Engagement, pandering, patronising or exploitation?

educationThere is nothing new in the efforts to engage pupils at school by combining what is taught in lessons with what interests them in the outside world.  In many respects it’s a good way forward – some years ago there were efforts to encourage reading in boys by basically getting them to read anything – comics, football reports, whatever – on the off-chance that they would then start reading books and improving their reading skills and general literacy.    This project was geared around encouraging children to read material that interested them, in the hope of that material being a gateway to reading other things.  It wasn’t focused on particular comics or films or ‘tie ins’ for example.

So far so good, but when does engagement become pandering?  When does it become patronising – and, in some cases, is there an argument to be made for some aspects of this sort of outside world / education crossover actually being exploitative of children and teenagers?  For example,  developing lesson material like the one mentioned here might work very well with pupils for whom the ‘Twilight’ series is a major interest but would do absolutely nothing for others for whom it means nothing.  I have to say that I’d also be concerned about the longevity of such material in terms of it maintaining it’s interest and relevance for future years of students.  The last thing that a teacher will want is to either develop material that goes out of ‘favour’ with pupils so quickly that it needs to be revised each year.  Maintaining ‘relevance’ is about keeping educational material valid and relevant in the wider world, not in the world of this month’s media hype.

There’s also an element of being patronising here – attempting to second guess what teenagers might be interested in is a dangerous occupation; it can easily fail and be regarded as patronising.  Education is surely not about appearing ‘cool’ to the students; surely it’s more important to put ideas and concepts over in an understandable way, that is as far as possible relevant and contemporary so as to engage pupils, but not by jumping on to whatever bandwagon is passing?

As far as I can see, there are some topics taught that are, let’s say, eternal.  They’re the basics; the stuff that’s been taught for as long as the subject has existed.  In my experience this tends to be confined to the basics of reading, writing and numeracy.  Things like the rules of grammar, basic arithmetic and counting, even, dare I say it, things like times-tables.  The factual aspects of history and geography (without the interpretation) falls in to this category.  Whether we like it or not, any attempt to ‘engage’ pupils with these topics is almost certainly going to be met with resignation or smirks from the class.  Perhaps we need to actually get down to business here; the fact is that there are some things we need to learn to get on in life that are just hard work and need to be done.  No point in trying to make it cool, or trendy; it just needs doing.  best thing we can do is just get on with it.

Of course, it does benefit ‘content providers’ like film companies, computer games manufacturers, etc. to get in to the field of education in this way; it’s cheap marketing to a captive audience, after all.  And it’s probably tax-deductible….

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