College of Education > News and Publications > News: 2009 > Using Pop Culture to Develop Critical Media Literacy in Adult Education

Using Pop Culture to Develop Critical Media Literacy in Adult Education

Elizabeth Tisdell's research about pop culture in adult education

tisdell.jpgby Joe Savrock (February 2009)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Popular culture and the entertainment media are an influential force. We are surrounded by pop culture—through television, movies, print publications, the Web, and a variety of advertising formats. 

There are countless classic productions that are deeply ingrained in the consciousness of most of us.  According to Elizabeth Tisdell, associate professor and coordinator of the Adult Education doctoral program at Penn State Harrisburg, for those who have grown up in the U.S., just one example is the plot, characters, and images from the motion picture The Wizard of Oz. But there are numerous other examples. It is not surprising, then, that faculty and students often make reference to entertainment media or other artifacts of popular culture in the higher or adult education classroom.

Tisdell has done extensive research on how instructors in higher and adult education draw on popular culture and the entertainment media in their classrooms. She believes that instructors can pull in aspects of pop culture and entertainment media and use it as a tool to teach critical analysis, and to help students facilitate development of critical media literacy—that is, the analysis of entertainment media. Encouraging classroom discussions about critical media literacy and analysis of media messages can be a good instructive method.

“Engaging in discussion and deconstruction of character portrayals raises consciousness about the pedagogy of pop culture,” says Tisdell. “This helps students critically analyze where they are getting some of their ideas, particularly about social relations, based on gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation—about social issues in general.”

Tisdell points to the philosophy of Paulo Freire, the late Brazilian adult educator, activist, and educational theorist. “Freire argued that we need to teach people not only to read the word, but also to read the world,” says Tisdell. “So part of helping people read the world is helping them examine what is a part of their everyday world—and media and popular culture are part of that everyday world.”

Tisdell, along with Patricia Thompson, co-authored a book titled Popular Culture and Entertainment Media in Adult Education (2007, Jossey-Bass), which is part of the New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education series. Thompson is a recent graduate of the Adult Education doctoral program at Penn State Harrisburg. Tisdell has also authored or co-authored numerous articles on the topic in the past several years.

She notes that until recently, there had been a dearth of academic research that examines the role of pop culture in adult education. “Adults are as much consumers of entertainment media as children are,” she says. “Critical media literacy is being discussed in other educational venues; and since the media are a significant vehicle of education or mis-education, it is time that we, as adult educators, consider the relevance of critical media literacy to our own work.”

But, as Tisdell notes, pop culture should not in and of itself be a classroom’s driving force. “I don’t think using media or popular culture simply as entertainment in an educational setting, with no real educational purpose, is productive,” she says. “But when it’s used as a method to teach critical analysis and critical thinking, it can be very effective.”