Tag Article List: Popular Culture

A Framework for Using Popular Music Videos to Teach Media Literacy

Jordan M. McClain
Drexel University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA



This article discusses the use of popular music videos as a tool for teaching media literacy. First, the article addresses the importance of music videos as popular culture, what other music video research has examined, and what features make music videos a good fit for in-class work investigating media and popular culture. Then the article details a single-class activity for introducing and teaching media literacy through the use of music videos. To achieve this objective, the article also proposes a set of original music video-specific discussion questions. Finally, a particular music video is considered to illustrate possible results of this activity and the broader issues that may arise from class discussion.



Communication, Media, Media Studies, Popular Culture, Pedagogy, New Media, Digital Media, Media Literacy, Media Education, Music Videos


Although popular music videos have long been criticized for their superficiality, fast edits, and sensational content, features like these help make the videos an excellent teaching tool, effective for getting students’ attention and exploring broad issues. Many educators may be skeptical about or may have never thought about the benefits of using music videos in the classroom—thus the shortage of research on this approach. Cayari wrote about students creating music videos in order to learn music and technology skills.  Maskell discussed the use of music videos for teaching English, saying the content has “huge potential for use across the entire English curriculum” (54). There is still, however, much to uncover about the myriad possible uses of music videos as a pedagogical instrument.

With a focus on popular music videos, this essay discusses their importance, describes an activity using them to teach media literacy skills, offers some new music video-specific ideas for introductory media literacy exercises, and shares example results of the activity. This information may appeal to a wide range of educators, especially media and popular culture scholars teaching undergraduate college courses such as Media and Society, Media Literacy, or Introduction to Popular Culture.

Although the pedagogical value of music videos remains formally under-recognized, many have thoroughly established why music videos are an important and potent way to learn about life around the globe. “Music television deserves serious attention from students of popular culture” (Goodwin and Grossberg ix), proclaimed the introduction of Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, the influential collection edited by Frith, Goodwin, and Grossberg. Supporting this call to study music videos, Austerlitz saw them as a “fascinating oddity” (1) and a “compelling marker of cultural history” (1). He concluded that the music video’s “triumphs render it a subject worthy of deeper study and attention” (1). In summarizing the state of music video research and demonstrating why they are more than just entertainment, Straw wrote, “music videos are increasingly seen as elements within complex assemblages of image and sound that circulate the world and are recombined within a variety of diasporic media, from satellite television networks through DVD and Internet video clip sites” (3176).

Consideration of certain music video research trends indicates their diverse potential. One major trend adopts a media effects perspective and examines how music videos influence the ways audiences think and behave, especially younger groups like adolescents, teens, or college students. Studies have looked at music video effects in terms of sex, such as how kids imitate the content (Ey and Cupit), how they sext (Van Ouytsel, Ponnet, and Walrave), and what their attitudes are toward sex (Aubrey, Hopper, and Mbure; Beentjes and Konig; Kistler and Lee; Zhang, Miller, and Harrison). Others have researched music videos’ effects on perceptions of rape (Burgess and Burpo; Sprankle, End, and Bretz). There is also much work on the influence of music videos on how people think about gender-specific ideas related to misogyny (van Oosten, Peter, and Valkenburg) or bodily self-perception (Mischner et al.).

Overlapping with work that emphasizes effects, there is a trend of research interested in representational patterns in music videos. Gender often emerges as a main focal point, such as Wallis’s content analysis of differences in gender displays. Many have also tied race to genre, with rap being a dominant line of inquiry (Balaji; Conrad, Dixon, and  Zhang; Zhang, Dixon, and Conrad). Overall, work on representation has spanned topics like sexual objectification (Aubrey and Frisby; Frisby and Aubrey), sexuality (Turner), and violence (Aikat; Smith and Boyson; Thaller and Messing).

Such trends show the utility of music videos in media research, popular culture studies, and beyond. In addition, music videos are characterized by a combination of features that make them an ideal fit for in-class activities about media and popular culture:

  1. They are conventionally short, compared to a full movie or television episode.
  2. They are often familiar, which benefits group discussion because many students bring background knowledge.
  3. They are common online, which makes it simple for instructors to find multiple good examples.
  4. They are easy to access, such as the free official content available on video-sharing sites like YouTube or hosting services like Vevo.
  5. They are often controversial, working as a compelling catalyst for critical discussion and thus able to help students identify important issues, then articulate their views on social or political matters.
  6. They are commonly imitated on the Web, as evidenced by remakes, parodies, satires, and mash-ups that have become a common way for lovers and haters—including amateurs, professionals, and people in between—to express themselves online.1
  7. They are popular culture, as a collective form and as individual artifacts, which gives them instant student appeal and significance as a teaching tool. 

Activity: Popular Music Videos and Media Literacy

The following activity is a productive way to use music videos to introduce and teach media literacy. This exercise is intended to occur in class and requires the instructor’s use of an Internet-connected device that can play music videos viewable by the whole class at once (e.g., via projector or on a large monitor). Objectives include these:

  1. The exercise will (A) strategically use music videos as a teaching tool, (B) demonstrate the importance of critical thinking about music videos, and (C) demonstrate the importance of critical thinking about popular culture.
  2. Students will (A) strengthen media literacy skills and (B) increase comprehension of popular music videos as a significant form of entertainment media. 

Preparation: Prior to class, carefully select a popular music video accessible online and useful as a teaching tool. Billboard charts and YouTube’s “Popular on YouTube” section are helpful starting points. The instructor should select something that will resonate with students; this can be based on recency or the interests and personalities of the class. I suggest watching the video many times before class. It is also essential to research the video’s production background and popular reception. Immediately before class begins, it is smart to prepare the music video for easy start-up and test all necessary technology—video connection, audio levels, video start function, video end point.

Execution: Once class begins, start the activity by announcing its order (i.e., discuss media literacy, watch music video, analyze video alone and then together) and expected outcomes (i.e., enhance media literacy comprehension and skills).

Part 1: Introduce Media Literacy and Music Video-Specific Follow-Up Questions

First, I explain media literacy and the following five key questions of media literacy, using visual aids like PowerPoint slides and the Center for Media Literacy’s website, medialit.org:

  1. Authorship: “Who created this message?”
  2. Format: “What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?”
  3. Audience: “How might different people understand this message differently than me?”
  4. Content: “What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?”
  5. Purpose: “Why is this message being sent?”

As justified in the rationale above, we then briefly discuss why music videos are media content worthy of critical thought.

Next, to successfully analyze popular music videos and expand on the preexisting five key questions of media literacy, I propose the following set of original follow-up questions that are music video-specific—four follow-ups for each of the main questions—to help prompt critical thought and advance media literacy about popular music videos:

  1.  Authorship: “Who created this message?”
    1. Who is explicitly identified as a creator?
    2. Who created the song?
    3. Who created the music video?
    4. What are some major components of the music video that people created?
  2. Format: “What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?”
    1. What techniques are used in the music?
    2. What techniques are used in the music video?
    3. How does this music video seem influenced by popular culture?
    4. How has this music video seemingly influenced popular culture?
  3. Audience: “How might different people understand this message differently than me?”
    1. Who do you think are some target audiences for this music video?
    2. What components of the music video indicate its target audience?
    3. What parts of the music video seem open to interpretation?
    4. What parts of the music video seem controversial? To whom?
  4. Content: “What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?”
    1. How does the music video convey this?
    2. How do you think this relates to the music video’s creators?
    3. How do you think this relates to the music video’s target audience?
    4. What may have caused these representations and omissions?
  5. Purpose: “Why is this message being sent?”
    1. Why was this music created?
    2. Why was the music video created?
    3. Why was the music video created for this format? (I.e., cable television, the Web, DVD, etc.)
    4. Who would benefit from the music video’s popularity? 

Part 2: Watch a Music Video

After focusing on media literacy questions, introduce the music video by identifying the song and performer. I find it useful to informally survey how many students know the song or artist and how many like the song or artist. It is crucial to establish the significance of studying this artifact. For instance, instructors should cite facts about awards the artist or song has won, sales information like albums or singles sold, rankings from Billboard/Nielsen chart data, concert grosses, YouTube views, and social media metrics (e.g., how many likes or followers an artist has online). It is best also to show students visuals like a Twitter feed or Billboard.com article to support those claims. This will help students recognize the significance of putting popular culture under the microscope—this is not just a song but a social phenomenon that deserves to be studied, and the class is learning a system for accomplishing that.

Here it is helpful to notify students that after watching the video once, they will need to answer and discuss the five media literacy questions and music video-specific follow-ups. Thus, as they watch, students should think about answers to the questions, which they may wish to quickly review before watching the video at this point.

Part 3: Practice Media Literacy Skills by Discussing the Music Video

Solo: After watching the video, students should individually write answers to each media literacy question and the follow-ups. When dealing with time constraints for this in-class activity, I advise students to focus on answers that come easiest, instead of straining to complete all questions (i.e., quality over quantity). This is a good time to encourage optional Internet use for those with enabled devices. Answers are possible with only a pencil and paper, but Web-based research will probably strengthen responses.

Small groups: After the solo work, students form pairs or triads and share their findings with each other. They should consider what they learned from peers to expand their answer list and prepare for a full-class discussion.

As a class: After the small group work, reconvene as a class and watch the video for a second and final time. This provides a chance to see more, helps solidify what students learned so far, and refreshes memories for the following discussion.

I then lead a Q&A through each of the five key media literacy questions and follow-ups. Instructors should seek many answers to each question, solicit like and unlike observations across the group, and play devil’s advocate to help students form their opinions.

Activity Results

This activity results in valuable dialogues, which will vary based on the video(s) examined. One highly recommended music video to choose for this activity is Katy Perry’s 2013 hit, “Roar” (Lipshutz; Perry, “Katy Perry – Roar”) 2. Using this video would give the instructor a chance to talk about Perry’s many Grammy nominations, MTV Awards, Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, and Guinness World Records. The instructor could also discuss her remarkable billion-plus views that place this song in the top ten most-viewed YouTube and Vevo videos (Jang; Lane; “Vevo Top Videos”) and made Perry “the first artist to ever have two videos with over 1 Billion [sic] views” (“Katy Perry – Vevo”; “Roar10xCertified”). Students respond well to these kinds of arguments for a video’s significance and facts like Perry’s status as the most-followed Twitter user—with over 75 million followers, she ranks above people like Justin Bieber and President Obama (Perry, “Tweets”; “Twitter Top 100”).

