Blog: Time Travelling Teachers - RSA

Blog: Time Travelling Teachers


  • Picture of Melinda Bower FRSA
    Melinda Bower FRSA
  • Education

To understand some of the challenges that we are facing in education in the present, we need to look to the past, both distant and recent. The current generation of learners find themselves caught in the transition between the analog past and our digital future.

Why teachers need to time-travel…

When writing began to take over from speech as the preferred method of linguistic communication, orators complained of the dangers: we were bound to become less intelligent and lose the ability to remember anything.

When printing was democratized by Gutenberg, the same arguments were put forward. There would soon be too much information. This proved to be true and it became impossible for anyone to read everything that was written. So perhaps it could be argued that the individual became more ignorant, but this one invention helped to usher in the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Modern age; collectively, humans gained much more than they lost. 

Then came film, television and the internet. At each stage of technological development our brains changed and people argued about what had been lost and what had been gained.

Learners caught in the generational divide

The learners in our schools today have lived their whole lives with digital technology. Information is found at the touch of a button and new skills crowdsourced through videos. This has led to a situation where the generation of teachers and parents can all remember life without the internet, while none who are still in school can, making our generation gap all the wider.

The brains of our learners and our educators have been developed differently and without a better understanding of these differences we will be unable to ensure all children flourish. Teachers expect their students to respond to learning as they would have and when they do not learning becomes impeded by tension and miscommunication.

We forget that the students have not developed the skills of memorisation and information retention, because they mostly haven’t needed to. They don’t know why they need to know anything or even that it is possible for them to remember what we teach them.

Students are growing up believing two disastrous ideas:

  • That they don’t need to learn anything, because the internet has all the information they will ever need. Digital Natives need to learn how their brains differ from electronic devices and be explicitly taught why they need to and how they can memorise knowledge and skills.
  • That they are unable to memorise anything, particularly if they are not interested in it. Students today have grown up in an age of technology that remembers information for us. The skill has also atrophied in the teacher/parent generation, but we at least know that it is possible. Our children are suffering from an epidemic of “Learned Helplessness”.

The return of the exam-only assessment

Ironically, recent reforms to our examination system will take us backwards in time to 1987 and a world of exam-only testing. This return to an older style of assessment means that bridging the divide between learners and educators is even more important. The digital generation is not used to having to retain information across multiple years and recall it on demand. Educators must begin to understand and tackle the difference between their learning styles, and that of their learners, if this change in examinations is not to have an adverse effect on the life chances of young people.

So what can be done?

Targeted Continued Professional Development (CPD) which supports teacher understanding of how the brain works and how to develop memorisation techniques could help to bridge the generational divide. The following programme is designed to do just that:

1. Why teaching your students how their brains work is a good use of your time, and what you need to teach them

2. Independent learning: Note-taking and memory

3. Spaced learning & Interleaving: Revise as you go

4. To be able to include memory techniques in your own curriculum and lesson planning

How can you help?

I’m looking for teachers and schools who can assess, validate and improve the above CPD programme, with a view to developing it into a larger, more complete version. I need to find a school or schools willing to trial this as part of their CPD provision, so please get in touch if you’d like to be involved.  

Get involved with RSA: Innovative Education

The RSA wants schools and colleges to tackle ingrained inequality and prepare young people for the economy of the future. We believe that the best way to do this is to put power back into the hands of the educators and give them space to be creative. You can join the RSA in our mission to do just this:







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