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Debunking Education Memes, Part One

If there’s one thing the Internet likes to do, it’s criticize. “Memes” are the medium du jour, and our modern education system by no means escapes their ceaseless heckling. Sometimes these arguments are rational and based on solid reasoning; sometimes they are meant to appeal to the basest of human nature. And so, in our modern-day online obsession with outrage, we must often ask ourselves if we are actively engaging in thoughtful discussion that explores holistic truths or are we hastily processing our gut reactions through a simple self-satisfying postworthy rant? Today, Education World looks at some of social media’s most-shared memes that critique our education system, explores both the truths and misunderstandings leading to their viral nature, and recommends ways for educators to actively disrupt their messaging in their classrooms and greater communities.

The suggestion: Standardized testing is ruining education.

The problem with the meme:

It is easy to see the polarities here. Teachers are asked to differentiate their curriculum to meet the needs of individual students, and yet the state and national tests measure them against a standard. In defiance to this idea, perhaps, there is a huge push right now for schools to embrace a “growth mindset” in the classroom: that we measure our students not against a set standard, but in our ability to “meet them where they are” and assuring only that they are making adequate growth in the classroom. To this end, sure, Billy might not meet the grade-level expectations, but he will grow as a learner each year.

The problem here, however, is that what we commonly refer to as the “real world” isn’t always particularly differentiated the same way. That world demands a product: a standard expectation of success. If you can’t climb the tree, you won’t be hired for the tree job. And if your student is determined for that academic and professional track, well then as educators we spent absurd amounts of time teaching elephants and penguins to get as far up that tree as possible, if only to show them that they can reach further and higher than they could ever dream. In a very real sense, the cartoon goes against the mantra of nearly every educator: “all students can learn”. We see the paths to success, despite the odds.

We also use the data from standardized tests to help students decide if the tree is even their path to their personal definition of success. Working with the fish, we might discover the ocean is where their true passions and talents meet. The cartoon implies that a standardized test might be the only way we as educators define our students, which is simply inaccurate. All data-driven curricula triangulates standardized data with in-house-created assessments, behavioral data, in-class strengths, personal and social data…All of these things are considered and compared to develop a learning plan and realistic goal-setting to make a student’s academic and professional dreams a potential reality.

Recommendations for undermining the meme:

  • When reviewing data with students and parents, review multiple sets of data (including observations) to create a more holistic understanding of your student.
  • Make sure both students and parents know that their standardized test scores do not define them as a learner. Instead, use the data as a discussion point. Make sure they realize that they can make progress with these skills, as well as identifying other strengths they have as a learner (including how valuable they are).
  • Stress that the diversity of learners in our world is what makes it magnificent. There are many paths to student success and you will be working with them over the years to discover their full potential.


The suggestion: I’m never going to use this.

The problem with the meme:

This is a favorite, and has been since the dawn of public education. It’s funny, too, that the content areas that get hit the hardest are those not utilized by the speaker. Business owners and engineers complain about learning Shakespeare; journalists and therapists might rally against their Calculus class. So be it. And on and on it goes. Sometimes, we have to remember that the entirety of the school system you graduated from was not in existence just for you: it was created for all of us. Think of it as a survey of life that you had the rare opportunity to sample before making your choices…Not the worst thing in the world. What felt meaningless to you might have ignited a passion in a classmate.

And if we’re being quite honest, very few of us knew for certain which skills we were going to need past high school. It is a complaint that can only be made retroactively. How quickly we transition from “rock star” to “veterinarian” to “chef” to “paraprofessional” as we explore the working world as a young adult. The public education system is designed with the goal of making sure that students receive a well-rounded education that prepares them for whatever our ever-changing world might demand of its workforce. The truth is, you don’t know what you’ll need and not need, and our education system is accommodating that. You might not use it all, but we want you to be able to have it if you need to access it. We want a student’s life to be filled with options, not limitations.

Even past recognition of the unknown, one can make the argument that the habits of mind you learn in the process of succeeding in a content area is more important than the content area itself. You might not ever write a formal argumentative essay, but if you haven’t developed the habit of using evidence to support tour conclusions, you will in all likelihood struggle with making sense of the world you live in. The benefits of your trigonometry course might not be the content directly, but did you learn key skills for tackling and overcoming challenges that feel impossible? Did you learn how you learn? Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to see the correlation between our learning practices and who we later become, yet those soft skills often find root in some of the more challenging aspects of the learning process.

Recommendations for undermining the meme:

  • Speak to students directly about how drastically the prioritized skills of the work world change over time. This variability puts emphasis both on a more holistic education and learning more general “habits of mind and work”.
  • Talk very explicitly about how working on a complicated math problem or organizing an essay is not just about completing the task or product. Talk about all the transferable skills students acquire in the process.
  • Do some career research with students. They are often surprised by how much math a graphic artist has to use. Or how much a lawyer or doctor has to write. The more you can connect this review with the interests of your particular students, the better.


The suggestion: Schools don’t teach the “real stuff”.

The problem with the meme:

This is another popular complaint against general public education, yet might not be fully acknowledging the drives of modern pedagogy. Whether your local school system is embracing these changes is a different story. However, the push for applicable, relevant, and authentic learning can be found in nearly every published educational document in the past decade.

The widely-adopted Common Core State Standards, history students are asked to “compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts,” including “where the text leaves matter uncertain,” which asks that educators expand how different accounts of history have shaped our perception of that history, as well as recognizing where things are up for interpretation. In the Standards for Mathematical Practice, educators are asked to get their students to “apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace.” Keeping in mind the unknown of tomorrow’s work world, English/Language Arts even asks educators to create “a new urgency for students to be adaptable in response to change.” In short, the education occurring in modern classrooms are already tasked with being relevant, contemporary, and directly applicable to the world well beyond the formal school system. If the content and skills being taught are not meeting the needs of your community, it might be time to revamp your local school system’s curriculum.

Recommendations for undermining the meme:

  • Make sure your essential questions and daily objective are connected to life after public education. Adding a “why is this important” section to all such documents helps student to understand that relevance matter to you, as well.
  • Do a curricular audit to check the relevancy of your content. Is there anywhere you can make the content more authentic without sacrificing your alignment to standards?
  • Small adjustments to your lessons—from creating a simple word problem about shopping for groceries to debating a current local issue—can do wonders for helping students see the connection between your classroom and the world they live in.


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.