The Time-Travelling Teacher: Or what teachers need to know about Digital Natives…



Teacher training is missing some very important topics right now. Why is there so little about how learning happens, what learning or education is, or even what it is for? Why is there so little about the effects on learning and the brain of the internet and other technological innovations?
We need to do some time-travelling. We need to visit times and places where changes in human brains and behaviour were most obviously occurring due to technology, so that we are better placed to see what is going on right now and what we need to do so that we can have an influence on all our futures. My favourite method of time-travel is the book, a particularly venerable machine, much bigger on the inside, which is possibly about to become obsolete: an upsetting idea for many. Don’t worry. Many of us continue to use old technology long past their obsolescence. You can keep doing it, just be aware that the world is no longer the one you grew up in. Oh, but the internet is dazzling, too, isn’t it? And truly massive on the inside. (Sorry. I can’t resist the Doctor Who references!)
You have almost certainly heard the phrase: “The Medium is the Message”. It was coined by Marshall Macluhan in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. He argued that the technology that we invent to disseminate information between human beings has a much more profound effect on human experience and growth than the content of the information we disseminate. He actually went much further, also arguing that technology (such as the light-bulb, for example) did not even need content to change our brains and how we live on a universal, fundamental level.
The idea was actually discussed much earlier, by Greek rhetoricians, dismayed at the growth of the written word taking over from the oral tradition and again by those who saw the changes being wrought by Gutenberg’s printing machine. Now, the internet and related technological advances are once again changing everything about the human experience. Everything.
Whenever a huge change of this type happens, our behaviour changes, which in turn changes our brains. We learn, work and live differently. It is happening right now, but in schools we are too often behaving as if we have not noticed.
We are currently in a time where every teacher was born and brought up in an era that was hugely different to that of the students we are teaching. Of course, there is always a generation gap, but right now the gap is far larger than most of us realise. Our students are in no position to realise it; it is down to us to teach ourselves, then teach them, but of course that can only happen if we make sure teacher training is keeping up with the times.
The danger is that, if we don’t pay attention to how our brains and behaviour are changing, we don’t know about our students’ (and teachers’) misconceptions, which are building up and wrecking education.
So, how are our brains changing? We need to notice. We need to ask questions.
Are our teachers and students developing beliefs about teaching and learning that we need to discuss? How many of us erroneously believe that the internet has made knowledge obsolete? The availability of knowledge via Google has not done away with the need to store knowledge in our long-term memories. For teachers, looking something up on the internet is not the same as it is for our students.

We already have information stored in our brains, so we are simply using the internet to add to this. Long-term memory storage of facts, even if they (as is frequently inevitable) stop being true, is the mechanism that we use to think about something. We cannot just download completely new information from the internet to our brains, using them as a sort of “desktop”, manipulate the information then tuck it back into the internet and forget all about it. We are much more than an extension of the internet; a local terminal of the mainframe.

Human brains, it should go without saying, are for much more than storage, but we do need to store some information,  so the magic can happen. We are doing a students a huge disservice when we behave as is their use of the internet is the same as ours. Our brains are changing, no doubt, but we need to realise that they are changing from the place we got to before the internet arrived; our students are changing from their level of development.
We need to learn and teach about how the internet and related technology is changing our brains and understand what this means for the generations living through it.

We worry that our students are lacking in the character traits necessary for education. We worry that they don’t seem to remember what we teach, even when the lesson appeared to be successful. Our students “performed” beautifully during our lessons, but the next time we see them it is as if the knowledge and skills were never introduced at all, so we worry once again whether it is all to do with a lack of motivation for learning, a poor “mindset”, or lack of “grit”.

How about this for a discussion? Could it be that our students are growing up believing that they have no need to learn anything, or bother committing anything to memory, because they can always look it up on the internet? What if they think that if anything at all comes up in their lives, they will look it up and think about it then? What if they don’t realise that human brains are about so much more than storage? What if they believe that they are actually incapable of remembering anything because they have so rarely needed to prove it? What if teachers who are so frustrated about their students’ inability to remember what they are “taught” in lessons don’t understand just how differently they process the message of the medium to those students?

If our students don’t think they need to bother learning anything and that school is therefore becoming even more irrelevant (even before we take into account that the culture of the outside world is changing much, much faster than that of most schools), is it any wonder that their motivation is also declining?
We need to teach students, teachers and parents about the effects of the internet and new technology on our brains, then we need to consider what we need to do about it. Teach about the brain and how to use them, improving memory skills and motivation in the process.

Melinda Bower