Cheese-Pill Teaching is Hurting Our Kids

It is all too frequently the case that well-meaning parents and teachers try to make subject matter appealing to students by drawing weak associations to popular culture. For instance, there was an educational children’s dictionary published by DC Comics forty years ago utilizing famous characters. In what became a running joke on the Internet, one page featured Superman’s foil, Lex Luthor, stealing exactly forty cakes. Kids at the time thought it a very distasteful abuse of the comics we enjoyed. Now my generation has grown up and we still feel that way. It’s akin to hiding medicine in a piece of cheese so your dog will eat it. As educators, cheese-pill thinking is a lazy, disrespectful, ineffective way to pander to our pupils. So, then, how can we make use of things that do draw our children’s attention?

Lex Luthor, cake thief
Those youngsters will never suspect our fiendish plot to teach them literacy and numeracy!


The cheese-pill method has two main problems. First, it belies one’s ignorance of a topic, which then undermines your own authority. If you come across as ignorant or dismissive of the subject matter, you’ve lost them already. Second, it’s a wasted opportunity. There is educational value in nearly everything if we just look close enough and keep our minds open. We can use the case of Pokémon since it’s already been established to have a lot of potential.

Before lesson planning even begins, we know that Pokémon is the property we want to leverage. So then the best practice is to read the Wikipedia entry on it. You don’t have to become a complete expert on the topic—in fact, it’s often a good idea to let your students have that role by applying the skills we want them to acquire. Based on what you read about it, it will then be possible to think creatively about what skills are already embedded. For Pokémon, we see that one main objective in the game is to collect and categorize several hundred creatures by taxonomy. Some can only be caught at certain times of day. Most of them metamorphose as they grow. The biology lesson writes itself. If you haven’t already generated an idea, here’s one for free: moths vs. butterflies.

National Science Museum Pokemon logo
It seems to work just fine for the Japanese.

It has been shown quite conclusively that students who take charge of their learning and obtain a sense of expertise also perform better, retain knowledge, and are more likely to engage with the material on their own. Given that, why not ask them to do an exchange? You will teach them broad skills (like recognizing when a creature is nocturnal or diurnal) and they, in turn, will show you how to apply them. But—and this is crucial—you should be genuinely interested in what they have to say. I know, it’s going to be tough culling a desire to learn that Butterfree operates in the day and Venomoth by night, but you’ve been through worse. The danger here is that you may come to enjoy a shared activity with your children and students.

I would like to stress, too, that lessons are best formed organically, not by cramming an element of popular culture into a traditional educational box. That’s how we end up having our forty cakes stolen by the genius billionaire super villain, Lex Luthor. It would have taken very little extra effort for the writers of those DC Comics math supplements to produce a scenario both more organic and more interesting. For example, what if Lex Luthor decided to pull a heist not by running off with cakes, but by manipulating the ledgers of all the bakeries in Metropolis? He’s cooking the books, and the only way to lock him up is for Superman to prove that the numbers are off. Then the students give their testimony to the court, explaining how the fiend did it.

Cheese-pill lesson plans are the result of talking down to students. Shoehorning properties they care about into preexisting lessons doesn’t get us anywhere and it offends their natural intelligence. As one of those kids who had my cakes stolen by a super villain, I beg of you: please don’t pander to young people.