The Time-Travelling Teacher Manifesto: A Work in Progress

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1: Students today find it difficult to remember (or remember to use) a lot of skills they are taught, due to the rise of the digital age, plasticity and lack of intrinsic motivation to learn. They are outsourcing a lot of the memorising work that the brain used to do to the Internet and gadgets and see no difference between electronic devices and the adults who teach them. Why bother to learn if the information is always available? Logical, unless you understand that the brain is much more than a repository of knowledge. It is good to know some stuff as well, obviously, because you need to have it available to use and manipulate.

“Miss! (click the mouse) How do you spell…? (write it down. Instantly forget, until the next time…”Miss!” (Click) “How do you spell…?”- If you make them use a dictionary, which I do, you are “not teaching us anything” and at the mercy of the “Student Voice”).

They also lack intrinsic motivation due to the fact that, in many areas they are growing up surrounded by the visible effects of our difficult economic times and know that even doing well at school is no guarantee of employment. In many areas, the possibility of work that is not only well-paid, but interesting and fulfilling, has never really been available to this generation or their parents, and this quickly leads to a further drop in enthusiasm and motivation in children, which is heartbreaking to see. From my experience, it seems that only extrinsic motivation is even considered in schools.

2: There is a schism between students’ lives (both present and future) and how and what we are teaching in school.

3: There is a schism between the way teachers and pupils are working (high stress, long hours and teachers carrying the full burden of responsibility, which leads to learned helplessness in pupils and burn-out in teachers) and how human brains function.

Teachers and school leaders know this, but are hobbled by political interference:

1: Student achievement at GCSE is used to judge teachers, Senior Leadership and, ultimately, entire schools. No news there, but there really is too great a burden on these poor, exhausted qualifications.

2: Teachers frequently find themselves having to “help” students so much that it actually becomes counterproductive. That is, it makes it less likely that students will learn, which, when added to point 1 (above) creates a “Perfect Storm” of a generation for whom learning is particularly problematic.

3: This September, students entering year 10 will be starting the first “Exam Only” GCSE courses (starting with Maths & English) since 1987 (when we had O’ Levels & CSEs). This is a huge event, the implications of which are really not getting the attention they deserve; the last time we assessed in this way, the internet didn’t exist. Since then, we have all forgotten how to memorise phone numbers and many of us, myself very much included, who used to read voraciously, find it difficult to concentrate when reading long, detailed writing these days. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for someone who has never known how great it can be to read the same book for hours. Having said that, I also love the way my reading about a topic can feel almost three-dimensional now, as I click-through and link, creating my own, personalised route through vast volumes of information that I would need several life-times to read “properly”. Perhaps we need to think some more about how great that is, too.

At the moment, anyone who is interested can read, or join in with the debates that are raging on the many education blogs and websites about the future of education: Knowledge Vs Skills, Exams Vs Coursework, Progressive Vs Traditional. And as everybody argues, nothing really gets solved.

There is no doubt that something needs to change, even though some are arguing that the change needed is a reversal of the last few decades.

Anyone interested in education  knows of Ken Robinson, who is a passionate advocate of the need for a new paradigm for education which is able to prioritise creativity over teaching students to pass standardised tests.

He is right. He is right when he says that education is stuck in the ideals of the Enlightenment (which was amazing, but we are working on a new Enlightenment of our own) and using the models of teaching, learning and assessment developed to service the needs of the Industrial Revolution. Soon, everybody will notice that that economic system has gone forever. Its educational infrastructure is taking far too long to wither, too.

Thing is, though, even when school leaders and teachers know that the system is broken, they are under so much pressure to get those grades, that change can be too big a risk to contemplate. Mistakes, instead of being the way humans learn and grow, become something that can’t be tolerated, or even revealed. So we keep working harder and harder and the kids keep forgetting and feeling stupid, mostly because they are being taught in system that that is broken. And so the days and years wear on…

 

At Time-Travelling Teacher, we aim to “square the circle” by solving the GCSE problem,  by solving the “digital Native” problem.

You see, there is much to be positive about. Think about this: If we all teach kids (and educators) how brains work, we can show them that they are not stupid and use that, along with thoughtful adjustments to pedagogy, which takes psychological and neurological aspects into account. We can help them to develop their memories and also find out more about the positive aspects of our changing brains and work out how to incorporate that knowledge into teaching and learning, too. We are fighting for kids’ attention with so much. The only way to get and keep their attention for long enough for learning to take place, we need to get them to care. It is not, by the way, just a matter of behaviour control. A child can look for all the world like a model student, but still be paying no attention to a lesson. Consider how much information a child is bombarded with even when not in class. How about all the writing they do when teachers aren’t looking? Without intrinsic motivation to get it right, they will never practise enough so that their learning is automatic. They need to care enough to get it right, even when we are not looking.

What we need to do is increase students’ intrinsic motivation to learn by:
1: Teaching them how brains work and making sure that we teach in ways that support that. Many students think that they are stupid, but we have all “forgotten” how to memorise phone numbers and continue to change our brains through use of the Internet and our various “brain extensions”, otherwise known as computers in their many manifestations. By “helping” our students too much, we are in fact acting as yet another “Brain Extension”, which our students accept as natural and normal, but is making it much less likely that they will develop the ability to do it for themselves.

2: Teach about the future of the job market and about what they can do before they even leave school to increase their chances of finding meaningful employment in the future, either working for others or finding their own niche and how they can create their own work and/or collaborate on fulfilling projects. This is particularly important in deprived areas, such as those struggling to recover from recent and historical recessions. The happy fact is, there is no need to move to a prohibitively expensive city to have an interesting job in this new age. Many more children have now got access to the most tremendous resources, which we are only beginning to appreciate.

3: Teaching & Learning needs to change to accommodate the huge changes that have occurred and will continue to occur in the lives of our “Digital Natives”. That is not to say that we should discard all that came before, such as handwriting, which we now know has a huge impact on language development as well as being a “primitive” means of communication, but we are not paying enough attention to the fact that our students are connected to the internet almost every waking moment of their day, except when they are in lessons. Again, this is not necessarily always a bad thing, but it does mean that their brains are structurally different to those of the preceding generation and we must take this into account when we plan for teaching and learning.

As I say, very much a work-in-progress, this post. I’ll go away and have a think…

Melinda Bower