Teaching Generation Z

Who are this elusive Generation Z and what do we need to know in order to teach them?

gen z students with tablets
Dr Selina Samuels Chief Learning Officer BA(Hons), LLB, PhD, MEd Friday, 21 June 2019

We try not to fall into the trap of typecasting the characteristics of different generations – often they’re as much defined by their current age as anything else. For instance, Gen X were once alienated youth and are now “gloomy, curmudgeonly ghosts” according to New Yorker writer Emily Nussbaum. Baby Boomers were the revolutionaries of the sixties before they became conservative MPs. The members of Gen Z are currently young and so have the characteristics of young people.

But even taking into account the dangers of generalisation, there are certain features of each generation that educators should consider.

Who are Gen Z?

According to McCrindle, Gen Z were born between 1995 and 2009, and now make up the majority of our school and even university student populations. They embody the digital age, naturally relying on devices to teach them, entertain them, and power their homes. Gen Z have always had unparalleled connectivity.

Evidence suggests that Generation Z are strongly politicised. This is probably a result of coming of age during a period of heightened international anxiety. As children they may have been conscious of the impact of the GFC and, as they prepare to move into the workforce, they carry those fears with them. They’re exposed to constant debate around climate change and sustainability. Greta Thunberg, the extraordinary Swedish schoolgirl who’s sparked the global movement School Strike for Climate Change, is a Gen Z warrior. US student gun activist Emma Gonzalez is also Gen Z.

Political schisms are appearing between Generations Y and Z and their parents and grandparents, with young people in Britain more likely to have voted “remain” in the Brexit referendum. Prior to the recent Australian federal election, young people enrolled to vote in record numbers.

They’re reaching adulthood in a world where more and more countries legalise same-sex marriage and the #metoo movement has started to make profound changes to social expectations around what’s considered “normal”.

At the same time, more than any other generation before them, they live in both the physical and virtual worlds and have to navigate a variety of communication formats – indeed, languages – every day, from text to email to Insta and back again.

How to teach Gen Z

There are some more nuanced analyses that have significance for Gen Z as learners.

Gen Z are both able to accommodate uncertainty and motivated by a desire to find and manifest authenticity. This is perhaps the inevitable reaction to the highly manufactured nature of the digital world, and it means that young people are more cynical than their elders about the truthfulness of the messages they receive (fake news anyone?) and more likely to interrogate and analyse what they see.

Gen Z are said to be more pragmatic and less idealistic than Generation Y. Their pessimism can be seen in their taste for what’s often quite dark literature and television. But these features are balanced – or perhaps harnessed by – their entrepreneurial spirit. There’s an inventiveness and freedom in their engagement with technology and the opportunities it represents for change and progress.

These characteristics define Gen Z’s learner profile.

Face-to-face is back

In search of authenticity, Gen Z likes to communicate face-to-face more than their predecessor generation, but they don’t necessarily define face-to-face in the same way. For them, communication through a screen is still face-to-face.

It’s about immediacy and access

They’re the YouTube generation. They favour just-in-time learning and expect to be able to access the information and training they need anytime, anywhere. This makes them responsive to learning that is designed to be flexible, engaging and immediately applicable to a real situation.

Success-focused learning

Because they’re fundamentally pragmatic, Gen Z are also serious and success-focused learners. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they focus on grades alone (although that’s certainly true of some). They may eschew formal tertiary education altogether. But they’re interested in success criteria and the purpose of what they learn. As budding entrepreneurs, they want skills and knowledge that are obviously useful now and in the future.

Personalised learning

As the Australian academic Erica McWilliam discusses in her excellent article about teaching Gen Z, these features mean that for our current school students, personalised learning is a wonderful fit. They favour interactive and interventionist teaching methods such as 1:1 tutoring, and they actively seek out feedback and advice.

Gen Z are more likely than previous generations to see the benefit of a learning partnership with their teachers and are keen, as McWilliam says, to be “co-directors” and “co-editors” of this process.

Our challenge, then, as teachers of Generation Z is to make sure that we individualise our approach, and that we give them room to co-construct and own their own learning. This requires some changes to conventional approaches to teaching and to resource development. We need to move away from questions that are simply Google-able to those that require a more fluid, authentic approach to information and knowledge.

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