Discussing Perry’s “Roar” video would likely cause students to answer the media literacy questions and follow-ups in ways that lead to fascinating conversations about the major media literacy concepts. “Authorship” would relate to the song being co-written by a team of professional hit makers including Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Bonnie McKee (Hampp; Seabrook). “Format” would connect to sexualization, familiar pop song ingredients, and the use of visual effects. “Audience” would lead to concerns about young fans, PETA’s objections to the video’s use of animals (Boardman; Palmer), or the video’s twist ending. “Content” would tie to portrayals of selfies, makeup use, and heterosexuality or sexual orientation. “Purpose” would relate to product sales, promotional culture, the modern music industry, free YouTube content, conspicuous use of Nokia merchandise, and celebrity branding.

This kind of popular music video analysis, based on the five key media literacy questions and follow-ups, enables discussion of many broad issues. In particular, this includes:

  1. How race, class, age, and ability are represented in music videos.
  2. How gender, sex, sexuality, and sexism are treated in music videos.
  3. How beauty norms are reflected in music videos; how this impacts body image, self-esteem, or eating disorders outside music videos.
  4. How celebrities appear in music videos; how musicians are positioned as celebrities in music videos.
  5. What music videos tell us about censorship, evolving moral standards, political correctness, and cultural taboos.
  6. How product placement shapes music videos.
  7. How genre affects music videos.
  8. How new and digital media impact music videos.

By using this activity, I have found that students thoroughly enjoy practicing and developing critical thinking skills through the study of everyday media and popular culture. The classroom becomes a space where fun and learning can logically and productively intersect. Students become more consistently engaged with class topics and discussions, searching for such intersection. Their media literacy skills improve—instantly and long-term—through the type of practice and collaborative critique that this exercise facilitates. As a result, students are more sensitive, informed, and skilled critical consumers of entertainment media.

This essay expands on general media literacy principles and produces original music video-specific questions, enabling systematic use of music videos as effective resources for teaching media literacy and critical thinking about media and popular culture. The five key media literacy questions are a valuable framework for studying popular music videos and exploring the broader issues they raise. Without the media literacy framework, this exercise might allow only surface-level scrutiny. Using the media literacy foundation strengthens, deepens, and formalizes this learning process, enhancing student comprehension, analysis, and evaluation of popular music videos as important media content.

The in-class activity described in this essay is ideal for undergraduate courses, but can be adapted by prefacing the work with level-appropriate lectures about media and popular culture for a variety of potential student audiences, such as tweens, pre-college teens, or graduate students. One alternative to the in-class activity is to remake it as a written test, which would benefit from a rubric used to grade answers. For example, instructors may choose to teach the five key media literacy questions first, then, on the same or a different day, show a music video and require students to answer the five questions and music video-specific follow-ups as a test of knowledge and skills. Other possibilities include a student presentation (individuals or groups pick a modern video, argue for its significance, analyze its content using the music video-specific follow-ups, and consider the implications); a reflection paper (students address the extent to which media literacy about music videos will impact how they think about such entertainment); or a self-produced video essay (students use the media literacy questions and music video-specific follow-ups as prompts for a prepared, recorded oral critique of a popular music video; bonus points to those who share their video essay on YouTube).

Popular music videos have many educational uses, which span disciplines. These videos are excellent instruments, effective for getting students’ attention, and helpful for teaching about many complex and meaningful concepts. Educators should therefore embrace and experiment with music videos as a powerful teaching tool.


1. By way of illustration, consider the many humorous takeoffs on The Black Eyed Peas song, “My Humps,” which inspired popular online videos by alt-rock celebrity Alanis Morissette, gender-role-defying electronic musician Peaches, and pre-teen remix video YouTube-star MattyBRaps.

2. Here are some other recommended popular music videos that work well for this activity: Michael Jackson, “Thriller”; Madonna, “Erotica”; Shania Twain, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”; One Direction, “What Makes You Beautiful”; Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines”; Pharrell Williams, “Happy”; Taylor Swift, “Shake it Off”; Drake, “Hotline Bling.”

Works Cited

Aikat, Debashis. “Streaming Violent Genres Online: Visual Images in Music Videos on BET.com, Country.com, MTV.com, and VH1.com.” Popular Music and Society 27.2 (2004): 221-240. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Aubrey, Jennifer Stevens, and Cynthia M. Frisby. “Sexual Objectification in Music Videos: A Content Analysis Comparing Gender and Genre.” Mass Communication and Society 14.4 (2011): 475-501. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Aubrey, Jennifer Stevens, K. Megan Hopper, and Wanjiru G. Mbure. “Check That Body! The Effects of Sexually Objectifying Music Videos on College Men’s Sexual Beliefs.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 55.3 (2011): 360-79. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Austerlitz, Saul. Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video, from the Beatles to the White Stripes. New York: Continuum, 2007. Print.

Balaji, Murali. “Owning Black Masculinity: The Intersection of Cultural Commodification and Self-Construction in Rap Music Videos.” Communication, Culture & Critique 2.1 (2009): 21-38. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Beentjes, Johannes W. J., and Ruben P. Konig. “Does Exposure to Music Videos Predict Adolescents’ Sexual Attitudes?” European Scientific Journal 9.14 (2013): 1-20. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Boardman, Madeline. “PETA: Katy Perry’s ‘Roar” Music Video is Cruel to Animals.” HuffingtonPost.com. The Huffington Post, 15 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Burgess, Melinda C. R., and Sandra Burpo. “The Effect of Music Videos on College Students’ Perceptions of Rape.” College Student Journal 46.4 (2012): 748-763. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Cayari, Christopher. “Using Informal Education Through Music Video Creation.” General Music Today 27.3 (2014): 17-22. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Center for Media Literacy. “Five Key Questions Form Foundation for Media Inquiry: Keywords and Guiding Questions Help Build Habits of Critical Thinking.” MediaLit.org. Center for Media Literacy, n.d.: Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Conrad, Kate, Travis L. Dixon, and Yuanyuan Zhang. “Controversial Rap Themes, Gender Portrayals and Skin Tone Distortion: A Content Analysis of Rap Music Videos.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 53.1 (2009): 134-56. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Ey, Lesley-Anne, and C. Glenn Cupit. “Primary School Children’s Imitation of Sexualised Music Videos and Artists.” Children Australia 38.3 (2013): 115-123. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Frisby, Cynthia M., and Jennifer Stevens Aubrey. “Race and Genre in the Use of Sexual Objectification in Female Artists’ Music Videos.” Howard Journal of Communications 23.1 (2012): 66-87. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Goodwin, Andrew, and Lawrence Grossberg. Introduction. Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader. Ed. Simon Frith, Andrew Goodwin, and Lawrence Grossberg. New York: Routledge, 1993. ix-xi. Print.

Hampp, Andrew. “Katy Perry, ‘Roar’: Track Review.” Billboard.com. Billboard, 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Jang, Meena. “YouTube’s 10th Anniversary: Watch the Top 10 Most Viewed Videos to Date.” Billboard.com. Billboard, 14 Feb. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

“Katy Perry – Vevo Certified Artist.” Vevo.com. Vevo, 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Kistler, Michelle E., and Moon J. Lee. “Does Exposure to Sexual Hip-Hop Music Videos Influence the Sexual Attitudes of College Students?” Mass Communication and Society 13.1 (2009): 67-86. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Lane, Laura. “These Are the Most-Watched YouTube Videos Ever – Have You Seen Them All?” People.com. Time Inc., 30 Apr. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Lipshutz, Jason. “Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ Music Video: Watch the Singer’s Jungle Adventure.” Billboard.com. Billboard, 5 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Maskell, Hayden. “Using Music Videos.” English in Aotearoa 74 (2011): 54-57. Print.

Mischner, Isabelle H. S., Hein T. Van Schie, Daniël H. J. Wigboldus, Rick B. Van Baaren, and Rutger C. M. E. Engels. “Thinking Big: The Effect of Sexually Objectifying Music Videos on Bodily Self-Perception in Young Women.” Body Image 10.1 (2013): 26-34. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Palmer, Chris. “Katy Roars, Elephant Whimpers.” Peta.org. PETA, 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Perry, Katy (katyperry). “Tweets.” Twitter account. Twitter.com. Twitter, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Perry, Katy. “Katy Perry – Roar (Official).” Video file. KatyPerryVEVO. YouTube.com. YouTube, 5 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

“Roar10xCertified.” KatyPerry.com. Capitol Records, 6 July 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Seabrook, John. “The Doctor Is In: A Technique for Producing No. 1 Songs.” NewYorker.com. Conde Nast, 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Smith, Stacy L., and Aaron R. Boyson. “Violence in Music Videos: Examining the Prevalence and Context of Physical Aggression.” Journal of Communication 52.1 (2002): 61-83. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Sprankle, Eric L., Christian M. End, and Miranda N. Bretz. “Sexually Degrading Music Videos and Lyrics: Their Effects on Males’ Aggression and Endorsement of Rape Myths and Sexual Stereotypes.” Journal of Media Psychology 24.1 (2012): 31-39. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Straw, Will. “Music videos.” The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Ed. W. Donsbach. 2008. Print.

Thaller, Jonel, and Jill Theresa Messing. “(Mis)Perceptions Around Intimate Partner Violence in the Music Video and Lyrics for ‘Love the Way You Lie’.” Feminist Media Studies 14.4 (2014): 623-39. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Turner, Jacob S. “Sex and the Spectacle of Music Videos: An Examination of the Portrayal of Race and Sexuality in Music Videos.” Sex Roles 64.3-4 (2011): 173-91. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

“Twitter top 100 most followers.” Twittercounter.com. Twitter, 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Van Oosten, Johanna M. F., Jochen Peter, and Patti M. Valkenburg. “The Influence of Sexual Music Videos on Adolescents’ Misogynistic Beliefs: The Role of Video Content, Gender, and Affective Engagement.” Communication Research 42.7 (2015): 986-1008. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Van Ouytsel, Joris, Koen Ponnet, and Michel Walrave. “The Associations Between Adolescents’ Consumption of Pornography and Music Videos and Their Sexting Behavior.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 17.12 (2014): 772-78. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

“Vevo Top Videos Most Viewed All Time.” Vevo.com. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.


