war, social media and the urgent need to update the way we teach English


The war in Ukraine is described as the first social media war, even though “the tiktok war”. Memes, tweets, videos and blog posts communicate both vital information and propaganda, potentially altering the course of history. This highlights the importance of agile and critical use of social media.

English in schools, on the other hand, still focuses on reading books and writing exam papers. Despite media mentions in the Australian English curriculum, studying digital writing via social media is not prioritized in senior assessment or high-stakes national tests. This approach seems increasingly disconnected from modern communication.

Meme-ification is a feature of media coverage of the war in Ukraine. This new word describes the explosion of ordinary people creating shareable and potentially influential digital content.

Anyone with a smartphone and internet access can participate in a war that takes place both on the ground and on digital platforms. And this content frequently references other popular digital cultures. For example, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is depicted as Captain Ukraine by photoshopping his head on the body of Marvel’s Captain America and tweeting this image.

Read more: Guns, tanks and Twitter: How Russia and Ukraine are using social media as the war drags on

Teaching English Today

This “writing” contributes to stories and debates about heroism, military morale, fan fiction, and American cultural imperialism. This type of immediate, dynamic and global communication should be the basis of studying in English.

The ability to critically consume and strategically create social media is vital to the health of democracies. Yet writing for social media posts and powerful platforms such as Twitter, TikTok and Facebook is not central to how we teach English.

Students should be able to create memes, write streaming news blogs, and produce digital news podcasts, all for a networked audience. They must determine goals, invent concepts, manipulate images, combine different media, compose compelling texts and respect copyright law. It is impactful and useful writing for exerting influence in the world.

Research initiatives such as the Digital Self-Portrait Project demonstrate how students can create vivid new forms of ‘writing’ that explore the tensions between their own digitally rich lives and traditional literacies.

Digital writing is often collaborative, and a recent Australian Educational Research Organization Review recommends more collaborative writing in classrooms. Community organizations such as Write4Change make this possible by connecting young people to write together using digital media through private, community and moderated sites on mainstream platforms.

Read more: In the age of digital disinformation, dropping Level 1 Media Studies in New Zealand high schools is a big mistake

Our approach is outdated

Yet the high-stakes assessment regimes of education do not value these forms of writing. Unfortunately, the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) has reduces writing types taught in schools even further afield. A sample NAPLAN write job says, basically, “Here’s a picture of a box. Write a story about it.

This approach needs to change so that students practice the forms of writing and communication that make sense in today’s world. This will help the citizens of the future to participate fully in workplaces and, above all, in democracies.

The Australian government, through the Australian Research Council, has recognized this and has funded a new study on the importance of contemporary writing in education. It is through a Early Career Discovery Fellowship (DECRA) titled Teaching digital writing in secondary English. This project will explore how teachers can conceptualize and implement handwriting instruction in the real world.

Read more: How well does Australia’s new curriculum prepare young people for climate change?

It’s not a choice of classics or digital writing

Of course, studying the classics remains important, as does mastering the basic skills. Zelensky himself quoted Hamlet in a recent address to the UK parliament. So it’s not one or the other, but what digital writing expert Professor Troy Hicks calls “both and”. We can study both Hamlet as a play and how other media powerfully quote its main character.

Students can themselves explore the creation of strategic literary references in their own social media posts and interventions. The study of rhetoric (argument and persuasion) and aesthetics (cultural value) must include diverse media for contemporary relevance.

Human conflicts, projects, imaginings and realizations now occur in new forms. The devastating theater of war unfolding in Ukraine and online has offered “a masterclass in message”.

If one of the main purposes of compulsory literacy in Australia is to “create confident communicators, imaginative thinkers and informed citizensthen students must learn to communicate in the fashions of contemporary society. They must enjoy the engagement and learning that comes from participating in truly meaningful dialogues and situations, even if only in protected classroom and school-based versions.

The use of social media threatens and potentially supports democracy. Yet media literacy remains devalued in the English curriculum and classroom, largely in favor of the reproduction of forms of printed literature and essays.

It’s time for English to join the 21st century and embrace all the diverse and digital means of communication that are part of our lives today. Our freedom and our future depend on it.


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