What’s in a meme?
Though modern vernacular points immediately to the internet meme, memetics describes the process of discrete bits of knowledge spreading through cultures.
Memes must be compelling enough to be repeated, and often appear in the form of joke, gossip, or conspiracy. Classroom and worldly knowledge can be spread through this process, though the information does not have to be actual fact.
Richard Dawkins compared the processes to genetics: “just as biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest genes in the gene pool, cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes.” Memetics is transmission of strong ideas.
Again, they can be transferred whether or not they are true, which is why our work as educators is so important.
Understanding this concept made the theme of this year’s MAHPERD Convention (a production of the Massachusetts Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance) especially compelling. In celebration of the Association’s 90th Anniversary, the theme of the event was “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About.” Since an educator’s task is to get important information into the minds of impressionable youth, this hits just the right key.
Students talk. What the students talk about, roaming the halls or huddled in a lunchroom, matters. At first, it’s just gossip. But as gossip successfully spreads a piece of information, it can evolve into a culturally relevant meme.
If a student hears, and therefore believes, that eating Skittles before a football game will help him play better, he’ll do it. If there’s a rumor going around that a one cannot become pregnant in certain sexual positions, then those positions will be attempted.* Guaranteed. Science is often secondary to a compelling idea.
*that one was for the Health teachers out there.
Which is why we need to consider our audience, and give them something meaningful to talk about. It is possible to spread essential information regarding health and wellness in interesting ways. But it might take some work on our end.
MAHPERD President Brian McNally acknowledges the great feeling he gets “when students leave our classes so excited about what they are learning and doing in our programs that they can’t wait to talk about it with their friends, parents, and family.” It is exciting. And though it may sound idealistic, it’s real. It is happening every day.
Students leave classes excited when their teachers talk about exciting things, and this Conference was full of that sort of information.
Kyrah Altman and Laura Wilkins presented Trauma Informed Teaching techniques, which are essential to the work they are doing with their nonprofit organization, LEAD. Dr. Lynn Pantusco-Hench presented on a topic we are especially passionate about, Long Term Athletic Development, which swaps immediate results in student-athletes for a long-term developmental approach.
Scott Todnem spoke on Choice and Advocacy in Health Education, Dr. Ann Marie Gallo paired up with Claudia Brown to speak about Behavior as Communication, and other professionals tackled topics like nutrition, sports-injury, and mindfulness training.
There was no shortage of quality information to discuss.
Still, the question remains: will these important topics be the ones absorbed and transferred by students?
Strategy for Meme-Creation
It is difficult know if information is spreading through student conversations until well after the fact. But in practice, as a sort of “self-check,” it is helpful to reflect using three essential questions.
- Did you get their attention?
- Did it come with a narrative or a why?
- Do they understand the implications, or the next steps?
If you didn’t have their attention, don’t expect much. The human brain simply does not absorb information well unless it is paying attention to it. It is the essence of mindlessness. The first question a teacher, parent, or coach must ask in this reflection is, did I have their attention? Be honest with yourself if you did not. Forgive yourself, and work toward that end.
Previously in this article, we mentioned pregnancy and sexual positions. While it is certainly appropriate to discuss sex-ed concerns with an audience responsible for teaching such information (namely, the health teachers and parents out there), that example intended to be provocative. Any number of examples of a faulty meme could have been used, but that one seemed sufficient to rope in the attention of any reader who might have previously been glossing over the article.
Reflection on successfully giving students “something to talk about” will also include the recognition of a narrative or a why – in other words, did the information come with a memorable story or convincing purpose?
In order for the material in classrooms to be carried forward, it must be memorable. People remember best in the form of narrative stories. This will not only allow the student to remember, but to share, and a memorable story is more readily received upon sharing. That story is carried forward, bringing with it some sort of purpose (why do I recycle? because I love animals, and tons of sea turtles get caught in plastic that’s been dumped in the ocean). This strategy tends to get people on board. The information will transfer.
Once transferred, that new information should lead students to an obvious next step. Protecting sea turtles, once the idea is successfully adopted, should move the student to throw their soda cans into the blue bin, snip the rings on six-pack holsters, and ultimately use fewer products that might cause harm. Seeing a sea turtle caught in a Pepsi container is sad, but knowing how to prevent that outcome is essential – after all, the truest demonstration of understanding is thoughtful action…
which is why I am writing this article. The 90th Annual MAHPERD Convention was full of dedicated educators sharing necessary information. The good that came out of those two days should carry forward.
If you are an educator who attended a good conference/clinic/symposium recently, identify a few takeaways and be sure to share them with your students. And while you’re at it, send a note to the presenter who gave you such valuable information.
Health and Physical Education are perhaps the only two subjects which apply to every student. This community distributes essential knowledge, so its members should shine a light on the work. Do it well, and highlight your peers – those who are also doing it well – at the same time.
Over the course of 90 years, MAHPERD has improved the field in countless ways. Be happy about that, but don’t be satisfied. After all, if we want to deliver strong information, we have to keep raising the bar.