Do memes belong in the classroom?
Should teachers use memes to communicate complex concepts to their students? Or are their attempts at vibing with the young folks so cringey it’s better if they don’t bother?
Memes are probably the most relevant and exciting way of exchanging ideas and information in the 21st century. Their simplicity, near-universal appeal and ease of transmission make them ideal for conveying jokes. But could they also be used for something a little more practical?
Teachers across the world, desperate to snag the attention of a generation of kids raised on screens, are waking up to the rich potential of memes to ‘cut through’ with children when little else seems to work.
But aside from the frankly embarrassing deployment of stale memes forbidding chewing gum, cellphone use or running in the hallways, could memes also be used to help students underhand knotty or otherwise intractable problems?
A 2022 study by Ashlea Cromby of the University of Oxford found that there is a clear ‘…pedagogical need to improve student motivation in the online learning space.
‘There [is also a] need for educators to encourage students through creative, digital resources to promote student engagement, and enhance the teaching-learning process.’
What does that mean? It means teachers need to start talking the student’s language, if they want to get through to them.
Cromby’s study – which drew on extensive research from Russia, India, Oman, Spain, Italy, Ukraine and the USA – argued that students are more likely to pay attention to information if it’s presented in a manner that is familiar to them.
Most of the current ‘Gen-Z’ generation were raised online – a cohort of so-called ‘digital natives’, for whom navigating online spaces and processing the content of memes is as natural as breathing.
Online Learning Memes
Another factor in the growth of memes as an education tool relates to the different ways in which lessons are structured. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, more and more learning has been conducted ‘over Zoom’ or in other online spaces.
This is obviously creates problem concentrating, as many students will be engaging with their tutor and often complex material through their device – a device they’ll also use for entertainment, often simultaneously.
So in order to compete with the plethora of fun, frothy content they can access at a stroke, it’s only logical for teachers to ‘compete’ with the fun stuff using choice memes.
A surprising phenomena that’s emerged in recent years is that of online groups appearing and growing, that are dedicated entirely to niche topics within academia. Take ‘Pseudoholomorphic memes for quasi-isometric teens‘ (5.5k followers). Or ‘Music Theory Memes for Tone-Deaf Teens’ (48.5k followers) which explores fiendish concepts in graduate-level musicology, with a hilarious memeified spin.
These groups are popular, apparently self-sustaining, and encourage lively and illuminating debate in the comment sections. If you’re looking for a lightweight, lighthearted overview of a difficult subject, seek out the meme group!
Memes As Assignments
Plenty of teachers will now set meme-creation assignments. This serves multiple purposes – getting kids who might otherwise not care to engage with the topic interested – even taking pride in finding, honing and sharing the perfect meme.
This makes learning social, and creative. It also helps inspire students to communicate their ideas through a visual medium – a vital and often under-appreciated skill.
Teachers have also reported that in asking students to make their own memes, especially in this new era of online learning, they see a little window in to the student’s soul. Why did a student choose this particular meme? Does this joke reveal an aspect of their character that was previously hidden?
All this can foster familiarity, and even serve as a rough emotional check-in tool – again, vital in the era of ever-more-online schooling.
The Museum Of English Rural Life, part of the University Of Reading in the UK, is incredibly good at driving engagement to an arguably dry topic using the power of memes.
According to their digital lead Adam Koszary: ‘Museums have long struggled with how to present themselves on social media, and where to draw the line of respectability in how we interact with followers.
‘The way in which most people (particularly the young) speak online is irreverent, ironic and humorous. The way in which most museums speak on social media is not.’
So the message is, if you’re trying to teach somebody, it’s probably a good idea to learn to speak their language.
And for this generation, that language is indisputably the language of memes.
Hey! Ever wondered about THE PSYCHOLOGY OF MEMES?
Or what about delving into THE ANCIENT HISTORY OF MEMES?
Hey, um, you guys, IS STEALING MEMES ILLEGAL?