Wallis, Cara. “Performing Gender: A Content Analysis of Gender Display in Music Videos.” Sex Roles 64.3-4 (2011): 160-72. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Zhang, Yuanyuan, Laura E. Miller, and Kristen Harrison. “The Relationship Between Exposure to Sexual Music Videos and Young Adults’ Sexual Attitudes.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 52.3 (2008): 368-86. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

Zhang, Yuanyuan, Travis L. Dixon, and Kate Conrad. “Rap Music Videos and African American Women’s Body Image: The Moderating Role of Ethnic Identity.” Journal of Communication 59.2 (2009): 262-78. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.


Author Bio:

Dr. Jordan M. McClain is Assistant Teaching Professor of Communication at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. He enjoys researching and teaching about framing in music journalism, celebrity, the intersection of television and music culture, and consumer culture. For the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association (MAPACA) he serves on the executive board,  as Music area co-chair,  and as Journalism and News Media area chair. For the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA), he chairs the Professional Development area.

Social media:

Academia.edu: https://drexel.academia.edu/JordanMcClain
LinkedIn:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/jordan-m-mcclain-72304163
Twitter: https://twitter.com/j_mcclain


Reference Citation:


McClain, Jordan M. “A Framework for Using Popular Music Videos to Teach Media Literacy.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016). Web and Print. 


McClain, J. M. (2016).  A framework for using popular music videos to teach media literacy. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/a-framework-for-using-popular-music-videos-to-teach-media-literacy/ 

(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/

Learning about People, Places and Spaces of the World through Informal Pedagogy:
Socio-(inter)cultural Constructions and Connections to Popular Culture

Shelbee R. Nguyen
Kennesaw State University
Kennesaw, Georgia, USA



This article explores how adult and higher education (AHE) learners utilize popular culture as an informal pedagogical resource when learning about different cultures and preparing for international learning abroad or study abroad. Specifically, this case study research is concerned with what particular sources of popular culture serve as informal pedagogy and how these shape AHE learners’ cultural perceptions about study abroad to a specific international destination. A review of current literature at the intersection of popular culture and study abroad identifies both the need to include adult and higher education learners as well as the ubiquitous nature of learning through popular culture outside the classroom. Popular culture’s function as a source of informal pedagogy and how informal learning relates to AHE learning are synthesized in the literature. The theoretical frame from which this research was undertaken is provided to highlight the innately social process of popular media consumption. The researcher offers methodological considerations about participants, data collection and analysis with findings from two different embedded cases to reveal ways AHE learners use and are influenced by popular culture characters, plot and themes. Additional discussion about cultural understandings and motivations to participate in international education or study is also highlighted throughout the findings. AHE learners’ personal hobbies and interests as well as personal goals play an important role in shaping the type of experience desired. Implications and directions for future research underscore the complex and multifaceted nature of popular culture and media to generate support in this research area for educators, scholars and practitioners in the field of international education.

Keywords: Informal learning, Popular Culture, Adult and Higher Education, Study Abroad, Perception, Motivation, International Education, Culture and Language Exchange, Business Education, Multicultural Education, Sociocultural Learning

“Well, I’m not going to lie… I’m a big fan of Jersday” 

In 2010, a group of New Jersey lawmakers made headlines in a highly-publicized move against Viacom’s MTV hit reality television series, Jersey Shore (State Legislatures 7). The New Jersey Italian American Legislative Caucus (NJIALC) reportedly insisted the reality television show be cancelled due to “untrue” and “offensive” portrayals, which encouraged negative and pejorative “ethnic stereotypes” of Italian Americans (State Legislatures 7). Unfortunately for the NJIALC, Jersey Shore went on to air six highly-viewed seasons, resulting in the popular phrase, Jersday, signifying the show’s long-time run on Thursday evenings (Purdon 33). While the NJIALC may have not been successful in their efforts to thwart production of the hit series (and subsequent spin-offs), their concern about how popular culture shapes perceptions about cultural groups/subgroups is a powerful topic warranting further discussion.

Higher education across the United States (US) is comprised of over 17.5 million undergraduate learners with roughly a third of those individuals being characterized as non-traditional adults, 25 years of age or older (National Center for Education Statistics). According to scholars of adult education, age is not the salient or most critical determining factor in categorizing adults and traditional-aged learners, 24 years and younger (Knowles, “Modern Practice” 25; Sandlin, Wright and Clark 4). Malcolm Knowles summarizes that both traditional and non-traditional-aged students can be characterized as adults based on intrinsic motivations to learn, life roles and responsibilities assumed by the learner and the learning dynamic (“Adult Learner” 40). Further, Knowles states that the most pressing matter in differentiating adult education from transactional, teacher-centered instruction is the emphasis placed on the learner. Thus, employing the term adult and higher education (AHE) learners is optimal for examining ways individual learners use popular culture as an educational resource when learning about cultures of the world. This article addresses how adult and higher education (AHE) learners utilize popular culture as an informal pedagogical resource when learning about different cultures and preparing for international learning abroad or study abroad. More specifically, this research is concerned with how particular popular culture artifacts (e.g., TV shows) serve as informal pedagogy, shaping AHE learners’ cultural perceptions about a specific international destination.

Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory explains how AHE learners form perceptions about race, class and cultural ideas through the various mediums of popular culture (9). Sociocultural theory suggests knowledge begins or originates from society or culture and is modified or reordered based on continued engagement within dimensions of social interaction. Because popular culture serves as a socially pervasive and powerful presence in the lives of AHE learners, it becomes important to assess the sort of identifications made when connecting meaning to their own lives. Assumptions critical to understanding learning occurring through social interactions are 1) individuals often construct their own knowledge about the world, 2) the development of cognitions and knowledge cannot be separated from the context in which they exist, 3) learning occurring in context can lead to new growth/new insights, and lastly, 4) the symbols and exchange of communication through language play a role in the evolution of the mind (Woolfolk 3). To understand how AHE learners use popular culture as an informal pedagogical resource, the scope of examination is focused on the individual and the popular culture he/she accesses within the context of his/her own life outside of the educational institution.

While popular culture in an increasingly globalized, technological and interconnected world is virtually inescapable for AHE learners, identifying, defining and mapping functions of it outside of the classroom can be both attractive and also elusive. The ways students make meaning from popular culture is receiving increasingly more attention in AHE research as the pervasiveness of popular culture becomes more powerful. Messages or artifacts within popular culture can be seen as negotiations between preservation of current dominant practices/ideals and resistance, or transformations into new cultural practices/values (Stuart Hall 59). Ernest Morrell’s work encourages learners to think about popular culture as the “struggles between the subordinate and dominant groups” (78). Collectively, researchers agree on contentiousness inherent in popular culture. Additionally, the meaning derived from popular culture by AHE learners about their own culture and about other cultural groups can be multifaceted (Guy 16). Scholars in the field of AHE focus on the pedagogical power of popular culture, underscoring its function as a “site of education beyond formal schooling” (Sandlin, O’Malley and Burdick 1). Henry Giroux’s work emphasizes increasing awareness about “student experiences and their relationship to popular culture” rather than defaulting to dismissive attitudes about mere entertainment value (66). Although it appears quite obvious that learners would have some sort of interaction with popular culture prior to a trip abroad, a more critical perspective could be more helpful to understand individual student experiences within a recent, culturally relevant frame. Exploring learners’ individual relationship with popular culture can provide educators and practitioners with specific resources, which can then be targeted as a point of critical inquiry. An interdisciplinary foundation composed of cultural theorists, feminists, critical media scholars, psychologists, sociologists, educational researchers and humanists unanimously places a high value on the teaching mechanisms inherent in the Internet, movies and television. Collectively, these outlets teach individuals about the world and its cultures (Sandlin, Wright and Clark 5; Guy 17).

Most recently propagated by the work of cultural theorist Henry Giroux, the term public pedagogy addresses Carmen Luke’s research, which “ . . . refers to various forms, processes, and sites of education and learning that occur beyond the realm of formal educational institutions—including popular culture (i.e., movies, television, the Internet, magazines, shopping malls” (Sandlin, Wright and Clark 4). For example, Talmadge Guy’s central argument explains how learning that occurs outside of formal institutions teaches viewers what it means to be ‘white,’ ‘black,’ ‘straight,’ ‘gay,’ ‘middle-class,’ ‘poor,’ ‘wealthy,’ ‘Christian,’ ‘Muslim,’ ‘American’ and so on” and that it is mass mediated through music, television, cinema, radio and advertising (18). Oprah and Gayle’s Big Yosemite Camping Adventure illustrated this idea in a two-part episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show that aired in late October of 2010. This episode set out to “change perceptions about camping for African-Americans” (“Oprah and Gayle”). The trip was reportedly in response to Park Ranger Shelton Johnson’s letter to Oprah where he explained that only 1% of the 280 million tourists who visit the national parks each year are African-American. Oprah shared her desire to alter the thinking “about the kind of people who go camping,” extending Guy’s position about how race and class-based identities are formed and how this serves to limit perceptions about cultural groups (“Oprah and Gayle”). Both agents within popular culture, like Oprah and Gayle, and scholars (e.g., Talmadge Guy and Henry Giroux) concerned with the problematizing of popular culture recognize innate social construction within and throughout popular culture.

Patricia Duff’s research indicates that limited knowledge about a particular destination or culture can encourage a student to access multiple formal and informal learning resources, including popular culture, when forming opinions and perceptions (482). For example, Stuart Hall discusses the ways in which learners connect popular television networks like The History Channel to concepts and ideas from their coursework (297). Scholars further note that popular culture serves as a critical resource of informal learning or learning occurring “outside the curricula offered by formal and non-formal learning activities, self-directed . . . [which] can happen anywhere, and can occur at any point from birth to old age” (Schugurensky 2). Encountering a new culture in a foreign or international destination via study-abroad is a major academic and life event for most AHE learners (Dolby 151). When a student makes a decision to participate in international study abroad, any number of resources can be considered in offering new insight, learning and understanding about the destination and culture of interest (Simon and Ainsworth 2). To investigate how AHE learners use popular culture when forming perceptions and ideas about international education or study abroad, individuals were recruited from two faculty-led study abroad courses set to depart in the spring and summer semesters of 2012.

