia. We found the common space of popular culture accessible and relatable to all of us, regardless of background or focus. In higher education classrooms, educators often struggle with finding ways to encourage learner agency, authenticity in class work, and a learner-focused curriculum. We contend that the process of examining representations in popular media described in this article helped us accomplish this goal while also informing our understanding of important content that influences our future work as teacher educators.

Through the close examination of our individual popular culture events, we were able to uncover the convergences in our meaning-making, finding ways to assemble the fractured conceptualizations of learning/teaching into a cohesive whole. This pedagogy affords us the opportunity to relearn how we view learning, delving deeper into our beliefs and limitations of the various processes we value in education. We are able to see what is there, not just what we have been taught to see or what we expect to find. Working together to construct our understandings through this process, we step through the popular culture portal into a new area of education. We encourage others in education and related field to engage in similar examinations as a way of developing shared understandings of important concepts in the field, particularly in programs that are interdisciplinary in nature.


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Author Bios:

Kelli Bippert is a third year doctoral fellow at The University of Texas at San Antonio in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching. Her research interests include digital literacy, adolescent struggling readers, and integrating student interests in literacy learning to motivate learners.

Dennis S. Davis is an assistant professor of literacy education at The University of Texas at San Antonio. He received his PhD in Teaching, Learning, and Diversity from Vanderbilt University. He is a former fourth- and fifth-grade teacher whose research focuses on literacy in elementary and middle school contexts. His bio can be found at http://education.utsa.edu/faculty/profile/dennis.davis@utsa.edu.

Margaret Rose Hilburn is a practicing artist and educator. She holds a BFA and MAE from Texas Tech University. Hilburn is currently pursuing a PhD in Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at The University of Texas at San Antonio. She is currently working as a doctoral fellow, and her research interests include curriculum theory, visual culture, and art education.

Jennifer D. Hooper is a third year doctoral student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Her research interest focuses on the achievement gap between boys and girls in science courses. Upon graduating with her PhD, she plans to swim with great white sharks and seek employment in higher education.

Deepti Kharod is a doctoral fellow in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at The University of Texas at San Antonio. Her experiences as a journalist, mother, and elementary teacher inform her current work as an educator. Her research focuses on environmental education, preservice teachers, and elementary students.

Cinthia Rodriguez is an elementary math specialist at Northside Independent School District and a doctoral student at The University of Texas at San Antonio. Her research interests include effective teaching practices for diverse populations in the elementary school setting.

Rebecca Stortz is an educator and Ph.D. student at The University of Texas at San Antonio. An avid reader and writer, she strives to incorporate technology and multiliteracies into her classroom experiences. Her research interests include literacy identities, poetry, writing instruction, and teacher education.


Reference Citation:


Bippert, Kelli, Davis, Dennis, Hilburn, Margaret Rose, Hooper, Jennifer D., Kharod, Deepti, Rodriguez, Cinthia, and Stortz, Rebecca.“(Re)learning about Learning: Using Cases from Popular Media to Extend and Complicate our Understandings of what it Means to Learn and Teach.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016). Web and Print.



Bippert, K., Davis, D., Hilburn, M. R., Hooper, J. D., Kharod, D., Rodriguez, C., and Stortz, R. (2016). (Re)learning about learning: Using cases from popular media to extend and complicate our understandings of what it means to learn and teach. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/relearning-about-learning-using-cases-from-popular-media-to-extend-and-complicate-our-understandings-of-what-it-means-to-learn-and-teach/

Girls, Guns, and Zombies: Five Dimensions of Teaching and Learning in The Walking Dead

Anthony Neely
The University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas, USA



Rooted in sociocultural theory, this article utilizes a conceptual framework derived from Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds’ four topographical dimensions of learning: who of learning, what of learning, where of learning, and when of learning. Situated learning (Lave and Wenger) is presented as a fifth dimension to address how learning occurs in communities of practice absent of formal schooling. Content analysis (Elo and Kyngass) is used to analyze a teaching and learning event from an episode of The Walking Dead based on the five topographical dimensions of learning listed above. Findings provide insights for pedagogical application for grades 7-12 by addressing the potential benefits of contextualized and scaffolded situated learning activities, gender equity, and authentic high-stress high-risk tasks in secondary level curriculum design.


