Keeping them entertained

While I’ve been reading about the use of popular culture to make curriculum more appealing to young people, I’ve also started noticing that there is a lot of youth and popular culture that exploits educational elements in its endeavors to reach an audience.

In the Tobuscus song above, he teaches Timmy to create a viral video, with the instruction to make it educational so parents will let kids watch it. However, the role of educational content does seem to go beyond just appealing to the parents. Instead, it leverages our intrinsic motivation to learn for the purposes of increasing the entertainment value

Unlike edutainment, where the primary objective is learning, and the entertainment is introduced to help achieve that learning, there are many creators around whose objective is entertainment first, and the educational content is really the means of achieving that.

Horrible Histories author Terry Deary considers himself as an entertainer rather than an historian, who thinks that schools and public libraries should be closed down. Yet his success is derived from the educational value of his material. This is in contrast with the creators of Sesame Street, who were trying to use the power of television to achieve positive objectives such as preparing children for school.

Similarly, it is unlikely that the creators of Epic Rap Battles of History were intending to provide any genuine educational value with their battles between Batman and Sherlock Holmes. However, 15 of the 20 most viewed videos featuring historical or political figures, rather than just fictional characters and pop stars, so it is clear that the academic material must appeal to their audience.

A similar pattern can be seen with popular satirical news programs. In the US, Stephen Colbert and  John Stewart (until recently leaving) were popular and trusted sources of political news. In Australia, shows such as “The Weekly” with Charlie Pickering and Shaun Micallef’s “Mad as Hell” are also popular. All of these hosts are comedians. Charlie Pickering and Shaun Micallef have legal backgrounds, but left law to take up careers in comedy. None of them were aspiring journalists who discovered that comedy helped them to deliver their news to a wider audience. They all discovered that they could use the news to extend the reach of their comedy.

Being a non-teacher who spends a lot of time listening to discussions about student’s lack of intrinsic motivation, and their desire to just “get their bit of paper and graduate”, it sometimes starts to feel that learning is such a negative experience for many people, adults and children, that they have to be tricked into it. However, if we were so adverse to learning, there would be no audience for these comedians and entertainers who introduce academic content into their material.

While some speak of “education as a bitter medicine that needs the sugar-coating of entertainment to become palatable“, I also think that education is the fibre that makes the entertainment more satisfying.


2 thoughts on “Keeping them entertained

  1. Hey Vanessa, I am so glad someone has mentioned Horrible Histories! I randomly discovered it some time after my kids had been watching it on ABC3 and then became obsessed with it myself. Amazing entertainment for youth and I think at the core of it, it was the two-fingered salute it gave to teaching history in the classroom that I really loved. Also my discovery of it coincided with my complete disillusionment with classroom teaching for neurodiverse children and the start of my year of homeschooling my son. So I was feeling very rebellious and Horrible Histories is also rebellious. I think it is nothing short of genius.
    Great post!


  2. drmikeyp says:

    Hi Vanessa,
    This post really draws out some pertinent themes, so thanks for your discussion. Something the course offered that’s really resonated with me is that we’re no longer facing ‘the great divide’ between what happens in a classroom and what happens external to it, insofar as content and skills are concerned. Popular culture’s incursion into mainstream schooling (whether it be to ‘entertain’ or trick students into learning, as I have done also using HH when I teach my year 9 unit on WWI) is only going to keep growing as the life-skills taught take on more contemporary relevance.
    Thanks for sharing,


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