The two faculty-led study abroad courses available for recruitment were an Italian Language and Culture course (IL&C), taking place in Italy, and an International Marketing and Business Course (IM&B), taking place in one of seven different destinations (Chile, Argentina, United Arab Emirates, Finland, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore). Because informal lessons from popular culture are inherently (AHE) learner centered, intimate and highly individualized (Giroux 68), learners are likely to consume pieces of popular culture that connect to their immediate life circumstances. Further, the Internet, television and movies actively and passively “teach us about race, class, gender and other forms of socially significant difference” (Guy 16).

In the selection of participants from faculty-led study abroad programs, criteria were 1) adult or higher education learner status and 2) a commitment to departure classified as the explicit decision to participate in the study abroad program and having enrolled in the course. This offered the researcher opportunity to identify specific sources of popular culture and how they contributed to cultural understandings or perceptions of their destination of interest. A total number of 15 participants (n=15) were recruited for this study, eight females and seven males. Participants ranged from 19-54 years of age with a mean age of 26. Students were from a variety of majors including business, international business, marketing, English literature, British literature, political science, history, educational psychology and engineering. Participants self-identified their ethnic backgrounds and listed Caucasian, Japanese-Caucasian, Native-American and Hispanic.

Three data collection techniques were employed to assess how AHE learners use popular culture as an informal pedagogical resource: focus group interviews (Appendix A), individual reflection within the group interview, and follow-up interviews were used to assess how AHE learners connected to various mediums of popular culture in forming perceptions about the culture they would be immersed in and their destination of interest. Focus groups of six-to-eight interviewees and telephone interviews were utilized with “generally open-ended questions . . . few in number and intended to elicit views and opinions from the participants” (Creswell 181). The focus group interviews were conducted for each embedded case with nine participants in the IL&C course and six participants in the IM&B course. Note cards offered private space to reflect on specific questions about the culture and destination in addition to demographic information. Follow up telephone interviews (Appendix B) aimed to extend understanding of particular participant answers from the focus group interview and private reflections. All interviews and private reflections were recorded and transcribed for analysis.

AHE learners across both cases took part in the construction/modification of their own identity and the identity of others when they connected to multiple interfaces of popular culture. As social constructions of identity and difference are constantly changing, it becomes important to gauge how AHE learners utilize popular culture to make meaning about their world and its cultures in the 21st century dynamic. To account for these nuances, the interview protocols were developed with a loose structure so that AHE learners could discuss meaningful places and spaces of popular culture that added to their understanding of the culture and values they would soon be encountering. John Creswell’s process for analyzing qualitative research was used to organize, prepare, read, make sense and interpret the data within a coding process that uses actual participant responses to “organize the material” into categories and common themes to transform data into findings (Creswell 186). Emerging codes were identified from participant responses and were compared to other responses both within and across the embedded cases.

Case One: Italian Language and Culture

To begin discussions about how popular culture influenced thinking about a particular culture or destination, participants were asked to reflect privately on “What is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about your study abroad course and media?” One participant noted “Travel Channel, Discovery Channel, History Channel, Food Network,” while another offered “Letters to Juliet (the movie).” Other students mentioned specific identifications to the destination or cultural artifacts like “Discovery Channel and any food network show taking place in or around Italy, specifically Rome” and “Jersey Shore and the Statue of David.” For some participants, “media” translated to popular television and/or film specifically, and for others, it translated to web sources and other media outlets available via the Internet. However, two participants within this case shared a resistance to popular culture outlets; for example, one shared: “I do not watch TV, but media for me is Google and of course Facebook and all of the social media components . . . especially blogs and forums. I feel like you learn a lot from personal testimonies where people don’t get paid, rather than TV shows pushing some agenda.” Responses varied in degrees of trust and distrust of popular culture and media. Sociocultural theory explains learning happens when individuals interact in the context and society of lived experience. Thus, sociocultural theory may serve an explanatory value in the sense that students were possibly more receptive to learning and knowledge co-constructed in personalized Internet social networking than in more overt mediums like popular film and television. Most importantly, there seemed to be a distinction between the credibility of Internet testimony and those prevalent on popular television networks.

Although some participants had prior exposure and knowledge about Italy, their responses highlighted a choice to learn new things about their personal interests like “Italian culinary traditions” and “Shakespeare romanticism.” Other learners more generally shared: “Honestly, I don’t even know what initially made Italy stand out over study abroad options, it’s just . . . especially in the last few years . . . with so much about Italy in movies, television and a lot of other stuff, it’s always fresh on my mind.” Another stated: “Well, I’m not going to lie . . . I’m a big fan of Jerzday (sic) so really when I found out about this trip, I found myself paying way more attention to the interactions between the cast and Italian people.” Participant responses place importance on popular culture as a “go-to” resource when thinking about their study abroad destination and forming perceptions about Italian people and their cultural interactions with Americans. Adult and higher education learners within the embedded case did not report especially critical views about ways that media sources like Google, television networks, popular movies and reality television tacitly construct and encourage positive perceptions and romanticized ideals.

Many connections made between Italy and popular culture were highly personalized and revealed identifications with characters and even romantic ideals. For example, one learner reported on the “magical and historical context of Italy” and how it contributed to some of the “everlasting . . . living literature and the period of re-birth” still present in many popular stories. Rather than feeling compelled to live the lives of these characters, this particular person felt a relationship to the author and was inspired to write similar stories or “ to do something like that.” Similarly another participant shared her passion for creative writing and expressed motivations to “Write main characters that have a real sense of themselves, and they try do what’s right for them no matter what other people say . . . it is also about identity, and getting to be in the context of where those identities were formed . . . I feel like Italy could really shape my identity in the same way, plus I would like to see like Juliet’s house and all that stuff.” Both examples paint a captivating picture of the way characters in television, movies and literature speak to both personal interests and personal identity. Participants alluded to how stories and characters, at least in part, provided a preview into what Italian living and culture would be like. Additionally, both participants suggested that context was important to character development and internalized the idea their identity, too, could be enriched abroad.

Other participants mentioned more general character and identity associations about the kinds of experiences they connected with from popular shows on the Travel and Cooking Channel.No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain” portrays “a pioneer” who “has no fear.” One learner suggested “that is something I wish I had and hopefully something I can work on (abroad).” Another participant similarly stated a “no fear” mentality was a powerful connection for her as well. She noted, “watching Rachel Ray, . . . she just seems so confident and has so much fun with it when she travels.” This participant continued, “that is something that has always made me want to learn more, to have that confidence. . . .” Participants valued courage, confidence, risk-taking and strength cultivated in experiences abroad to Italy, isolating these as experiences they wanted to have for themselves. Moreover, AHE learners alluded to an inherent fear that exists when interacting with people from a different culture in an international setting. While learners were quick to identify the kinds of experiences they wanted to have, using popular culture as an illustrative resource, it is not clear whether or not fear was also cultivated from media messages. Ultimately, learners relied on popular culture to alleviate fears and uncertainties and form ideas about the world and its cultures. So, it could be suggested that popular culture contributed, in part, to those initial fears and uncertainties.

Case Two: International Media & Business

For participants in embedded case two, media translated to television shows, television networks, online sources and magazines. When talking more fully about study abroad and popular culture, one participant suggested watching shows on the Travel Channel “gives me a better idea of how I think my experience abroad will be like.” Participants enrolled in the IM&B course placed importance on cultural understandings as a core component of modern-day business practice. Learners suggested that popular culture prepared them for what cross-cultural business would be like in specific destinations. Shows like House Hunters International, Samantha Who?, and NatGeo Explorer were some of the specific places learners identified how “Chileans network” or “outsiders engage local Australians.”

Interestingly, participants suggested because international experiences are becoming an essential component of business, “more and more people are realizing that it’s possible to travel without being rich.” Participants in embedded case two were eager to offer input and discuss popular culture’s role in shaping their perceptions about other cultures, affordability of studying in that country, as well as what the destination in general could offer. Participants identified connections to informal learning resources because they served to paint a picture or illustrated something that was of personal interest. Similar to embedded case one, interest played an important prerequisite function, indicating the more interest one has in a particular program/movie/television show, the more likely they would be to internalize information from that program/movie/television show. Additionally, this finding suggested that pictures and visual media become important for all of the participants who have limited knowledge or experience of any given culture and destination.

In following up on these responses, participants revealed that particular television shows influenced how they perceived or pictured other countries and cultures. More specifically, informal learning via television shaped the kind of experience that each of those students wanted to have for themselves. For instance, one participant explained how impactful it was to see television programs with “a normal person, not some travel guru, going to a foreign country or a foreign city and not really going to the touristy places, but going to the places that all the Australian locals go to. She encourages other people to venture off the path . . . so they can also continue that on, and share with other people who may not know about it.” This participant also introduced the idea of “paying it forward,” by sharing new knowledge gained about less popularized destinations and cultures with others. Emphasis here can be placed on uncovering and discovering new places and sharing personal stories as an educational experience. Her idea of a “normal” person having these experiences was particular noteworthy. She suggested that the “Samantha Who” character was someone with whom she could relate to personally, rather than an expert or aficionado who may have professional experience with travel. Identifications with themes and characters in foreign destinations also occurred when the individual shared similar thinking and cognitive process. For example, American students identified with the American characters and revealed feeling like the “outsider.” Television networks, blogs, Facebook pictures, narratives and movies supported identifications by creating an “outside looking in” dynamic told from the experiences of someone who has limited knowledge about the place of interest.

Participants touched on their desires to be a source of knowledge on new cultures and people of the world. Respondents internalized a need to play an ambassadorial role and express motivation to model some of the same themes or plot lines from the messages they consumed. Through popular culture, learners identified and mirrored the plot and characters of individuals they connected to and use these individuals to map out the kind of experiences that they wanted to have. Emphasis on discovering “something new . . . something not everyone would have the chance or opportunity to do” was especially important.