Popular Culture, Teaching Methods, Gender Equity, The Walking Dead, Socioculturalism, Situated Learning, Apocalyptic Media, Interdisciplinary Research, Communities of Practice, Contextualized Curriculum


The television series The Walking Dead (Darabont et al.) has become a phenomenon in American pop culture. Set in a post-apocalyptic Southeastern United States, the series follows a small group of survivors as they strive for existence on a zombie-infested planet. The zombies, referred to as Walkers, are relentless in their pursuit of human flesh, with the unfortunate soul who falls victim to their attack becoming a Walker himself. With characters living in a world devoid of any formal schooling and yet totally dependent on the development of skills for survival, The Walking Dead is ripe with examples of teaching and learning outside of the traditional classroom setting. In this article a teaching and learning event from The Walking Dead will be analyzed through a topographical interactive framework comprised of five dimensions of learning.

Prior to addressing the conceptual framework on which this article is built, it is critical to discuss what learning is in order to contextualize how learning occurs within a society absent of formal schooling. It is
difficult to define learning due to the existence of a broad spectrum of theoretical explanations for the concept. While many learning theories share overlapping elements, there are also numerous irreconcilable
differences among these frameworks. Thus, rather than attempting to produce a universal definition for
learning, Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds provide nine principles to describe the concept as derived from commonalities among salient learning theories.

The first principle the authors propose is that learning is change. From learning how to crawl to analyzing complex mathematical theories, humans are constantly changing, adapting, and evolving. This change not only influences individuals but also the entire system in which they exist. Next, the authors contend that learning is inevitable, essential, and ubiquitous. To state it simply, to live is to learn. Whether one learns not to touch a hot stove or how to quickly analyze traffic patterns on the highway, humans are kept alive by their ability to recognize and decipher environmental stimuli. The inevitability of learning does not, however, suggest that learning is irresistible. Consider the alcoholic who receives multiple infractions for driving under the influence. Despite his awareness that driving under the influence of alcohol may result in negative outcomes (e.g., court dues, imprisonment, loss of license), he continues to drive while intoxicated. The previous example segues into Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds’ proposition that some learning may be disadvantageous. Although learning is generally viewed as a positive endeavor, in certain contexts the object of learning may not be beneficial (e.g., the experience of overdosing on drugs).

Next, the authors propose that learning can either be tacit and incidental or conscious and intentional. For example, there are contexts in which learning occurs without conscious awareness (e.g., recognizing that stubbing a toe hurts), while in other contexts learning is an intentional and active pursuit (e.g., learning to fly fish). The sixth principle in the model proposes that learning is framed by our humanness. The authors contend that the biological features of our bodies (e.g., senses, cognition, psychological attributes) make learning central to the human experience.

Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds present learning as both a process and a product. As such, learning is an active event that also has some type of output. Consider the student who goes through the process of learning to play the guitar. In addition to her procedural efforts (e.g., practicing scales, researching chord variations, developing hand dexterity), she will be able to produce a product as evidence that learning has
occurred (e.g., the ability to play a song). The eighth principle presented by the authors is that learning is
experienced in diverse ways, depending on the time and context in which it occurs. What and how one learns can be shaped by social, cognitive, and biological factors throughout his or her life (e.g., age, level of maturity, life experience, sociocultural environment). Finally, Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds contend that learning is interactional. Learning does not occur in a vacuum, but rather as a scenario in which “learners are
influenced by, and at the same time push back, take from, change, control, and create the environment in which learning is situated” (180).

The authors’ last principle allows the act of learning to be anchored within a sociocultural framework. Socioculturalism, a theoretical framework of learning and development based on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, proposes that higher level mental functioning finds its origins in the shared experiences of society. Vygotsky contends that only after a concept exists outside of the individual
(i.e. externalized) can it exist within the individual (i.e. internalized). One way in which this process (externalization √ internalization) can be illustrated is as a continuous spiral referred to as the Vygotsky Space (Gavalek and Raphael; Harre). The Vygotsky Space uses two overlaying dimensions, public √ private activity and social √ individual activity, to represent the externalization √ internalization process. When observed as a series of quadrants, these dimensions show that the construction of knowledge originates within the sociocultural context, is then transformed by individuals within society, and is ultimately reintroduced to society for the cycle to begin again. As described above, the foundation of Vygotsky’s theory is that learning cannot be decontextualized from one’s sociocultural surroundings because learning does not occur in isolation.Socioculturalism proposes that social interaction influences development because novice learners are dependent on the assistance of more knowledgeable others for sociocognitive progression. Vygotsky supports this stance in his writings on the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development refers to the distance between one’s ability to complete a task on her own (i.e. actual development) and her ability to complete a task with the assistance of a more knowledgeable other (i.e. potential development). As learners are continually challenged to work with others beyond their own current level of development, Vygotsky suggests that their zone of proximal development will continually shift so that “What a child can do with assistance today, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow” (87).

