frog design: Meme-ingful Education

Education is, historically, full of memes. The ones that are successful (i.e. spread well) capture fundamental needs at a subconscious level and communicate them.

“Warning: This book contains a live mind virus. Do not read further unless you are willing to be infected.” Richard Brodie, Virus of the Mind, The New Science of the Meme

“We are a bucket filling school,” announced the memo sent home to parents on the schools’ decision to adopt Carol McCloud’s book, Have You Filled a Bucket Today? as the new moral guideline. Not only would the students be reading the books in class, but the teachers would be engaging in a book study on the adult version by Tom Rath. That week, buckets appeared on the teacher’s desks, kids were writing endearing messages to fill up the buckets, and my daughter started talking about her feelings as buckets (i.e. “He dumped my bucket when he ran away from me on the playground today.”) So, I scurried to the bookstore, unfamiliar with the book’s contents, and found every copy sold out. Well, damn.  Someone should have told Barnes & Nobles that a new meme was sweeping the nation.

In 1976, Richard Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene in an attempt to describe the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Memes, he defined, could be any unit of information such as a melody, belief, trend or process and their primary goal is to self replicate – and not always on behalf of society. Twenty years later, Richard Brodie took this one step further by capturing the field of memetics in an easily digestible, provocative book that’s been purposefully spread by enthusiasts through the Amazon Hot 100. Education, of course, was a ripe topic. What is education after all but a meme designed to spread knowledge and beliefs? Brodie very thoughtfully stuck it in the final chapter called, “Disinfection.” You see, he contends the only way to a meaningful life is a meme-ingless one – or at least one in which we create our own memes or get to choose what memes we want to be infected with.

Education is, historically, full of memes. The ones that are successful (i.e. spread well) capture fundamental needs at a subconscious level and communicate them. Consider the idea of “kindergarten” which came about in the early 1800’s to serve as a transition from home to a more formal schooling and in which children are taught basic skills through play and socialization. Cultures joined in a mission or common goal to provide children the opportunity of early learning, the feeling of belonging, approval when they learned well and an early structure for obeying authority. The concept of kindergarten takes advantage of tradition (each child that is six years of age), evangelism (every child should attend kindergarten) and faith (that early schooling is the right thing to do for children). The idea of Kindergarten is a fit meme, Brodie would argue, because by conveying fundamental needs (all those in italics above) it has spread across cultures, proliferated within a given society, and is now a core belief for a large percentage of the populace. Alternatively, we see a movement like Ebonics fail (at least thus far) because it was not a fit meme. Why? First, new memes are often met with skepticism, but the Ebonics resolution passed by the Oakland School Board in 1996 did not take into account tradition, familiarity, or faith. It did not push the core buttons of a crisis or danger. It did not capture our need to belong or seek approval. Finally, as originally presented, it did not make sense. Just consider Jesse Jackson’s comment, “I understand the attempt to reach out to these children, but this is an unacceptable surrender, border-lining on disgrace.”

The last decade has produced a meme-littering playground. What are these memes and how have our children been impacted by them? An obvious meme would be “No Child Left Behind,” which according to the media and many teachers I talk to, have led us to reduce standards rather than raise them. Apparently, as nationalized testing is on the rise, so is rote memorization. This was also the decade of the “blue ribbon generation” where every child is a winner – regardless of if they won or not. This year The Futurist published findings that today’s graduates lack foresight to help chart their path to a successful life, TIME suggested kids aren’t getting enough serious play and, according to Newsweek, we are now left with a creativity crisis.

In response to the historical impact of those experiments (ahem, memes), we are seeing new ones emerge: the S.T.E.M. Coalition (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), monetary reward for good grades, merit pay for teachers, Radical Unschooling, and techno-literacy, to name a few. A recent conversation with a middle school math teacher suggests a “related to life” meme has started. Students demand to know for each subject’s curricula how they will use that information in real life and if a teacher doesn’t have a good or quick answer, the student has no interest in learning the material. Her example was the Pythagorean Theorem. And while she emphasized learning how to think, perhaps if she had told her students they could calculate the power of their social networks, she would have seen a renewed appreciation for an ancient algorithm.

The New York Times just published a special issue on Education. One particular article caught my attention, “Learning By Playing: Video Games in the Classroom” by Sara Corbett. In it, she describes a school created by Katie Salen called Quest to Learn. The idea is that life is very much like a game and kids are taught how to build their own version. “If children can build, play and understand games that work, it’s possible that someday they will understand and design systems that work.” While our platforms may differ Katie, Richard and I are all in agreement. Fundamentally, we believe in a future where children learn how – and have the opportunity – to be inventors of their world, whether it’s games, memes, or design.

Last week I finally got a copy of Have You Filled A Bucket Today? and while it’s intention is how to spread happiness, it’s actually the perfect analogy for spreading memes. It’s major criticism, and one I agree with, is the book’s suggestion that other people can fill or empty our buckets but completely ignores the fact that we can (and should) fill our own bucket first. While I don’t fault the school for trying to provide morals, I just wish we had been given a choice in the matter.

That would have been much more meme-ingful.

By Laura Seargeant Richardson

Reprinted with kind permission from design mind, a publication of global innovation firm frog design.

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