Teaching with zombies

teach with zombies

Can you go anywhere today without running across zombies?

Online classes suffer from the lack of deep but often unexamined visual cues, prompts, reminders, and social information– everything from the weather outside the windows to campus posters to the social conversations drifting around the space before a teacher starts the class. The online class can offer cues and point to ideas, but these need to be added and consciously built into the structure of the discussion, presentation, or activity. Your stern look and serious demeanor in next week’s review session is utterly missing from review documents posted to your course management system.

In a live discussion a student may refer to an announcement written on a whiteboard, or a campus event poster tacked on the wall. The reference is shared because everyone can see the cue. In an online discussion the student is writing a post, referring to context that may be utterly foreign to the other readers (students).

What can we refer to that has shared meaning?

When you talk with students about anything prior to last week you may get eye-rolling. Mention the Kennedy or Reagan eras and you might as well be talking about ancient Rome. Albums? Undergraduate students never purchased an album or a single, and may not have ever seen one. If you are of a certain age you will remember the end of MASH, the Johnny Carson show, the shuttle explosion, and all sorts of events that can be considered social shared events and what we used to call “touchstones.” The most recent is 9-11, a global event that created global awareness — a shared experience.

But a 19-year-old freshman would have been just 8 years old during that horrible day.

Our grandparents had many things tying them together, even when they may have come from different cultures. The experience of the Great Depression and World War 2 formed a foundation of memory for the entire world. Much of our present culture still revolves around those ideas in every aspect of life, from Hollywood movies to economic thinking. Those common experiences did not create a single culture, but they provided many of the visual and thematic vocabularies we have in our heads today.

Think of it this way, surveys and market research indicate that the biggest female ‘star’ of our present age is not Lady Gaga, Madonna, or a Kardashian but Marilyn Monroe– an actress who died 50 years ago. Marilyn’s image is immediately recognized by people in every part of the globe– so much so that we can use her first name as shorthand for glamour, sex appeal, or fame.

Other aspects of shared culture are slightly more serious, and refer to different types of shared ideas.

Our great-grandparents, and generations of students in North Americans schools, would recognize quotes and topics from the Bible. Post-colonial populations could reference Pilgrim’s Progress– a massive best-seller in early America that was used to preach and teach. Even the most unreligious of frontiersmen would understand references to the books of the Old Testament, King Solomon, and events of the New Testament because they were truly common ideas repeated and re-shared from childhood onward.

Today there are very few shared “texts” and fewer common ideas. We now live within a set of cultures with varied experiences. Where we once had many common language and event-related cues teachers now struggle with creating common ground. Ask a classroom of students what books they have “all” read lately and what is the response? War and Peace or Harry Potter?The Rights of Man or the Twilight vampire books?

But bring up zombies, and right there you have struck a common chord…

Zombies are big. They are more popular than ever, showing up in television shows, movies, and even advertisements. Use the term “zombie apocalypse” and every student will know what you mean, in a live or online class.

You should use zombies.

By “use” I obviously don’t suggest you try and reanimate the dead for educational uses– reanimating the dead is familiar ground to teachers, at least in intellectual terms. We try to reanimate students every semester in uncounted classrooms worldwide. No, here I’m suggesting you climb aboard the zombie train and use the idea for linking your subject to shared ideas. They can be used in math problems, population examples, statistics, and even political science (insert your own punchline here).

But seriously, the connection of a topic like the spread of disease in a health science or nursing course can be made a little more “lively” with the addition of a zombie example.

The real suggestion here is to create a context cue to share and refer back to when it is useful. It can create cognitive shortcuts for students and clear up the problem of getting lost online in discussions that do not have rich social cues. A non-zombie example could be any specific, targeted, shared contextual idea.


One of my math teachers, many years ago, made photocopies of a house plan and handed it out in class. We had to keep and refer to that plan in many homework problems and in-class discussions. (I still remember that house, a two-story suburban home with 2,180 square feet, because of the number of times I had to figure out square footage, roof angles, volumes, and other issues.) Cognitively speaking, I lived in that house for a full semester.

Long-running games: A powerful cognitive connector for social science courses is the use of a common context simulation. Dividing students up into teams, with each team representing a country, a company, or any other subject-related organization, is a simple way to link activities together over a semester. One example of this is in Model United Nations activities that link students to foreign policy roles. Each team represents a nation and must learn all they can about that country, its policies, economics, history, and international activities. Problem-solving games can be built on teams of students who represent the crews of ships, teams of emergency workers, nations in Napoleonic Europe, trading companies, or tribes of people during the end of the Roman Empire. With simple rules long-running games can be context-rich activities can play out during a course ‘in the background’ or as the driving metaphor for the course.

Biographies: A similar long-term activity is to associate students with important figures within your subject matter and come back from time to time to students for that person’s perspective or for presentations and discussions. In every subject, from mathematics to philosophy, students can build a rich awareness from exploring the key figures in that field.

Events: Building context with a historical event is easy and often leads to interesting perspectives from students from different social and cultural backgrounds. Transporting your math class aboard the Titanic, with instructions to save more passengers, or dropping your class into Shakespeare’s London can prompt rich interaction with ideas and online resources. It offers the obvious comparative experience between a student’s life and the lives of others, between expectations and assumptions, and between flat reading and viewing experiences with deeper, immersive digging into a different world.

Using zombies, or any other shared metaphor or experience, can prompt students to climb into other shoes and see the world from different perspectives. The metaphor can be somewhat silly or deadly serious, a small set-piece or an entire environment– it depends on your own knowledge and resources. With a well designed launch, complete with clear expectations and a solid activity format, students will often surprise you by finding new resources, making unexpected links to different subject matter, and by exploring subjects with rising enthusiasm.

Sometimes the undead are pretty useful.


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