Drawing from the literature of Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds this article is built on a topographical interactive model of learning that seeks out common ground among multiple salient learning theories. The model proposes four dimensions of learning (i.e. who of learning, what of learning, where of learning, and when of learning) that are in constant interaction and provide context for describing a teaching and learning event.

The first dimension, who of learning, explores the agents involved in a teaching and learning event. This dimension contends that learning is directly influenced by the biological, cognitive, experiential
(e.g., individual and cultural), and affective (e.g. motivational and emotional) characteristics of participants (Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds 184). The who of learning is critical to understanding learning because, as Lakoff and Johnson argue, the learning process is highly influenced by the learner involved. The second dimension explores what is being learned. Within this dimension the authors propose an interweaving of the types and levels of learning that occur during a teaching and learning event. These may range from unconsciously acquired habits and tacit knowledge (e.g., recognizing that dropping a bowling ball on your foot is painful) to intentionally pursued higher order knowledge and skills (e.g., an aspiring carpenter learning to cut dovetail joints). The third dimension addresses the ecological context in which learning occurs. While some aspects of the ecological context are concrete and easily recognizable (e.g., physical setting and tools used to mediate learning), others require greater investigation due to their abstractness (e.g., historical and cultural context). Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds place the when of learning as their fourth dimension. By understanding the interrelatedness of timing, duration, and cultural shifts that occur during a teaching and learning event, one can provide critical insights into the context of the event itself. In other words, skills and knowledge that are seemingly irrelevant today may be critical to one’s very survival in the future. For example, the ability to start a fire using only sticks and grass may be considered an inconsequential skill until one is unexpectedly shipwrecked on an island.

Although Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds do not include a dimension to address the how of learning, it is important to discuss because it describes the process by which learning occurs. In this article, Lave and Wenger’s situated learning framework explains the how of learning. In Lave and Wenger’s model, a novice advances knowledge through varying levels of participation with more knowledgeable others in a community of practice as opposed to learning through decontextualized means (e.g., direct lecture or reading a textbook). Situated learning can manifest itself in two ways: participation and apprenticeship.

In participation the novice learns through situatedness within a community of practice. For example a person who grows up in a farming community, although not a farmer himself, may gain knowledge regarding the norms and practices of farming that far exceed an individual who lives in an urban environment. Thus, participation can be viewed as learning by proximity. The second classification of situated learning is apprenticeship. In this article, apprenticeship is defined as a dyadic relationship between a more knowledgeable other and a novice for the purpose of sharing wisdom and promoting skill development through active co-participation (Lave and Wenger). This framework suggests that the optimal avenue by which one
(e.g., a novice plumber) learns a skill (e.g., replacing a rusted pipe) is not through decontextualized instruction on the topic (e.g., classroom lecture), but rather through active participation with one who is more experienced with said skill (e.g., assisting a master plumber with such a repair).

Situated learning is provided as the fifth dimension of learning in this article for two reasons. First, this framework aligns itself with socioculturalism in that it focuses on the learner having membership in a community of practice as opposed to existing in a vacuum (Lave and Wenger). Through participation in a community of practice, the learner develops an identity of membership by which she is socialized to the jargon, norms, and skills associated with the community. This development of identity within a community of practice is critical to situated learning because learning “implies becoming a different person with respect to the possibilities enabled by these systems of relations” (Lave and Wenger 53). Second, situated learning is a contextually appropriate framework for analyzing The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead takes place in a world absent of formal schooling. As a result, the characters in the show are co-dependent for survival and help each other develop essential skills through active participation in communities of practice.

Through content analysis, a research method in which various forms of media are organized into concepts or categories for the purpose of deriving new insights and inferences about a given phenomenon (Cole; Elo and Kyngas; Krippendorf), this study explores a teaching and learning event in Season 2: Episode 6 of The Walking Dead. The teaching and learning event being analyzed is situated within an ongoing storyline regarding a worldwide outbreak of unknown origins that has turned the majority of humans into Walkers. Human survivors discover early in the series that the only way to stop a Walker is to destroy its brain. Although there are a variety of tools that can complete this task (e.g., ax, sledgehammer, hunting knife), risk of death makes the possession of and skill set to effectively use a firearm a valuable commodity. In this post-apocalyptic setting, a gun not only represents increased likelihood of survival but also is symbolic of power within the social hierarchy.

