The word ‘meme’ was coined by Sir Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’ and has been defined as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” With the rise of social media platforms and personal internet devices, internet memes have evolved from merely a source of humour to a form of communication. Internet memes have even been referred to as a metalanguage, and thinking of them as a form of language can have important implications for bridging the gap between teacher and student communication.
If you have a presence of any sort on the internet, you will at some point have come across a meme. Today, most people are able to convey increasingly complex ideas and emotions simply by sharing a meme. It may be tempting to think of this as somehow reductionist, coming at the cost of meaningful conversation, but I don’t see it that way at all.
Memes, as they exist currently, comprise of multiple layers of meaning – there is the source of the image which has its own context (usually a photograph or a screen-grab from a movie or TV show), there is the broader emotion it represents and finally, it is the application of that image to a different situation (showing the ability to transfer and apply ideas more widely). All of these are components of effective 21st Century learning and communication skills.
It is in the nature of memes to be immediately understood by the audience even if they have never encountered the source image before. This is a very powerful force for learning which we should be harnessing more effectively. Modern education at large and the IBDP programme in particular, places great emphasis on effective teacher-student communication. The modern teacher is no longer expected to talk at a group of passive students. Instead, they are expected to facilitate learning through discussion and engagement. Usually, we consider ourselves successful in the latter when we train students in the conventions of academic debate and discourse (i.e. bringing the student to the level of the teacher). However, a second, often overlooked component to engagement is learning (as teachers) to speak the language of students. Once again, using memes to emphasize rules, break up the seriousness of heavy topics or simply putting complex concepts in the language students are most familiar is therefore simply good practice.
Another key feature of memes is their simplicity – they are able to communicate a big concept with simple words and imagery. In my classroom, if a student can distil a concept into its barest essentials and create a meme representing it, it shows that they have not only understood the concept, but have also been able to creatively communicate it to their peers in their own digitally-native language and bring in an element of fun to the whole enterprise.
In my personal experience, I have found that using memes in class not only helps me relate more abstract concepts to students using a frame of reference that they are intimately familiar with but also brings in much-needed humour. The stereotype that higher education and academic pursuits in general being dry and boring makes students reluctant to engage more deeply with lessons and makes it harder for them to make the effort required for success. However, if I am able to show students that learning can be fun and entertaining, they are more likely to want to read around the subject and go the extra mile to understand the more difficult concepts. This is particularly true for subjects I teach like Psychology and Theory of Knowledge, which can be quite deep and heavy in parts.
Naturally, there is a need for caution – as with everything the internet throws up, there is always a question of appropriateness. Even if a meme appears harmless at first glance, there is a chance that the context it originates from is not quite appropriate for classroom use. There are websites which provide explanations and origins of memes, so you can easily verify the source. It also helps to set clear expectations and rules surrounding appropriateness of content to be shared in class. Lastly, I find it useful to review the memes personally before they are shared with the class, giving me the leeway to monitor and moderate the content.
I have found that students are more motivated to show off their learning through their creative memes and they enjoy the response from their peers to those creations. I have noticed students have more discussions about syllabus content and even look up new ideas about topics, prompted by memes their classmates have created. The best part is that students don’t seem to view creating memes as ‘studying’ even though the clear rules I’ve set emphasizing accuracy of information in the meme mean they have to actually revise the concepts to meet the criteria.
In conclusion, familiarizing ourselves with the landscape our students occupy is important for us as teachers so that we can create a common ground for effective communication and what better way to do that than via meme?
IB Psychology & TOK Teacher,
Dhirubhai Ambani International School
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition.
‘Definition of MEME’ <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meme> [accessed 28 August 2020].
Axelle Van Wynsberghe, ‘Internet Memes As New Cultural Metalanguage: A Case Study of Pepe the Frog / Anthropology of Language Research Project’ <https://www.academia.edu/35828594/Internet_Memes_As_New_Cultural_Metalanguage_a_Case_Study_of_Pepe_the_Frog_Anthropology_of_Language_Research_Project> [accessed 28 August 2020].
‘5 Ways to Use Memes with Students | ISTE’ <https://www.iste.org/explore/In-the-classroom/5-ways-to-use-memes-with-students> [accessed 28 August 2020].
‘Daily-Warm-Ups-News-Meme-2.Jpg (738×415)’ <https://www.middleschoolmind.com/uploads/4/9/5/1/49514683/published/daily-warm-ups-news-meme-2.jpg?1560356717> [accessed 28 August 2020].
SHARE THIS STORY