Many of the participant responses throughout the study emphasized how popular culture and media, in various forms, shaped students’ perceptions of other cultures and can shape the kind of experiences sought after by AHE learners. While these findings can appear fairly obvious or can be taken for granted, it remains important to underscore that popular culture is a powerful pedagogical resource utilized by students. Scholars concerned with study abroad participation have yet to direct much attention to how popular culture functions in shaping perceptions in the most critical time when students have made the commitment to study abroad (Jackson 16). Students may have learned a great deal about how interactions occur with foreigners and locals in such places as Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Chile, Argentina, Finland and Australia, but this knowledge is specific to the programming, message and independent motives of the creators and directors of that media. For several networks, including the Travel Channel, Cooking Channel and Food Network, the goal is to encourage tourism and market international travel as a consumer commodity. The veracity of content and reality of how these experiences compare to study abroad or international learning for AHE learners is fairly unexplored. However, given that an AHE learner studying abroad is not a popular narrative across main-stream media, students supplemented knowledge from sources they perceive to be comparable in nature. This is especially important to consider from a scholarly and cultural perspective.

Data from this study demonstrated popular culture plays a powerful and recursive role in forming new ideas and understanding about cultures of the world. Cultural and media scholars like Henry Giroux suggest popular culture has the strength and ability to teach and educate its audiences (58). Giroux identified popular culture as a site of public pedagogy or place of powerful learning outside of a classroom, with drastic implications for its viewers. As stated earlier, much of the research concerned with the relationship between popular culture and study abroad places importance on barriers to participation, underscoring an exclusionary perspective for minority students. Marilyn Jackson’s research further identifies that associations between media and its viewers are made possible to affluent Caucasian females but do not offer minority students and males the same chances to form identifications with messages and narratives within the media (17). Jackson’s work echoes the research in the present article in that popular culture messages have power in shaping cultural understandings about others, in addition to shaping one’s own cultural understanding of self.

Individuals available for participation in this study mirrored the plot and characters reflected in the media and popular culture they consumed. Individuals have the ability to identify markers of social status, encouraging associations with characters’ products, dilemmas, houses, celebrations, experiences and overall life situations in order to model and replicate these in terms of their own lives. Nearly ten years ago now, the conversations surrounding the intersection between popular culture and study abroad were characterized by deficits and privilege. Pat Burr’s research revealed minority students felt like study abroad and international education was not something applicable to their lives or identities (36). However, AHE learners are now recognizing, both through formal and informal learning spaces like popular culture, the growing importance of international experiences in an increasingly global and competitive business market.

Students reported an awareness of the changing nature of why a student engages in international education and identified places in popular culture that have contributed to these changes in thinking. This is especially important when thinking about the national participation rates for AHE learners across the US. Practitioners and educators must recognize the importance of showcasing these messages within the classroom to encourage direct engagement and breakdown preconceptions, should they exist. These messages then become popular culturally relevant curricula and are offered a certain level of credibility as course material, holding potential to be even more impactful for AHE learners. Further, instructors across AHE may find practical use in critically analyzing popular culture messages in the classroom even if the major aim and focus is not study abroad. Findings from this study lend importance to the fundamental relationship between intercultural perceptions and popular culture’s influence. Instructors at the undergraduate level could find value in isolated sources of popular culture, identified by participants in this study, which also resonate with modern-day AHE learners in their classes.

Adult higher education learners reported a “demystified” understanding about what interactions across two different cultures would be like in a foreign locale. Popular culture offers a window into the other countries around the world, but because of the volume of messages accessed, learners end up paying particular attention to the plots, characters and themes that are most directly related to their own personal interests. Participants indicated that popular culture was commonly used as a resource when seeking information about their personal interests in other cultures’ cooking, baking, wine, travel and people. The reciprocal nature the role of interest plays can be both satisfied by and originate from popular culture sources. Scholars and educators, including practitioners and cultural theorists, encouraging global and cross cultural understandings must remain conscious and aware of how personal interests and incidental learning serve as a baseline or foundation of knowledge about other cultural groups. In bell hooks’ research, a similar contention further illustrates that popular culture has the ability not just to shape audience members’ cognitions but also has the potential to stay with that individual over a long period of time (3). Long held interests in particular hobbies, stories, subject matter or pastimes fuel motivation to live and be a part of those experiences in the context that they authentically happen. Conversely, reality television and commercially dramatized interpretations seeking to exploit and reify cultural stereotypes and stigmas may also need to be approached and accounted for by faculty and international education staff when a student is thinking about study abroad.

For participants in embedded case two, popular shows, channels, social media, networks and movies were often accessed to get a sense of a specific cultural practice and travel in general. Participants noted seeing an “average/normal” person immersed in a lesser-known foreign locale as encouraging. Connections were made readily because the individual was coming from a similar place of limited understanding about the country and its people. Adult higher education learners expressed a desire to foster similar experiences and emulate the very same goal and themes depicted in the popular culture they consumed. As such, learners expressed motivations to be ambassadors of cultural understanding for places and people across the world that are less known to the general public and are not commonly depicted in popular culture.

Popular culture undoubtedly plays a powerful and pervasive role in the lives of 21st century learners. The seamless way story, characters, themes and plot interweave within and throughout AHE learners’ cognitive processes are extremely complex. To advance this and previous research at the intersection of popular culture and international learning, it becomes important to map out the current dominant practices/ideals across time in order to gauge where preservation and transformation has occurred (Stuart Hall 59). International learning or study abroad has yet to be the norm for each AHE learners’ undergraduate experience, but it is clear that students across AHE in this study saw the importance and necessity of establishing global and cultural understandings. The consumption of popular culture and media will exponentially continue to increase, and as such, understanding about how it shapes AHE learners becomes not just important, but necessary.

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Appendix A

Focus Group Protocol for Faculty-led Study Abroad Participants

Legend: SN—Question gauging social network, as public pedagogy, influences

PC—Question gauging popular culture, as public pedagogy, influences

1. Nominal Data: “Can we briefly go around the group and identify age, what year of study,
academic interest (for example I am 25, I am a sophomore, I’m an education major).” To be
completed on the Note Card

(SN/PC) 2. Let’s talk about the beginning of your interest in study abroad?: “Can you remember the first
time that studying abroad became of interest to you? When was the first time you thought
about being in a study abroad? End quote?

(SN) 3. Who in your lives has provided support to your upcoming trip abroad to DESTINATION X
(destination to be inserted, depending on specific faculty-led program)?:
“What do you know
about the place you are going? What do you not know, or want to know? Where do you feel this
information comes from?”

(SN) 4. Can you tell me about any individual in your life (parent, teacher, advisor, friends, classmates,
peers) that may have influenced you in making the decision to participate in a study abroad?:
“What sort of messages were conveyed about study abroad? (what sorts of things do they talk
about in terms of what study abroad would do for you as an individual)”

(SN) 5. What do your family and friends say about you upcoming study abroad trip?: “Do you feel like

you are encouraged to go abroad by your family and friends? Do you feel discouraged by your
family and friends to go abroad? How does this encouragement or discouragement get
communicated? Have you shared your upcoming trip ‘news’ with all of your friends and family?”

(SN/PC) 6. Are there still things you feel like you want to know about where you are going? Or uncertainty
that exists?:
Where would you seek out this information? What kind of information is it?”

(SN) 7. What sort of messages do you see conveyed from individuals in your life (parent, teacher,
advisor, faculty or friends) about their own study abroad experiences?:
“What sorts of artifacts
or mementos have they used to talk about their experience (could be pictures, souvenirs,
personal stories or narratives)? Do you think that these showed or illustrated what it means to
study abroad for you?”

(PC) 8. Can you think of a movie/tv show/book/radio show/pod cast/musical, or song that comes
to mind when I say DESTINATION X?:
“Is there a particular show, channel, movie that may
have reminded you of destination X? Is there any particular movie/tv show/book/radio show/
pod cast/musical, or song that made you more interested in destination X? Can you think of
a story (movie/tv show/book/radio show/pod cast/musical, or song) that served to inspire your
own interest to study abroad?”

(PC) 9. If you asked you to think of a recent example of something that you saw on TV that influenced
what you thought about DESTINATION X what would it be?
“Do you think that there characters
in Pop culture that have influenced how you perceive the people of culture of DESTINATION X?”

(SN/PC) 10. What is the first word that comes to mind when I mention DESTINATION X? “What do you
feel that this word is informed by or where does this word come from?”

(PC) 11. Is there any particular informative channel on television that offers you insight into DESTINATION X? 

(PC) 12. Is there any particular movie that offers you insight into DESTINATION X? 

Appendix B

Follow-up Interview Protocol for Faculty-led Study Abroad Participants

1. Can you elaborate more on the individuals who encouraged study abroad experiences? What made these
messages meaningful?

2. Can you elaborate more on a movie/tv show/book/radio show/pod cast/musical, or song that gave you
insight about study abroad or destination X?

3. Can you give more detail on _______________?

4. Can you tell me what you meant by ______________?

5. Since we last spoke, is there anything else about your influences and motivations to study abroad that you
thought of that you’d like to talk with me about


Author Bio:

Shelbee R. Nguyen is an Assistant Professor of Education at Kennesaw State University in the Department of First-Year and Transition Studies. She has taught in six different international locales, including two years spent in Dubai exploring intercultural and international experiential education. Central to her core research is academic and social adjustment within multicultural contexts. Her particular research interests place importance on sociocultural influences to the learning environment, study abroad participation and the practice of adult learning theory. Recently her research has underscored critical reflection and transformational learning for Veteran and Hispanic learners transitioning into the higher education environment.


Reference Citation:

Nguygen, Shelbee. “Learning about People, Places and Spaces of the World through Informal Pedagogy: Socio-(inter)cultural Constructions and Connections to Popular Culture.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 2.1 (2015). Web and Print.

Nguygen, S. (2015). Learning about people, places and spaces of the world through informal pedagogy: Socio-(inter)cultural constructions and connections to popular culture. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2(1). http://journaldialogue.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/S-Nguyen.pdf

Survivor Skills: Authenticity, Representation and Why I Want to Teach Reality TV

May Friedman
Ryerson University
Toronto, Ontario, Canada



This paper will consider the pedagogical potential in constructing a class on the phenomenon of reality television by exploring the possibilities and pitfalls of a shared viewing of these “texts” as a site of critical engagement with popular culture. A course on reality TV would require a deep analysis of the topics of representation, authenticity, and audience reactions. The course I would like to teach would also consider the ways that reality TV is simultaneously emblematic of, and contributes to, the foregrounding of neo-liberal discourses. This paper addresses some of the pedagogical implications of an analysis of reality TV by considering the above themes in greater detail.