After several mishaps with firearms occur on the survivors’ farm, the two primary community leaders, Rick and Shane, declare that any individual who has not been formally trained to use a firearm must surrender their weapon until formal training has been completed. As a result, very few individuals in the community are permitted to possess a firearm. For community member Andrea, the ability to once again wield her revolver has two levels of importance. First, it is an opportunity to break the gender roles that have been constructed in the community (i.e. men are community protectors and women maintain domestic responsibilities). Second, the gun serves as an artifact linking Andrea to happier times before her sister Amy was killed by Walkers.

The teaching and learning event being examined in this article focuses on the training Andrea undergoes in order to reclaim the right to possess her weapon. Andrea’s training occurs in four stages:
(1) small group instruction at a makeshift firing range, (2) private instruction with Shane in the woods,
(3) cooperative action on a search and rescue mission with Shane, and (4) supported action on the search and rescue mission.

Having addressed the context of the episode, findings will now be presented as they emerged during analysis of the teaching and learning event. The constant comparative method of coding (Corbin and Strauss; Boeije) was followed during analysis to seek out emerging elements from the teaching and learning event as related to the five topographical dimensions listed above (i.e. who of learning, what of learning, where of learning, when of learning, how of learning).

Dimension 1 — Who of Learning, addresses all who are affected by the teaching and learning event in this episode (i.e. learner, teacher, and community at large). Designated as the primary learner, Andrea is portrayed as an attractive young woman who was a successful lawyer prior to the outbreak. Intelligent and headstrong, Andrea is initially an asset to the community, showing leadership skills and the ability to think on her feet. After the loss of her sister Amy to a Walker attack, Andrea becomes introverted and severely depressed to the degree that many perceive her as suicidal. This perception is one of the catalysts that lead to Shane and Rick’s decree that only those who have been formally trained may possess a firearm. Although the firearm is presented as the predominant tool for survival in the earliest episodes of The Walking Dead, possession of this tool does not appear to be as significant to Andrea until she is no longer permitted to wield one. Initially opposed to the decree, Andrea eventually accepts the mandate and agrees to undergo formal training, having been forced to use a screwdriver to protect herself during a Walker attack.

Somewhat cocky and self-assured at the beginning of the teaching and learning event (i.e. small group instruction at a firing range), Andrea displays advanced proficiency by successfully shooting targets more difficult than those assigned to her. As a result, Andrea is extended the opportunity to move beyond group instruction into a dyadic apprenticeship under Shane’s guidance.

However, it becomes evident during her first lesson with Shane (i.e. private instruction in the woods)
that when placed in a more contextually realistic scenario (e.g., moving target, heightened stress levels), Andrea is not as skilled a marksman as she previously believed. Frustrated by her inability to master the skill of shooting a moving target (i.e. a log suspended by rope from a tree), Andrea is easily flustered by criticisms from Shane. Although she portrays herself as outspoken and independent, it is evident that Andrea is psychologically scarred by the loss of her sister. The mere utterance of Amy’s name during private instruction with Shane causes Andrea to cease participation in this phase of the teaching and learning event.

Despite her conflict with Shane over the use of her deceased sister as an instructional tool, Andrea shows that she is dedicated to advancing her firearm skills by agreeing to assist Shane on a search and rescue mission to find a missing child. This mission is Andrea’s first opportunity to assume the role of community protector since arriving at the survivors’ farm.

The instructor during this teaching and learning event is Shane. A former sheriff’s deputy, he serves as the proverbial alpha male and first community leader. The appearance of Rick, who was long assumed to be dead, leads to multiple internal and external conflicts for Shane. To understand Shane’s mental state during this teaching and learning event, it is imperative to examine his trajectory throughout the series. Prior to the outbreak, Rick and Shane were partners and best friends. During an altercation with a fugitive criminal, Rick is shot and falls into a coma, resulting in long-term hospitalization. Optimistic his friend will make a full recovery, Shane stays at Rick’s bedside until Walkers overtake the facility. Assuming that Rick’s unconscious body will be consumed by Walkers, Shane flees the hospital to collect Rick’s wife and son and to seek safety. In the months that follow, Shane and Rick’s wife Lori develop an intimate relationship. When Rick miraculously appears at the settlement, Lori returns to her husband, leaving Shane both heartbroken and jealous.

While publicly Shane helps maintain the community and follows Rick’s leadership, in private his persona becomes much more neurotic. Although Shane contemplates leaving the community to fend for himself, he ultimately stays due to his love for Lori. As a result of this emotional turmoil, Shane becomes increasingly combative, which is evident in his lessons with Andrea. During the teaching and learning event, Shane displays both sides of his personality by being hypercritical of Andrea and yet aware of socioemotional boundaries (e.g. “I crossed the line when I brought Amy into it. So yes. It’s an apology” (Darabont et al.)). While Shane is experienced, exhibits a high degree of leadership, and is adequately skilled to survive when Walkers attack, he is, like Andrea, emotionally unstable, which adds an interesting dynamic to their apprenticeship.

