How the K-pop phenomenon helps students learn economics

In the harsh and often jaded world of the global music business, the rise of South Korean music has been well… surprising.

K-pop is now a multi-billion-dollar music industry, and groups like BTS and Blackpink sell out international concerts within minutes around the world.

BTS was recently named top artist of 2020 by the IFPI, the organisation that represents the global recorded music industry, ahead of artists such as Taylor Swift and Drake.

This makes these bands economic powerhouses beyond their own individual profits. In 2018 sales linked with BTS – including merchandise and tours – added an estimated $5 billion to South Korea’s GDP. This year, the pop group’s contribution is on par with Samsung, one of the country’s most powerful corporations.

For the uninitiated, K-pop has been defined as a “fusion of synthesised music, sharp dance routines and fashionable, colourful outfits”. Songs typically consist of one or a mixture of pop, rock, hip hop, R&B, and electronic music genres.

"Our intention is to help economics educators diversify their pop culture resources and mirror trends that are occurring outside the classroom."

But what does K-pop have to do with the study of economics?

At a basic level, economics is the key to unlocking how the world works. From the consumption of goods and services to changes in employment rates or impacts on living standards, economics sits at the heart of how our society operates.

To help students understand the fundamental principles behind the study of economics, savvy educators have been using pop culture as a teaching tool for decades. But until now, no one has identified media from foreign language sources.

Monash Business School’s ‘Rockstar economist’ Dr Wayne Geerling, a senior lecturer in the Department of Economics, led a study to develop three teaching guides that capitalise on the growth of K-pop as a tool for teaching economics.

The K-pop artists studied – BTS, Blackpink and Exo-CBX – all have huge global followings.

In the paper, Diversifying the Use of Pop Culture in the Classroom: Using K-pop to Teach Principles of Economics, Wayne and his co-authors Dr Jadrian Wooten (Pennsylvania State University) and Dr Angelito Calma (University of Melbourne) build on the work of previous educators who have used popular culture, particularly popular music, to teach economics.

“Our intention is to help economics educators diversify their pop culture resources and mirror trends that are occurring outside the classroom. Given the increased access our students have to international superstars, the global popularity of K-pop will likely continue to grow,” Wayne says.

“By editing the music videos to include English subtitles, we allow native English speakers to understand the content of the videos while showing that the study of economics is not limited to the English language.”

Creating a dynamic classroom - connecting economic theories to the real world

Each teaching guide Wayne and his colleagues have created is around 10-20 minutes long and includes information about the artists and songs, a list of concepts covered in the sample video, a warm-up exercise for the topic and a set of questions that could be used as part of an assignment or class discussion.

One lesson centring on explaining the economic concept of externalities – the positive or negative impact of producing or consuming that has an effect on a third party – features a clip of the 2014 BTS hit, ‘N.O’ which is all about the emotional toll of achieving ‘perfect’ grades in a country with the highest percentage of tertiary-educated students in the world.

As the band ponders “A good house, a good car, will these things bring happiness?” – economics students explore the ‘negative externalities’ of this pursuit for perfection, which has been implicated in high rates of suicide, mental fatigue and illness weighing on South Korea’s labour market.

“This lesson looks at the concepts of comparative advantage, cost-benefit analysis, negative externalities, positional arms races, positive externalities and zero-sum games,” says Wayne.

“When asked: ‘Why is education important to you?’ students typically focus on internal benefits like getting a better job or making more money. This lesson helps them consider whether society benefits from their decision to obtain more education.”

Another lesson on scarcity, which in economic terms, is about the limited supply of resources such as time, money, land and raw materials to meet our needs and wants. Here the 2017 song Ka-Ching! by the group EXO-CBX is used to demonstrate this concept.

As the title would suggest, Ka-Ching! is about money. “Not enough, not enough, shout out your desires,” the band sings. “Let’s enjoy ourselves as much as we can.”

Wayne says it’s a perfect example to illustrate the concepts of scarcity, wants, needs, trade-offs, marginal analysis, money and utility.

“Students learn that the problem of scarcity arises because we have limited resources and unlimited wants, which we often mix together with needs. Money plays an important role in facilitating exchange,” he explains.

“We cannot have everything, so we must choose the option which gives us the highest level of marginal utility per dollar.”

Diversifying pop culture as a teaching tool

Wayne first began using K-pop as a teaching experience when he realised that despite the liberalisation of music, current teaching resources still predominantly centred around English-speaking media produced in the United States and the United Kingdom. This could be alienating for some students.

“While there has been a big push in using media in the classroom to engage students, no previous work has focused on providing educators with tangible resources that may engage underrepresented groups,” Wayne says.

By updating the teaching materials, Wayne is hoping to make the study of economics more relatable and that underrepresented minorities (including women) are less likely to feel their courses are irrelevant or that they don’t belong.

What do the students think?

The approach has been popular with students, with 72 per cent of students surveyed at the end of the semester agreeing it made core economic principles more relatable.

“Being able to relate content learnt during the course to the music I enjoy allowed me to understand it from more than one perspective,” one student noted on the survey.

And K-pop may not just be a hit with students. The latest numbers from the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) show ‘Diversifying the Use of Pop Culture in the Classroom: Using K-pop to Teach Principles of Economics, has been downloaded 707 times and had more than 4,422 views in just four months.

For Wayne and his colleagues, the response is validating. “People around the world face the same set of trade-offs and decisions, regardless of their nationality,” he says.

“This search clearly shows that the use of more diverse teaching material demonstrates to students the broad impact of the discipline while also engaging students who may not have felt that they would fit into the discipline.”

Interested in studying economics at university? Learn more about how you can study economics at Monash, and how you can be prepared and stand out with a globally recognised degree.

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