I see the creation of a post-secondary class on reality TV as pedagogically radical in both form and content, as a site where new ideas can be applied to shifting and unstable terrain. In challenging the primacy of high culture as the only worthy area of analysis, in viewing one of the most debased forms of popular culture as academically rich, I hope to help my undergraduate students build bridges between what they think about in school and what they do at home. I see such a class as an exciting explosion of the binaries of high and low culture, public and private space, and truth and fiction.


Reality Television, Engaged Pedagogy, Popular Culture, Representation, Authenticity, Neoliberalism, Social Work, Critical Discourse Analysis


As an avid consumer of popular culture and a teacher of critical social work, I am always on the lookout for how these two domains overlap. Yet the overlaps should, in fact, be fairly obvious. In teaching my students how to “do” social work, I do my best to help them deconstruct their lives and their worlds. Yet one of the single biggest impacts on the public imaginary of my students, popular culture, is often curiously absent from social work education. An examination of popular culture gives a particular lens to understanding the specific interests and structural factors that aid in the creation of their surroundings. As always, however, the pedagogical lesson begins with personal moments and experiences.

Many years ago I went to school to achieve a Master’s in Social Work. Our cohort, like many before us, bonded through the frustrations of graduate school and the often-difficult emotional work of confronting our own biases and specific life circumstances in order to become qualified and self-reflexive social work practitioners. We found a unique way of blowing off steam at the end of the day. While we heard that the law students would gather round the TV to watch Law and Order and assumed that the med and nursing school pupils had a weekly date to watch ER, the social work students in my cohort would group together to witness a strange new phenomenon: reality TV, in particular the spectacle of the show Survivor. In watching the specific interpersonal challenges of groups of people uniquely selected for their capacity to engender conflict and be subjected to contrived situations of privation and stress, we laughed, analyzed, and shouted at the TV every Thursday night.

When I look back at that period of my life, there are tangible lessons I can remember from being in the classroom and powerful insights I can draw from my experiences in the field. At the same time, I recall less specific moments of learning that resonated with me and that changed my approach in both my private and professional life. Those Thursday nights have stayed in my memory as a particular way that my fellow students and I could take our formal learning and apply it to an analysis of popular culture, specifically to reality television. Our watching allowed us to simultaneously assess the same artifact and learn, to our alarm and delight, that we were often experiencing the “same” moments very differently. It allowed us to discuss human emotions and stressors very specifically in ways that our student placements—each at different agencies, and bound by both laws and ethical constraints of confidentiality—could not. Yet our analysis went further: those Thursday night goof-off sessions allowed us to see dominant discourses of racism and whiteness, of gender and sexuality, and of the ways that stereotypes are easily embedded in neo-liberal notions of individual agency. Those Thursdays remain an example of some of the most critical and delightful learning I have undergone. As I grow as an educator, and as I now observe my own students in social work classrooms and field placements, I wonder if there is a way to harness the magical critique of those early heady days of reality TV and apply them to the glut of reality television that has followed since the millennial days when Survivor was a strange and new media artifact.

My analysis of reality TV as a teaching tool thus draws from my own experiences as a student and educator, but it is disingenuous to suggest that my desire to bring this aspect of popular culture into the classroom is borne exclusively of thoughtful pedagogical analysis. Rather, my leisure time continues to be spent in part as a viewer of reality television in many different forms and contexts. On the one hand, my love of reality TV is my dirty little secret, the low culture hiding in my web browser’s history, silently standing alongside the scholarly texts that grace my bookshelf. On the other hand, I continue to observe the ways that viewing reality TV hones my critical lens, allowing me to consider the dominant discourses that shape my world as well as the commerce that foregrounds certain discourses while muting others. It gives me an entry, albeit one that is heavily mediated, into worlds that I could not otherwise see. Reality TV, like my other passions – memoir and blogs – gives me access to raw emotion and takes me beyond my own neighborhood and experiences. I have found that reality TV provides me with tremendous opportunities to apply the analyses contained in those scholarly tomes, to apply the critical theories that I hold so dear.

This paper will consider the pedagogical potential in constructing a class on the popular culture phenomenon of reality TV, suggesting that “reality shows can be seen as significant cultural objects whose production and consumption reflect and reveal norms and ideologies of contemporary culture” (Montemurro 84). I will explore the possibilities – and some pitfalls – of a shared viewing of these “texts” as a site of critical engagement with popular culture. To argue that reality TV provides a useful site of theoretical analysis, however, requires an examination of some of the key themes. A course on reality TV would require a deep analysis of the topics of representation, authenticity, and audience reactions. Finally, the course I would like to teach would consider the ways that reality TV is simultaneously emblematic of, and contributes to, the foregrounding of neo-liberal discourses. This paper addresses some of the pedagogical implications of an analysis of reality TV by considering the above themes in greater detail.


Even a facile engagement with reality TV elicits discussion about issues of representation. If reality TV is meant to showcase reality, I would like my students to consider whose reality is being put forth and through which epistemology such a reality is constructed. Reality TV obviously perpetuates stereotypes and still skews toward the same normative tropes that exist in other sites of popular culture but, alarmingly, it does so under the guise of presenting the truth. Williams suggests that “the line between news and entertainment, documentary and reality TV is constantly blurred and shifting” (550). For many viewers, the clearly mediated “truths” of reality TV may provide as much information about communities and systems as more traditional news media and other expert discourses. For example, Morris and McInerney suggest that seventy-two percent of survey respondents who were pregnant for the first time saw popular pregnancy and delivery shows such as A Baby Story and Birth Day as important sources of information (134). As the authors go on to show in detail, these shows present a great deal of misinformation and may perpetuate myths about pregnancy and childbirth.

Likewise, dating shows such as The Bachelor and The Bachelorette suggest that fairy tale love is largely restricted to white middle-class couples (Dubrofsky and Hardy); Montemurro shows that, “among the women contestants, whiteness was privileged and racial others were either exoticized or assimilated, depending on what seemed to best serve the storyline” (96). Reality shows that center on tropes of personal transformation, such as The Swan, deliberately seek less normative participants at the outset but with the explicit motive of achieving normativity as the desired outcome. As Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer note:

Plastic surgery shows often select as their subjects a “certain class” of woman, which translates frequently into working-class women. The selection of working-class subjects contributes to the seemingly inexhaustible ideology of the American dream where those of a lower socio-economic class can succeed at becoming middle-class subjects, and the media audience participates in this transformation by tuning in to watch. (266)

This affiliation may be particularly keen for viewers who do not see themselves reflected elsewhere in popular culture. Skeggs and Wood suggest that working-class viewers may find the unpretentiousness of participants “like them” appealing in the absence of many other sites of representation (“Labour of Transformation” 567). Finally, popular “game-docs” such as Survivor and Big Brother purport to pick diverse contestants but generally only manage to achieve “overplayed typecasting … with their ever present Gay Man, Wild Woman, Single Mom, Yuppie, Everybody’s Friend, Redneck, Slacker, Victim …” (Kerrigan 22).

Given the tenacity of both the stereotypical permissible diversities of much reality TV as well as the very explicit exclusions on many shows, how can these shows serve as a useful pedagogical tool? Leaving aside for the moment issues of authenticity, how can the deliberate selection of specific bodies over others, the deliberate creation, through editing, of specific “characters” associated with stereotypes, provide a launching point for analysis in the classroom? Is there anything to say about reality TV beyond a critique of its obvious limitations?

Using reality TV allows students to consider that “television talk is always a part of the broader conversational culture” (Aslama and Pantti, “Flagging Finnishness” 62). While it is certainly alarming to consider the implications of paternalistic shows such as A Baby Story standing in for empowered feminist obstetric knowledge, these shows did not single-handedly create the culture they reflect. Rather, expert-driven and reductionist approaches to information (about childbirth and beyond) are the norm. By amplifying some of the tropes of dominant discourses into sensationalized formats, reality TV may provide a point of entry for students to consider the failings of representation more broadly. As a result, they may develop a critical lens that extends beyond their analysis of these leisure-time shows toward sites that are more concretely presented as truth: an analysis of reality TV may engender a degree of skepticism about reality. Likewise, an analysis of who is missing from many of these shows may allow for a conversation to develop about which bodies are rendered invisible in the public sphere, or only visible in particularly virulent and narrow ways. For example, an analysis of The Biggest Loser may allow students to embark upon a more ambitious conversation about size acceptance and the scope of both the ignoring of fat bodies and the ways they can only be seen in the context of transformation (Cooper 35; Murray 155).

If there are lessons to be learned by an examination of the specificity with which particular bodies are represented, there is also pedagogical value in an analysis of people who are presented as simultaneously ordinary and bizarre. The subtype of reality TV shows that purport to provide a documentary lens on ordinary, unusual people has gained great traction over the last decade and provides a paradoxical story. On the one hand, people like JimBob and Michelle Dugger, with their nineteen children (and counting!), “little people” Matt and Amy Roloff and their family, or Alana “Honey BooBoo” Thompson are presented as people “just like us,” suggesting that difference is illusory or only in the eye of the beholder. At the same time, such shows present a latter-day freak show wherein audiences eagerly consume the mundane details of non-normative lives. Andrejevic’s assertion that, “by democratizing celebrity, such programs help reinforce the notion that a surveillance-based society can overcome the hierarchies of mass society” (“The Kinder, Gentler Gaze” 253) resonates here in its presumption that, by learning about difference, we may lose sight of our limitations and biases. Thus, an examination of the ways that non-normativity is specifically taken up in reality TV in deliberate ways may be productive for students grappling with both the limitations of their own experiences of difference and their own titillation by the gentle sensationalizing that occurs in these shows.

Reality TV may be taken up as a useful site of analysis on the basis of race, and significant scholarship has considered the ways that reality TV continues to maintain a commonsense and unyielding whiteness. Bell-Jordan suggests that “race continues to be constructed in superficial, reductive, and often hegemonic ways—and this process has increasingly come to define the genre” (369), while Dubrofsky and Hardy argue that these shows are “recentering Whiteness without calling explicit attention to this fact” (376). There is no question that the performance of race on reality TV is deeply flawed. In examining these flaws, however, many of the abiding archetypes of race (such as Hill Collins’s analysis of the Mammy, Jezebel and the Matriarch [69]) are so amplified that skeptical students may finally have a context in which to understand what many racialized students may have known, implicitly and explicitly in their bodies all along. It becomes harder to deny or minimize racism when its machinations are so explicitly exposed.