The third who to be considered in this teaching and learning event is the community at large. The majority of the community is neither formally trained survivalists nor experienced combatants. They are average men, women, and children with no spectacular attributes, aside from the fact that they are still alive. For this reason, former sheriff’s deputies Shane and Rick are well credentialed to serve as the more knowledgeable others who provide firearm training. Knowing that such training can improve chances for survival, a large proportion of the community participates in the initial training session at a makeshift firing range on the farm.

The second topographical dimension, What of Learning, addresses Andrea’s intended learning objectives in the episode. Actively participating in increasingly contextualized settings (e.g., firing range, woods, suburban neighborhood invaded by Walkers), Andrea seeks to develop her intended skill set within an apprenticeship model. At its most basic and overt level, this teaching and learning event focuses on Andrea expanding her skills with a firearm. There is also a deeper level of abstract learning that occurs within the episode.

By acquiring a new skill set, Andrea is revising her identity within the community. Throughout the series, Andrea expresses a desire to circumvent the community’s socially constructed gender roles (i.e. men are community protectors and women maintain domestic duties). Andrea views the possession of a firearm as a gateway to transcending her prescribed role in the community. Rather than washing clothes or preparing food, the possession of a firearm allows its owner multiple options including the ability to leave the farm on supply gathering missions, participate in Walker hunting expeditions, and serve as a night watch. Thus, success in this endeavor may not only provide Andrea with a new identity in the community but could also serve as a catalyst for sociopolitical shifts in power for all females on the farm.

Within the psychosocial realm, Andrea is also learning how to accept the death of her sister Amy. Since the loss of her sister to a Walker attack, Andrea has fallen into a manic, often suicidal, state. Andrea resists talking about this element of her psyche and temporarily abandons instruction with Shane due to his use of Amy’s death as a motivational tactic (e.g., “You’re too damn emotional. You need to shut it down. Take all that guilt, that fear, that being pissed off…That’s the Walker that got Amy. Now you shoot that son of a bitch! You shoot him!” (Darabont et al.)).

Dimension 3 — Where of Learning, examines the physical and sociopolitical environment in which the teaching and learning event occurs. The setting of this episode is a community of survivors living on a farm outside of Atlanta, Georgia. The survivors have temporarily settled at the farm after experiencing numerous Walker attacks in other temporary settlements. Hopeful they will find a larger community unaffected by the outbreak, the survivors are semi-nomadic, settling in areas considered safe for habitation. The farm offers community members a sense of life as it was before the outbreak due to its various amenities such as clean drinking water and private bedrooms. At the farm, survivors live communally, sharing food, supplies, and various responsibilities.

In addition to the setting of the teaching and learning event, it is also important to examine its timing and duration; thus, the When of Learning is designated as the fourth topographical dimension. Although the characters involved in this episode bring a lifetime of experiences to the teaching and learning event, the event itself occurs within the span of a single day. This is displayed through several pieces of evidence within the episode. First, at the firing range Rick arranges for Andrea to receive personal instruction from Shane after the conclusion of the day’s group lesson. Next, after Andrea becomes angry and abandons her private lesson, Shane finds her walking down the road and invites her to join him as backup on a mission to locate a missing child. The teaching and learning event concludes as the two narrowly escape a Walker attack.

On a broader scale, this teaching and learning event occurs within the context of a post-apocalyptic world. Prior to the outbreak, the skill set being learned (i.e. mastery with a firearm) was critical only for those whose career put them in harm’s way. After the outbreak however, it is essential for survival in a Walker-infested world. For Andrea this event occurs at a psychosocial crossroads between wanting to end her life and desiring to transform her identity within the community.

Having explored the context in which the teaching and learning event is situated, focus will now shift to analyzing the pedagogical approach Shane utilizes to guide Andrea’s development in this episode. Dimension 5 — How of Learning, emerges in a series of four scaffolded stages during the teaching and learning event: (1) small group instruction, (2) private instruction, (3) cooperative action, and (4) supported action.

In the first stage of learning, small group instruction, Andrea is an active participant in a community of practice at a makeshift gun range. Taking aim at bottles and old road signs, participants receive constant feedback from more knowledgeable others (i.e. Rick and Shane) regarding their technique and marksmanship. Of the four instructional stages in the episode, Stage 1 is the least contextualized, exhibits the lowest level of stress on participants, and is the most risk adverse. Although the firing range is a situated learning activity (e.g. participants are shooting firearms instead of reading a book about shooting firearms), the targets are stationary and nonthreatening. Hence, this phase of instruction does not accurately simulate the context of a Walker attack. The no stress-no risk environment of Stage 1 births in Andrea a false sense of self-confidence regarding her ability to use a gun.

