The picture above is (I am reliably informed) of a Pokémon character called Oshawott. My daughter drew it for an art competition when she was eight years old. She didn’t win a prize with her picture, but she was so delighted with it that she asked us to frame it for her. It now takes pride of place on her bedroom wall. Over the years, my kids have spent a lot of time with Pokémon. They played the Nintendo DS games, watched the TV series several times over, and collected sets of miniature Pokémon characters. They read The Pokémon Essential Handbook so many times that the pages started to fall out. But, as is the way with all such fads, their love for Pokémon came to an end and they moved onto Minecraft. This meant that they missed out on the Pokémon Go! craze that swept the world earlier this year. It was no longer relevant to them.
If you wanted to start a heated debate on Twitter, ‘relevance’ would be a great choice of topic. (For anyone who somehow missed this weekend’s edu drama, Debra Kidd explains eloquently here.) Relevance is the fault line between the “best that has been thought and said” crew, and the “I guess when Gove said ‘the Blob’ he must have meant me” one. It is the difference between believing that we must eradicate Pokémon related learning from schools on the basis that it will ‘dumb down’ the curriculum, and being confused as to why the occasional modern cultural reference might be so terribly bad. One of the great things about being a teacher is that you get to keep up with all the latest crazes. You watch from the sidelines as children fall madly in love with one thing after another. It’s amazing the level of obsession that children can muster, when faced with an animated cartoon. It’s astonishing how many names and facts a child can learn, when they belong to some plastic toys. From my perspective, it would feel odd to see such a powerful motivator for learning, and yet ignore its potential application in the classroom.
But this debate isn’t really a debate about curriculum, it’s a debate about culture and control. Do we want to incorporate aspects of our children’s lived experience into the classroom, or do the adults get to have all the say? Do we want to find ways to connect learning to our children’s lives, or do we want to present them with a vision of ‘high culture’, passed down from adult to child? How far should learning be something that children ‘just do’ because we tell them to, and how much should it be motivating in and of itself? Personally I think it’s a bit of a shame if we don’t at least try to spark an intrinsic desire to learn, by capitalising on the things that they love. Of course, the tricky bit with relevance is figuring out what it means for each child, and also keeping up to speed with the pace of change. Because the grown ups might be totally into Pokémon. But the kids? They’re so over that.