While an analysis of race reveals the dominant discourse of whiteness that invades nearly all reality TV, there is nonetheless a valuable lesson to be gained on the topic of agency and specificity in these shows. Shows that deliberately seek out ethnically or racially specific participants (such as Flavor of Love [Dubrofsky and Hardy], the Finnish show Extreme Escapades [Aslama and Pantti, “Flagging Finnishness”] or the Canadian version of The Bachelor) present their own deep flaws in maintaining stereotypical tropes about the populations they present. At the same time, an analysis of the specifics of these sites opens conversations about insider and outsider presentations, nationalism and globalization, and the ways that the colonizing influence of reality TV is nonetheless mediated through the specifics of particular populations. Dubrofsky and Hardy highlight this by examining the ways that participants on Flavor of Love were held to a very different standard than participants on the “mainstream” romance show The Bachelor, arguing that while The Bachelor was centered on hegemonic and unselfconscious whiteness, Flavor of Love promoted an almost ironic hyper-performance of Blackness. While maintaining an awareness of the limitations of these performances, students may benefit from delving into a more nuanced analysis of dominant discourse and reality TV that complicates a discussion of representation and thus interrupts the idea that all non-normative performers are naïve dupes. Likewise, an analysis of sexual and gender orientations and disability could be usefully undertaken by considering both the agency of particular actors/subjects and the constraints within which such performances occur.


Despite the generic moniker of “reality” in reality TV, at this stage of its development, it is arguable that few viewers would perceive such offerings as genuinely presenting reality. Indeed, as the prior analysis of representation suggests, much of the offering of reality TV is neatly packaged in response to concerns about production and commerce, leaving “reality” far, far behind. Yet such an analysis relies on positivist notions of reality and does not extend to a more nuanced analysis of authenticity and emotionality as key characteristics that are exemplified in reality TV. As Kavka argues, “reality TV relishes contradictions. It shamelessly mixes the generic attributes of fact and fiction” (179). In so doing, a collective analysis of reality TV begs interesting questions about truth, fiction, performance, and our own assertions of what constitutes the real.

For example, one assumes that critical viewers might see the lives portrayed on MTV’s 16 and Pregnant or Teen Mom as inaccurate and heavy-handed representations of the lives of young mothers and the particularities of their experiences (for example, see Guglielmo). While we are critical of the ways that young motherhood is packaged on these shows, we may nonetheless see through the moralizing discourses to view the real structural challenges experienced by younger mothers. Furthermore, the capacity to unpack the grey area between fact and fiction in a classroom context takes postmodernist and poststructuralist concepts of truth out of the realm of inaccessible theory and instead asks students to consider which truth they would accept as authentic, which story they would deem an adequate representation. In this context, the course might usefully be bolstered by contrasting viewings of documentary films (including those with a reality bent, such as the 7-Up series) and considering the limitations of subjectivity.

Fundamentally, such an analysis allows students to call their own performances into question. If, as Dubrofsky and Hardy argue, “participants on reality TV shows perform for the camera, either unwittingly or explicitly, just as people perform in their daily lives to suit the imperatives of a given situation” (375), a shared viewing of reality TV guided by critical pedagogy would allow students to tease out their own unwitting and/or explicit performances. This is of obvious value to me in teaching social work students who are not only grappling with more obvious sites of performance such as professionalism but also negotiating with the many performances (e.g., race, gender, and ability) that may be beyond their control. Thus, while students may begin their analysis by taking for granted reality TV as inauthentic, our shared viewing may evolve into a more nuanced reckoning with the notion of authenticity itself. This follows Kavka’s assertion that “discursively, reality TV makes claims about ordinariness, authenticity and the social value of accessing private lives” (179).

If reality TV can be seen as an obvious contrivance of fact, what are we to make, as viewers, of the presentation of emotion on these shows? Can the rage, heartbreak, and passion presented in this context yield further lessons about authenticity of emotion, even as the machinations of editing and production suggest that such raw emotions are slickly incorporated into a discrete message? Skeggs and Wood suggest that “[w]hilst the staging of events on ‘reality’ television complicates any ontological claim to the ‘real,’ it can make a claim to the ‘actual’—the camera tells us this ‘actually’ happened as a response to an unscripted, if contrived, actual situation” (“Labour of Transformation” 559). Kavka extends this in arguing that “authenticity is confirmed by the … emotional intensity of the participants’ interactions” (181). In this respect, reality TV presents an interesting blurring of the public and private in presenting emotions (and, indeed, seeking out these high emotions through inevitably “shocking” twists and turns) that were, prior to the rise of this genre, largely inaccessible in the realm of mass media. Aslama and Pantti suggest that reality TV has resurrected the theatrical monologue, in which a lone character shares her or his thoughts with the audience privately (“Talking Alone” 178). At the same time, they note the inherent contradiction in this style of conversation: “The paradox of an individualized society is that while one is talking alone about one’s deepest emotions, at the same time one is selling one’s authenticity to viewers” (“Talking Alone” 181). Skeggs and Wood argue that this blurring of the public and private has implications for an analysis of traditional gender roles, suggesting that “‘[r]eality’ television, by sensationalizing women’s domestic labour and emotional management of relationships, displays the new ways in which capital extends into the ‘private,’ in which capital is engaged in the socialization of affective capacities ” (“Labour of Transformation” 560) and that “[t]he space and practice of intimacy becomes like other social goods and exchange-values that are socially distributed and allocated” (562).

Students may benefit from having to grapple with both their own reactions to the strong emotions foregrounded in the viewing and with the ways that particular emotions are routinely assigned to particular bodies. Both Pozner and Dubrofsky and Hardy suggest that the aggressive and larger-than-life personalities often assigned to racialized bodies may lead to the inability of such participants enjoying any longevity on such shows. Referring to a feisty racialized contestant on the show Road Rules, Andrejevic and Colby argue that “the reason she had to leave was the reason for her being recruited to the show in the first place” (207). In other words, stereotypical racially or culturally ascribed characteristics may bring often-ignored bodies to the fore, but they do so at the price of maintaining stereotypes and cultural misunderstanding. As Aslama and Pantti suggest, “This dilemma of managed and unmanaged feelings can be seen at the core of reality television. However without doubt it also celebrates the loss of emotional control, emotional conflicts and the very emotions that are considered inappropriate in society at large” (“Talking Alone” 171). Arguably, the explicit portrayal of emotion is rarely available for analysis in the classroom, positioned as an unemotional and academic milieu. Yet it is also arguable that viewing a variety of strong emotions, perhaps particularly those that are garnered through contrivance and intersected with dominant discourses of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, age, and so on, is of great academic interest. Certainly, such an analysis would allow our classrooms to evolve beyond a vague analysis of, for example, how service workers may behave, to a tangible discussion of the limits of what we feel comfortable accepting and why. This exercise would remind us that “television participants and audiences are located within extended ‘circuits of value,’ helping us to see why it is that vitriolic reactions ‘stick’ where they do, and why certain figures and bodies are loaded with more invective than others” (Skeggs and Wood, Reacting to Reality Television 9). These moments may tease out our students’ (and our own) deeply held notions of where lines rest between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in both public and private contexts in meaningful and dramatic ways.

Critical Discourse Analysis and the Impact of Audience

Students may benefit from examining reality TV as a microcosm of broader cultural discourses. An examination of reality television programming, however, may also expand students’ capacity to undertake discourse analyses. While the underlying goal of critical and transformative pedagogy is always the growth of strong analytical skills, the specific practice of closely examining elements of discourse may sometimes be given only brief space in methodology courses. As a result, students may view their critical research skills as distinct from their capacity to critically engage with their surroundings. By creating a classroom that can act as a discourse analysis laboratory, students could be encouraged, through both teaching and assignments, to formalize their critical analytic skills. To achieve its transformative potential, however, such a class would need to move toward critical discourse analysis (CDA), which considers both the broader political contexts in which discourses are created and offered and the power relationships between discourse and people’s lived experiences: it is, van Dijk argues, “discourse analysis, ‘with an attitude’” (96). Furthermore, a true reckoning with critical discourse analysis would empower students to truly consider the ways that discourse is dialogically undertaken. Instead of solely poring over transcripts of programs, thus reducing television to a flat medium, students would be encouraged to consider the implications of audience and the ways that audience reactions are mediated across time and space, and through axes of difference.

There are a number of pedagogical implications in pulling back the camera further and allowing for an analysis of audience and reception. While students, particularly those in critically reflexive disciplines such as women’s studies and social work may be familiar with the exercise of implicating themselves in the consumption of media and discourse, a class on reality TV would take the contrivances of this genre and explore the peculiar alchemy that occurs between the producer’s intention and the audience’s reaction. Montemurro suggests that “[g]iven the popularity of reality television … the study of how these programs are consumed is essential” (98), yet it may be tempting to begin an analysis of these programs, as indeed, I have done, based on what “they” “say” or, at most, how we, as individuals, react. As an alternative, a course on reality TV would allow students to explore the dynamism between objects of cultural production and their consumption, to consider how “viewers make sense of these shows” (Williams 541). An exploration of intertextuality would consider the ways that individuals encounter culture, suggesting that “when individuals encounter media texts, rather than comprehending them in isolation, they position these representations in relation to other texts and cultural knowledge” (Williams 543). This would be well accomplished through access to scholarly texts that increasingly consider the implications of audience reaction (for example, Skeggs and Wood, “Labour of Transformation” and Skeggs and Wood, Reacting to Reality Television) but also through the tangible exercise of viewing cultural products in the classroom. As students grapple with the nuances of unique programs, the surface themes of representation and authenticity within these programs become complicated, and the deviations between the different ways the programs are offered and experienced may emerge. Skeggs and Wood discerned such differences in their analyses of focus groups of viewers grouped by distinctions of class and ethnicity. Their work suggests that television provides unique opportunities for interactive analyses, “demonstrat[ing] a complex interaction between television texts and subjectivity which was more dynamic than the relationship implied through the analogy of text-reader relations” (“Labour of Transformation” 562). By analyzing interactions together in the classroom, we may evolve beyond generalized discussions to a more targeted analysis of specific moments that may encourage reflexivity on the basis of populations, rather than merely individuals. At the same time, Skeggs and Wood caution us to ensure that an analysis of audience does not devolve into an undermining of the real concerns about oppressive representations within reality TV. They argue that “a great deal more serious attention needs paying to exactly how reality television works not only with audiences but with evaluating personhood more generally” (Reacting to Reality Television 233). By engaging in a politically accountable response of the complications of reality TV and the ways in which this genre interacts with systems of capitalism, judgment, and personal value, students may begin to explore the strengths of a critically discursive methodology and the implications of audience and reception.