During this stage, Andrea receives direct feedback from community leaders Rick and Shane. At first Shane believes Andrea has missed her assigned target (i.e. a glass bottle). Upon closer inspection he realizes that she was not shooting at the bottle, but rather had placed three bullets through the O in a No Trespassing sign. Impressed by Andrea’s apparent proficiency at the firing range, Rick proposes that she receive advanced training from Shane. With her acceptance, Andrea becomes an apprentice under Shane’s guidance. No other participants in the episode, male or female, are extended an invitation to enter an apprenticeship.

The second stage of Andrea’s learning occurs via dyadic private instruction with Shane in a wooded area on the farm. As Shane seeks to further situate the training within the context of a Walker attack, he increases the difficulty of the task by requiring Andrea to shoot a moving target (i.e. a log suspended from a tree). This task proves to be beyond Andrea’s current ability level and leads to numerous complaints from the learner. In response to Andrea’s grumblings, Shane takes on an aggressive drill sergeant-like tone and interlaces instruction with statements explaining that the task is designed to simulate real life combat (e.g., “Now you stand here. You point your weapon. Point it like you point your finger. Do not think about it. I’m talking about muscle memory girl. Muscle memory!…You think a Walker is gonna’ hold still for you?” (Darabont et al.)).

Although this pedagogical strategy does not appear to progress Andrea’s shooting ability (i.e. she is still unable to hit the moving target), Shane continues his tactics by employing gender negative criticisms (e.g. “God you shoot like a damn girl…You’re too damn emotional” (Darabont et al.)). At this point, Andrea not only challenges Shane’s methods but also his abilities as the more knowledgeable other (e.g., “Stop badgering me…Right, and you’re so calm?” (Darabont et al.)). Shane responds to Andrea’s critique by effortlessly shooting the log and expressing his ability to separate emotion from task completion (e.g., “See? I can be pissed off, I can be whistling Dixie, and I always hit the target.” (Darabont et al.)).

After reaffirming his role as the more knowledgeable other, Shane orders Andrea to try again. Shane continues his harsh tone and places Andrea under heightened levels of stress until she ceases the lesson due to his mentioning of Amy’s death (e.g., “That’s the Walker that got Amy. Now you shoot that son of a bitch! You shoot him!” (Darabont et al.)).

Although there is no risk involved in this stage of instruction, the stress level is significantly higher than that of Stage 1, which results in Andrea’s choice to abandon the lesson prior to successful task completion.

After their altercation at the end of Stage 2, Shane finds Andrea walking down the road alone and seeks to make amends by explaining that his pedagogical method in the previous stage of instruction was both strategic and intentional (e.g., “Hey look. I’m just trying to get you rattled. Alright? Just giving you an idea of what it’s like when the shit starts to fly.” (Darabont et al.)).

Despite her failure to show mastery of the intended skill in the previous stage, Shane does not suggest that the two return to the woods or shooting range for further training. Instead, he extends an invitation for Andrea to join him on a mission to search for a missing child, thereby moving into a third stage of instruction based on highly contextualized cooperative action. Shane takes on a new pedagogical approach by ceasing the aggressive tone and placing Andrea in a high-risk situation in which her ability to hit a moving target
(i.e. a Walker) could determine whether she and Shane survive the mission.

After a short duration of exploring the neighborhood where the missing child is assumed to be, Andrea and Shane are attacked by a herd of Walkers. Shane acknowledges that the two must work cooperatively in order to successfully reach their vehicle (e.g., “You cover that street. I’ll clear the car.” (Darabont et al.)). Although Shane has taken on the more difficult task by assigning himself an area with a greater number of Walkers, the two are ultimately co-dependent for a successful escape.

Quickly clearing his designated area, Shane notices that Andrea is still unable to shoot her targets in the head, the skill he was attempting to teach her in Stage 2. Shane provides Andrea with backup, allowing her to practice shooting at Walkers. This stage is high stress, as both Andrea and Shane’s lives are endangered; however, Andrea’s risk is fairly low due to Shane’s active support.

