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Age, Pop Culture and Sharing the Past with Students

Posted by Laurence Abbott
30 January 2012 - 12:41pm

 A few months ago I wrote about a journal article I co-authored with Dr Kent den Heyer where we explored the challenges pre-service teachers had with telling historical narratives that are not the ‘grand narrative,’ that is, history as told from another perspective. We had conducted a study with student-teachers in their final term of their education program, assigning them the challenge of composing short videos of no more than eight minutes in which they must tell two narratives of Canada’s past that share an event in common. The one condition that makes the assignment difficult is that neither story can be the story of Canada’s past that we already know. While the data we gathered for our study was collected in 2007 and 2008, Dr. den Heyer still uses this assignment in the second of two curriculum courses that social studies majors must take as part of their BEd program. Last week I visited his class to see what his students had produced...

Some of his current students were my students last year, and a few had discussed their assignments with me prior to sharing them with their peers. While I found that many of the issues Kent den Heyer and I had identified four and five years ago still persist, I had a new insight into challenges of representing the past. A new question emerged: How might the differences among the referential elements within the popular culture inventories between teachers and students impact their respective understandings of metaphors used to describe and explain historical events and phenomena? Its a big question, but in essence it asks something like: How might a teacher who references Hollywood communicate notions of the past to students who reference Bollywood? I had a colleague who told me near the beginning of my teaching career that all of social studies, including history, could be taught using Star Trek as a collection of metaphors that students and teachers might share. This example speaks to the generationally situated character of teaching practice. As we age relative to the age of our students, dissonances between our worldview and our experiences and that of our students' experiences and their worldviews emerge. Our pop-culture references become relics that students don't recognize or share with us.

Age, cultural and linguistic community memberships, socio-economic status and a range of other factors are constantly impacting our identifications and shaping our relationships with our students and our sociocultural milieu. Inevitably, what we know and call upon to support our explanations becomes less accessible to our students over time. For many of us in my generation, we can appreciate the comparative worldviews at work between the neocolonial ‘making the universe safe for democracy’ ethic of the original Star Trek series and the colonial-conscious, peace-oriented, post-cold war, but still slightly exceptionalist Star Trek: The Next Generation series of the nineties. As teachers, our popular culture inventories have a best before date, but we still keep using the same stuff even if it is stale. We know what we know. It is difficult and risky to try to update our inventory, and increasingly, as teachers, we lose our pop-culture connections to the kids in our classrooms. The stuff we use to offer analogous explanations that the kids get becomes more tenuous with time. This is a problem that seeks pedagogic possibilities.

Perhaps we need to spend more time with our students understanding how popular and parochial culture impact perspective taking and shape worldview. Understanding historical perspectives, one of the six Historical Thinking Concepts, is among the most challenging to grasp and practice. In Alberta, where specific cultural perspectives are mandated in the social studies program, grasping the nature of perspective-taking is exceedingly difficult for new and experienced teachers. In other jurisdictions, historical perspectives are becoming increasingly important. Appreciating that students may be a great resource for teachers to better understand this concept, is a beginning. Seeking to understand how our popular culture inventories say something about who we are as human beings might go a long way to negotiating new ways to communicate about the past.