If, as Kavka asserts, “reality TV is a genre in flux” (182), is there truly value in constructing an academic context for its consumption and analysis? Is such a course merely a means of pandering to students by allowing entertainment to masquerade as education? Ironically, such an argument betrays some of the same political ideologies as reality television itself, suggesting that educational models should emphasize measurability, empirical knowledge, and individual hard work over sites of non-standard, messy, and (heaven forbid!) enjoyable learning. The same ideology that presents a wearying slog as the only valuable form of education is likewise amply exposed in much reality TV: the ascendant and inexorable tropes of neo-liberalism.

The problematic representations explored above are of concern not only because of their overreliance on stereotypical notions of difference but also because they maintain the expectations that communities are, fundamentally, merely groups of individuals “surviving” for individual gain. The laughably popular insistence of reality TV participants that they do not join programs “to make friends” ensures that any collegiality is overlooked in favor of a race to the fittest. Deery surmises that commerce underpins this foregrounding of solo struggle, suggesting that “an individualistic Darwinian struggle produces better drama—and therefore higher ratings and therefore more revenue—than, say, utopian harmony and cooperation” (12). I would suggest, however, that the foregrounding of capital as the primary motivator is itself a value of neo-liberalism. In the world of reality TV, production is pursued to a means of maximum capital, but likewise, in the context of popular “game-docs” such as Survivor and The Amazing Race, monetary reward is what engenders the suspense and narrative push that allows for high ratings (and thus corporate financial gain). This capital spiral rests on another powerful “truth” of neo-liberalism—the notion of a level playing field: “These programs are a retelling, in other words, of the American dream wherein any individual can make it big—which usually translates as rich—never mind their initial circumstances. In tune with this ideology, we notice that these shows assiduously avoid raising any larger sociopolitical issues and instead focus on the personal and individual” (Couldry 13).

Beyond the level playing field, neo-liberalism emphasizes what Skeggs and Wood identify in reality TV contexts as a spirit of indefatigability (“Labour of Transformation” 565). Not only will hard work yield individual reward but also individuals will be praised for the hard work of endlessly aspiring toward the mean, thus negating any critical politics of difference. Pozner identifies this trend in America’s Next Top Model in which the narrow beauty myths used to evaluate participants provide limited and inconsequential responses to ethnic and racial diversity (196). Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer, in looking at makeover shows, expose a more explicit race toward normativity: “… using a reframed rhetoric of individual choice, technological transformation, and celebration of the body, the individual women featured claim to be freeing themselves of their earlier lives. In fact, what is happening is a more intense policing of the body, a body that is ever more docile as it is literally reshaped according to a set of dominant norms” (263).

While an exploration of the prevalence of neo-liberal themes in reality TV is beyond the scope of this article (and has been well undertaken by Couldry), a viewing of reality TV as an accessible site of exposure of these themes is of great pedagogical importance. By positioning the problematics of representation and authenticity within an analysis of neo-liberalism, students may be challenged to unpack difficult ideologies that inform their lives and social contexts. The rhetorics of neo-liberalism have become so commonplace that they can be as difficult to expose as the air we breathe; arguably, this may be heightened for students in institutions of higher learning that may be even more steeped in neo-liberalism’s mores than the society at large. An examination of reality television thus allows students to begin to view the overarching framework that governs the discursive structures informing everyday life. In other words: though I talk about neo-liberalism and I teach about neo-liberalism, an examination of reality television allows me to stand before my students and say “That is neo-liberalism,” not in the context of the difficult-to-understand welfare state or in the realm of social policy, but in the framework of the “mindless” indulgence of last night’s viewing.

While a pedagogical analysis of reality TV may meet students “where they are at” and encourage the development of a critical lens that extends even to leisure activities, I concur with Pozner who suggests that, “… becoming critical media consumers isn’t enough. We can’t afford to see media literacy as the means to an intellectual end. Instead, let’s use it to prepare us to take on Goliath .… Structural changes are needed to achieve the creative, diverse, challenging media we all deserve, and we’re going to have to fight for such shifts” (325–26). Pozner follows her argument with a list of tangible suggestions for how to respond to the limitations and discriminations present in much reality TV. She also actively encourages the practice of culture jamming, in which a reclamation of primary discourses of entertainment and information is taken up as a form of activism. I see the provision of a course on reality TV as a fun way of being deeply critical, of holding up a magnifying glass to one’s distorted reflection of the broader society, while at the same time holding ourselves accountable for what we see. I would love to see students take up a critical autoethnography of their engagement with reality TV, such as that undertaken by Boylorn, as a final assignment, and would love, in provoking students toward Pozner’s suggestions for culture jamming as transformative change, to “jam” both culture and academy. I see the creation of a class like this as pedagogically radical in both form and content, as a site where new ideas can be applied to shifting and unstable terrain. In challenging the primacy of high culture as the only worthy area of analysis, in viewing one of the most debased forms of popular culture as academically rich, I hope to help my students build bridges between what they think about in school and what they do at home. I see such a class as an exciting explosion of the binaries of high and low culture, public and private space, and truth and fiction.


Works Cited

Andrejevic, Mark. “The Kinder, Gentler Gaze of Big Brother: Reality TV in the Era of Digital Capitalism.” New Media Society 4.2 (2002): 251–70. Web. 8 Jan. 2013.

—-. and Colby, Dean. “Racism and Reality TV: The Case of MTV’s Road Rules.” How Real Is Reality TV: Essays on Representation and Truth. Ed. David S. Escoffery. Jefferson: McFarland, 2006. 195–211. Print.

Aslama, Minna, and Mervi Pantti. “Talking Alone: Reality TV, Emotions and Authenticity.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 9.2 (2006): 167–84. Web. 8 Jan. 2013.

—-. “Flagging Finnishness: Reproducing National Identity in Reality Television.” Television New Media 8.1 (2007): 49–67. Web. 8 Jan. 2013.

Banet-Weiser, Sarah, and Laura Portwood-Stacer. “‘I Just Want to be Me Again!’ Beauty Pageants, Reality Television and Post-Feminism.” Feminist Theory 7.2 (2006): 255–72. Web. 11 Jan. 2013.

Bell-Jordan, Katrina E. “Black,White, and a Survivor of The Real World: Constructions of Race on Reality TV.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 25.4 (2008): 353–72. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.

Boylorn, Robin M. “As Seen on TV: An Autoethnographic Reflection on Race and Reality Television.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 25.4 (2008): 413–33. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.

Cooper, Charlotte. “Can a Fat Woman Call Herself Disabled?” Disability and Society 12.1 (2007): 31–42. Web. 11 Oct. 2011.

Couldry, Nick. “Reality TV, or the Secret Theater of Neoliberalism.” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 30.1 (2008): 3–13. Web. 11 Jan. 2013.

Deery, June. “Reality TV as Advertainment.” Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture 2.1 (2004): 1–20. Web. 11 Jan. 2013.

Dubrofsky, Rachel E., and Antoine Hardy. “Performing Race in Flavor of Love and The Bachelor.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 25.4 (2008): 373–92. Web. 8 Jan. 2013.

Guglielmo, Letizia, ed. MTV and Teen Pregnancy: Critical Essays on 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2013. Print.

Hill Collins, Patricia. “Mammies, Matriarchs and Other Controlling Images.” Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2000. 69–96. Print.

Kavka, Misha. Reality TV. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2012. Print.

Kerrigan, Dylan. “Individual, Group Recognition and the Social Construction of Race on Reality TV.” Critical Approaches to Discourse Analysis across Disciplines 5.1 (2011): 17–44. Web. 13 May 2013.

Montemurro, Beth. “Toward a Sociology of Reality Television.” Sociology Compass 2.1 (2008): 84–106. Web. 3 Jan. 2013.

Morris, Theresa, and Katherine McInerney. “Media Representations of Pregnancy and Childbirth: An Analysis of Reality Television Programs in the United States.” Birth: Issues in Perinatal Care 37.2 (2010): 134–40. Web. 8 Jan. 2013.

Murray, Samantha. “(Un/be)coming Out? Rethinking Fat Politics.” Social Semiotics 15.2 (2005): 153–63. Print.

Pozner, Jennifer L. Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2004. Print.

Skeggs, Beverley, and Helen Wood. “The Labour of Transformation and Circuits of Value ‘Around’ Reality Television.” Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 22.4 (2008): 559–72. Web. 8 Jan. 2013.

—-. Reacting to Reality Television: Performance, Audience and Value. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.

van Dijk, Teun A. “Multidisciplinary CDA: A Plea for Diversity.” Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis. Eds. Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer. London: Sage, 2001. 95–120. Print.

Williams, Johnny E. “Sustaining Power through Reality TV Discourse.” Critical Sociology 32.2–3 (2006): 541–55. Web. 11 Jan. 2013.



May Friedman lives and works in downtown Toronto. A faculty member in Social Work and Communication and Culture at Ryerson University, May looks at the intersections of non-normative identities, especially in relation to popular culture. Much of May’s research focuses on maternity, inspired in part by her three children.

Social Media:

Twitter: @drtiredmama
Academia.edu: https://ryerson.academia.edu/MayFriedman

Reference Citation:

Friedman, May. “Survivor Skills: Authenticity, Representation and Why I Want to Teach Reality TV. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 2.1 (2014). Web and Print.

Friedman, M. (2014). Survivor skills: Authenticity, representation and why I want to teach reality TV. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/issue-2/survivor-skills-authenticity-representation-and-why-i-want-to-teach-reality-tv/

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/