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Fiction over Fact? How popular culture can be a great tool for generating discussion in the classroom

Documentaries have been the kings of educational broadcasts for as long as many can remember – but is it time that we start taking note of how mainstream TV and film can help to engage students with learning?

Documentaries are undoubtedly a fantastic resource for teaching, at whatever level, and they’re gaining more and more popularity. Take David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, for example. Broadcast in 2017, it inspired people of all ages and from across the globe to take action against pollution (ERA team member Molly wrote a great article on this back in the summer).

However, not all documentaries spark the same level of enthusiasm—trust me, I saw more than enough thirty-plus-year-old documentaries on polar bears and rainforests when I was in school to know that it’s true. It’s understandable—documentaries are factual, tried-and-tested means of education. The issue is that not all of them are engaging unless you’re already very interested in the subject matter.

So, why not use more popular broadcast materials and novels as a way of engaging students and generating discussion? No, physics teachers, I’m not talking about The Big Bang Theory. It’s not as cool as you think it is.

Take, for example, X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is on Film4 on Saturday (8th December) at 6:45. It would be easy to dismiss it as a simple time travel, super-powered action film. But look closer, and you’ll see that there are several topics that are relevant to a number of different subjects. Social segregation, hate speech, and extremism are all central themes to the film.  It may take place in a fictional world, but these are very much current themes that could be used for Sociology, Religious Studies or PSHE lessons.

There’s even room for discussion in terms of physics and maths.  For instance, in one particular scene in the film, super-speed mutant Quicksilver runs around a kitchen, changing the course of events as they unfold. Why not use this as a way of teaching about speed and velocity, working out how fast he must have been moving to achieve that, or even discussing why exactly it’s completely implausible?

Another example of this is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which although not currently being aired or available on demand, is a surprisingly good way of introducing the themes of Jane Austen’s popular novel. The concept is silly and the result even more so, but it’s fun and gives a good insight into the characters’ natures as well as providing a loose outline of the plot. I’ve personally known a few A-Level students who struggled with Pride and Prejudice as a text, but read Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel, from which the film is adapted, and gained a much greater understanding.

Of course, there’s also a whole host of brilliant TV programmes and radio broadcasts that could help out too.

In the most recent series of Doctor Who, the Doctor and co. go back to 1955, where they meet Rosa Parks and witness the day that she refused to give up her seat for a white man on a bus, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott. Dramatisations like this may not be 100% historically accurate, but they can make for a good introduction to a new topic.

So, what I’m trying to say is don’t discount broadcast materials simply because they’re popular. There are of course things that just don’t work in a teaching context, but don’t be afraid to get creative and dip your toes into the world of popular fiction. Your students will appreciate it.

But please, no more of The Big Bang Theory.