Teaching intelligence: educating Generation Z

Today’s students are different from the previous generation, and we must understand that when we teach them, writes Simon Beames

March 21, 2019
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I have worked at a Scottish university for 14 years and my current students seem markedly different from the ones I taught in the early 2000s. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, as the world has changed immeasurably in the past 20 years.

Those who constructed the theories of social generations would suggest that I am Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, trying to teach Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2010 (the generation succeeding Millennials). I want to do better for today’s students and move beyond what Australian social demographer Mark McCrindle describes in his 2014 book The ABC of XYZ: Understanding the Global Generations as universities delivering “19th-century content, in 20th-century buildings to 21st-century students”. However, there exists very little guidance on how to do so.  

Most of us probably see Gen Z as screen-driven users of new media, who prefer gaming, Instagram and Snapchat over books and television. Some describe this generation as inhabiting a “networked public”, in contact with people 24 hours a day. Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, notes in her recent book, iGen, that many like being “together alone”: spending evenings at home, while remaining closely connected to their peers through social media. 

Gen Zs are also typically worried about the future. They have lived through the global financial crisis, seen the devastation of climate-change-driven environmental disasters and witnessed online atrocities ranging from executions to chemical warfare in Syria. 

Another feature of this generation is their physical and mental health issues. There is evidence of an increase in teenage obesity, and, perhaps more alarming, of a rise in incidences of depression, eating disorders and stress-induced illnesses. Some of this stress appears to be due to what Sarah MacIsaac, a lecturer in physical education at the University of Edinburgh, calls “the presentation of online self”: anxiety associated with perpetually curating identity through social media platforms. 

One has to be careful when attributing a set of features to an arbitrarily defined group of people, but I firmly believe there is enough of an emerging narrative around Gen Z to warrant deeper discussion about their education. I propose five suggestions for educators who are working with Gen Z students.

First, Gen Z is faced with a need to develop the skills to more effectively gather, critically evaluate and systematically curate vast amounts of information. With access to so much data today, it is tempting to be satisfied with a quick answer rather than with one resulting from a longer, more rigorous investigative process. We need to give our students the tools with which they can critically assess the trustworthiness of their sources of information.

Second, we know this generation is very concerned about the future and wants to change the world. These students are capable of self-directed learning and critical thinking, but sometimes only when a topic is deemed to be globally important. Our students’ educational tasks need to be rooted in real-world problems, as opposed to abstract or decontextualised academic exercises, in what Mike Brown, lecturer at the University of Waikato, and I have described in our book Adventurous Learning: A Pedagogy for a Changing World as “authentic learning contexts”.

The third suggestion is to employ pedagogies that permit creative and interactive learning. Teachers should use communication styles that engage multiple learning channels, especially those with visually and graphically enhanced information. Allowing students to learn through experimentation and by trial and error rather than simply reading and listening to lectures, is likely to engage them more. These young people want to co-create, live-stream and construct the activity as they participate. Thinking about the speed of information delivery and access is crucial for lecturers or these students will lose interest.

Fourth, make sure they feel empowered. Gen Z need to feel as though they have a say in what is being learned and how it is being learned. They need regular feedback from educators who are more like coaches and less like teachers. While Gen Zs like feeling that they have power, they also crave continuous grading, clear goals, rewards and positive reinforcement.

The fifth and final suggestion relates to digital detox. Today’s young people need deliberate time-outs from screens of all kinds and universities can help them do this. With increasing medical concerns about “digital junkies”, there is a strong argument for ensuring that students have technology-free periods in their days.

Of course, these suggestions can’t possibly speak to everyone born into this generation, across all global cultures – but there is an emerging balancing act for us educators of Gen Zs to negotiate. We must cater to their learning preferences, while facilitating direct interaction with real-world issues, places and people. 

Simon Beames is senior lecturer in outdoor learning at the University of Edinburgh.

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