The third stage of the teaching and learning event segues directly into Stage 4, supported action, when Andrea’s pistol jams with Walkers quickly approaching. Initially, Shane provides coverage and supportive guidance (e.g., “Focus now. Clear the jam. Focus” (Darabont et al.)); however, as Andrea becomes more frantic and panicked, Shane lowers his gun as a sign that he is allowing her to engage in a sink or swim moment. Although he offers words of encouragement, Shane allows a Walker to get just outside of arm’s length from Andrea without raising his gun to stifle its progression. At this point, Shane transitions from being an active co-participant to supportive observer in the teaching and learning event. It is worth noting that Shane places Andrea in this high-stress high-risk situated learning environment after she has failed to successfully hit a moving target during the previous two stages. Andrea, aware of Shane’s instructional decision, questions his method while continuing to attempt the task (e.g., “Are you kidding me?” (Darabont et al.)). At the climax of the scene, Andrea successfully clears the jam and shoots a Walker moments before it attacks her. In this stage, Andrea’s inability to execute the skill would have meant certain death, making it the most high-stress and high-risk of all four stages of instruction. After eliminating her most immediate threat and successfully completing the task, the stress associated with the learning event rapidly dissipates, as shown by a regained air of confidence.

The teaching and learning event in this episode of The Walking Dead provides multiple insights for improving curricular and pedagogical design in formal classroom settings. First, this teaching and learning event shows that contextualized active participation in a community of practice is critical to learner development. If Andrea had simply read a book about shooting a firearm or attended a lecture on clearing a jammed gun, she may not have survived the Walker attack during the mission with Shane. As shown in this episode, contextually appropriate experiential knowledge can allow learners the opportunity to reach their potential development more rapidly than decontextualized instruction. Thus, in classroom instruction it is critical that teachers forego decontextualized drill-and-kill style assignments and instead provide students the opportunity to be active participants in situated learning activities.

Second, the analysis shows that it is possible to scaffold knowledge within a situated learning activity. Actively participating in the act of shooting during each stage, Andrea moves through four scaffolded stages of instruction in the episode. Throughout the teaching and learning event, Andrea transitions from a controlled group setting that emphasizes basic skills with a firearm to personalized instruction meant to refine those skills. Andrea then assists Shane in a cooperative activity that requires her to display mastery and task completion in an authentic context. Likewise, classroom teachers can work with students on scaffolded learning activities. As students gain experience and master lower level skills, the teacher can allow students to assume greater autonomy in future endeavors. By way of illustration, a computer science instructor can facilitate a situated learning activity with a class of novice programmers in three scaffolded stages. During the first stage, the teacher could utilize a computer-mediated activity to help students learn a programming language (e.g., Java, C++, Python). After the students have shown proficiency with the programming language, the teacher and students could cooperatively write code for a program that was designed by the instructor. Finally, the teacher could challenge students to design and write their own programs, providing assistance as the more knowledgeable other when needed.

Third, the teaching and learning event displays the empowerment and motivation associated with gender equity in the learning environment. From the pilot episode to this one containing the teaching and learning event, Andrea becomes increasingly depressed and neurotic, resulting in the destruction of numerous interpersonal relationships. Despite her psychosocial troubles, an interest in becoming a community protector motivates Andrea’s pursuit of formal training with a firearm. Regardless of her aspirations, there are sociocultural norms that have to be overcome for Andrea to transcend the community’s socially constructed gender roles. As Andrea receives training and assists Shane on a mission, she is able to take steps toward obtaining the identity of community protector. The receipt of appropriate credentials (i.e. formal training with a firearm) allows Andrea’s role in the community to transform where she is no longer expected to participate in tasks she considers demeaning and menial (e.g., preparing meals and washing clothes). As a result,
Andrea experiences a renewed sense of purpose via a meaningful contribution to the community.

This example is important to classroom teachers in two ways. First, while socially constructed roles may be prevalent in society, gender marginalization does not have to extend into the classroom. By promoting equity in the learning environment, students of all demographics can have the opportunity to experience empowerment and motivation that otherwise may not be available in other social contexts. For example, teachers can enrich social studies curriculum, which traditionally emphasizes the contributions of dominant populations (e.g., wealthy, whites, heterosexuals, males), by intentionally incorporating content that gives prominence to the pivotal roles played by historically underrepresented populations (e.g., females, people of color, LBGTQ). By doing so, teachers not only disrupt dominant narratives that undermine the salience of these populations but also encourage diverse students to embrace their heritages and identities.

Second, like many students, Andrea suffers from severe psychosocial scarring that results in social isolation and decreased motivation. After being offered the opportunity to participate in an activity relative to her interests and goals, Andrea is able to work through her emotional issues and experience a renewed sense of community membership. This finding displays the importance of allowing students to have a voice in curricular decisions. Instead of assigning students tasks that do not align with their interests, which may result in decreased motivation and psychosocial health, teachers could utilize strategies that increase their knowledge of students’ personal goals and affinities (e.g., interest inventories). By helping teachers craft curriculum that corresponds with students’ passions and aspirations, the information gained from these activities can increase the meaningfulness of classroom instruction.

