May 9, 2019

How can school be a Meme?

Most of us have seen viral memes on the internet. Whether they are from your favorite television show or commenting on a popular culture item, memes are everywhere. There are even meme creators for those of us who are not gifted in creating our own memes. This blog post is not about those kinds of memes.

The Definition of a Meme

According to Google, a meme is “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation.” Let’s deconstruct this definition through the lens of “schooling”.

“An element of culture or system of behavior…”. Schooling is an element of culture. Books are written about it, songs are sung about it, industries have relied on it for their existence, in essence, popular culture in the United States, in many ways, is centered on school. School is an integral part of our popular culture.

“…that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another…”. The experience of school is ingrained in us from an early age. I can’t remember how I learned about what school should be like, I just always remembering knowing what school was. How did this happen? How is it that we just know what the experience of school should be? The idea was passed to us through all of the cultural elements discussed earlier, plus the people close to us. Growing up I can remember people saying “When I went to school…”. This not so subtle method of cultural transmission sends signals to the recipient about the “proper” way to think about school.

“…by non-genetic means, especially imitation”. Imitation is an important term here. Schooling spread throughout the United States much like a virus through imitation and replication. There simply is not a lot of difference between the schooling experience in any part of the United States…it is a very uniform phenomenon. Which leads me to conclude…

School is a meme

Okay, maybe school is not a meme like the funny internet memes that are ubiquitous, but it is still a meme. Successful memes require people to accept a premise without turning on your rational brain. They are meant to simply wash over you and be accepted without question. Why else would we think it is a great idea to place hundreds of thousands of teenagers in the same building for 7 ½ hours a day with the expectation that they will always be on their best behavior if we were thinking rationally? We only do this when we accept the “school meme” and turn off our rational brains.

Breaking the School Meme

Never fear, dear readers, there are ways to engage your rational brain to start to erode the school meme.

  1. Never, ever, say “We already do that” when someone approaches you with an idea for your school. If you utter this statement, your rational brain is on vacation and allowing you to say idiotic things. You may have a program that is similar or one that wants to accomplish the same goals, but you are not already doing exactly what the suggestion is. The school meme has trapped you into believing that there is only one way of doing school and it is what you are already doing.
  2. Avoid saying “We tried that and it didn’t work”. Once again, your rational brain is napping if you find yourself muttering these words. The school meme does not want you to try different things because it is not the way it was replicated in the first place. Imitation is how the meme stays strong and doing something other than what every other school is doing is simply not allowed.
  3. Do not go to the far extreme of the worst possible scenario when exposed to a new idea for your school. For example, someone might approach you and suggest that learners should have more voice and choice in their school experience. If the school meme has turned off your rational brain, you will say something like, “We can’t have kids just doing whatever they want whenever they want, that is just not possible and it isn’t realistic”. Notice how the speaker changes the focus away from a reasonable suggestion (voice and choice) and immediately goes to the nuclear option of the worst case they can conjure. In order for the school meme to stay active in perpetuity, all other options for schooling must be seen as unreasonable. The best way to do that is by framing any change as radical and unrealistic.

If you avoid doing these three things, you are on your way to breaking the school meme.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Get weekly, actionable strategies and knowledge from The Learner-Centered Leader Newsletter. 

%d bloggers like this: