/ 19 June 2023

Are social media trends in education empowering students or diluting learning?

Social media and the rollout of wider digital capabilities have overturned the classical Western democratic model based on a marketplace of ideas.
The social media trend of encouraging students to recite answers or educational content has both advantages and drawbacks. (Muhammed Selim Korkutata/Anadolu Agency)

In recent years, an intriguing trend has emerged among South African teachers on social media platforms: encouraging learners to recite and sing answers or educational content provided in videos or audio clips. Although this approach aims to leverage technology and engage students in a new way, it also raises questions about its effectiveness. I am a teacher, and seeing this trend got me thinking. 

The use of social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram allows for dynamic and visually appealing presentations, capturing learners’ attention and fostering active participation. In many of the videos, the pupils appear to be engaged and quite enthusiastic. Singing, clapping or other physical movements (mostly from the educator) helps to keep learners involved in the learning process; they become active participants rather than passive recipients of information. The rhythmic and melodic elements of songs can also facilitate natural movement, promoting a multisensory learning experience. This is helpful in the foundation phase, but I am not too sure of its effectiveness in grades 10 to 12.

Many studies have proven that melodies and rhythms make it easier to remember and recall information. The repetitive nature of songs, coupled with the catchy melodies, helps reinforce content in students’ minds. This can be particularly beneficial when learning facts, vocabulary or sequences of information. But is the ability to regurgitate or rather, recall, evidence of learning? Does this reflect a deep understanding or meaningful application of knowledge by the learners?

Recitation or regurgitation often involves memorising without necessarily grasping the underlying concepts or ideas. Merely recalling information does not guarantee that learners can apply that knowledge in real-world scenarios or adapt it to solve new problems — which is what learning is about. Learning should empower learners to use acquired knowledge flexibly and creatively, not simply repeat it verbatim. Focusing solely on recall tends to promote surface-level learning, where learners prioritise memorisation over critical thinking or deep understanding. It may result in a narrow scope of learning that lacks critical analysis, synthesis and evaluation – this is different for active recall.

The ability to recall information in a specific context does not necessarily demonstrate a holistic understanding. A learner’s ability to recall or sing about the route of the sperm from the vagina to the fallopian tubes does not mean that the learner understands the reproductive system. I use this example, because this type of teaching has been mostly prevalent among life sciences teachers. Learning should involve recognising connections, identifying patterns and applying knowledge across various contexts to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding.

As teachers, we should aim to develop higher-order thinking skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity. Genuine learning involves connecting new information to existing knowledge, making it personally meaningful, and applying it to one’s own experiences. Merely reciting or regurgitating information does not reflect the individual’s ability to personalise the knowledge or understand its relevance in their own lives.


“Kere ho bright 😂😂😭😭❤️”love this guy one of the best teachers in life science ❤️🦍#matalaK

♬ original sound – G.Mpembe – G.Mpembe

Recall can still be a part of the learning process, particularly in terms of building foundational knowledge or practising certain skills. But it should be accompanied by deeper levels of understanding, critical thinking, and the application of knowledge to demonstrate true learning. Assessments and evaluations should be designed to capture these higher-order skills and provide a more comprehensive picture of learning outcomes. In the context of high school education, it is essential for learners to cultivate higher-order thinking skills. 

I am not suggesting that this method is the sole approach employed by teachers. But there is a potential danger associated with this method. By placing themselves as the main characters in the learning process, teachers risk overshadowing their role as facilitators of learning or “guides on the side”. To truly promote effective learning, we should embrace a constructivist approach rather than a behaviourist one. 

As educators, it is crucial to strike a balance by incorporating a variety of instructional methods that cater to diverse learning needs and foster holistic learning experiences. By critically examining and harnessing the potential of this trend, educators can maximise its benefits while addressing its limitations to provide a well-rounded education for all students.

Iviwe Mtubu, a Jakes Gerwel candidate fellow and University of Cape Town graduate, teaches geography and maths literacy to grades eight to 10 at Westerford High School. He is a 2021 Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South African and a Democracy Works Academy 2020 fellow.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.