Finally, this episode shows that concurrently increasing stress and risk levels may be beneficial to student development. In the four stages of Dimension 5 — How of Learning, Andrea reacts to context as a catalyst for her development. During the three initial stages, as Andrea faces no stress or risk or unbalanced levels of stress and risk, she is unable to move beyond her actual development level with a firearm. In the final stage however, Shane places Andrea in a high-stress high-risk scenario where survival is determined by the ability to exhibit skill mastery. Although Shane could help Andrea fend off the Walkers, he lowers his weapon symbolizing that Andrea is responsible for completing the task, making both the risk and stress levels of the activity high. When Andrea is placed into this concurrently high-risk high-stress environment, she not only successfully completes her given task (i.e. shooting a Walker in the head) but also replicates task completion by slaying numerous other Walkers in the vicinity.

While many primary and secondary level education programs seek to decrease the risk and stress associated with learning, this episode provides a case in which development does not occur until risk and stress are concurrently high. From this example it can be said that learning outcomes devoid of stress and risk may fail to motivate students’ advancement beyond current development levels. Likewise, when there is an imbalance of stress and risk, students may rebel, act out in class, or fail to successfully complete assigned tasks. However, if a student is challenged to complete a task beyond her current development level and is informed of consequences attached to failure, she may be motivated to successfully complete the task. For instance, a student who aspires to become a published poet, but does not write consistently, might propose an assignment to her teacher requiring submission of an original poem each day prior to recess. The two may negotiate a consequence that requires the student to write during recess, rather than play with friends, on days in which she fails to complete her task. By incorporating stress (i.e. submission deadline) and risk (i.e. loss of play time) the student may be compelled to incorporate writing into her daily routine, a critical habit for any aspiring author.

It is worth noting that the author of this essay does not consider the term high-risk to be synonymous with high-stakes (e.g., state mandated standardized exams that are used as quantitative measures of student learning) for two reasons. First, high-risk assessments are relative to individual goals established and voluntarily pursued by the learner. Second, high-risk assessments are authentic in that they are contextually bound by an individual learner’s aspirations. To correspond with a student’s goals, consequences should be mutually negotiated by the student and teacher to encourage dyadic ownership of tasks and learning outcomes (Anderson). Inversely, high-stakes activities utilize decontextualized, often quantitative, means to measure a population’s competency regarding topics chosen by legislators and administrative officials (Giroux and Schmidt). Differing from high-risk learning endeavors, high-stakes activities mandate the participation of a broad student population and offer learners no voice in what or how content will be assessed.

Although some critics dismiss popular media as a mere cultural novelty that stifles the intellectual progression of today’s youth (Bauerlein), it has proven to be an invaluable tool for exploring best practices in teaching and learning. Gleaning insights from an episode of The Walking Dead, this article contributes to extant literature on the use of apocalyptic media as an instrument for analyzing instructional practice. Ripe with examples of teaching and learning in communities of practice, The Walking Dead is a valuable resource for examining the construction of knowledge in a society absent of formal schooling. As a result, future research may identify and analyze skills pursued by other characters in the series or perform longitudinal studies of characters’ development throughout the series at large. Additionally, researchers may choose to explore teaching and learning in various popular television series, films, video games, and other media through the five topographical dimensions of learning presented in this article. Regardless of the direction taken in future studies, the continuation of research on teaching and learning in popular culture is essential to the evolution and proliferation of the field.


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Author Bio:

Anthony Neely is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at The University of Texas at San Antonio. His research explores youth and popular culture as instructional tools, affective teacher-student relationships, and reverse mentoring in secondary level classrooms. Prior to pursuing his doctorate, Anthony earned a Master’s degree in Educational Theory and Practice at Arkansas State University and a Bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education at Tennessee Technological University.

Social Media:

Academia: https://utsa.academia.edu/AnthonyNeely

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Twitter: @anthonydneely


Reference Citation:

Neely, Anthony. “Girls, Guns, and Zombies: Five Dimensions of Teaching and Learning in The Walking Dead. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2.1 (2014). Web and Print.

Neely, A. (2014). Girls, guns, and zombies: Five dimensions of teaching and learning in The Walking DeadDialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/issue-2/girls-guns-and-zombies-five-dimensions-of-teaching-and-learning-in-the-walking-dead/