Teaching Generation Z: A Student Revelation

Generation Z students sitting on a curb looking at their smart devices

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We know that currently, it’s Generation Z in the classroom.  What does that mean? The Generation Z years range from those born in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.  Who knows who will be after Gen Z, but for now there are specific characteristics of Generation Z students that may just surprise you.  Though there is a misconception that there are a lot of Generation Z negative characteristics, they are actually our best shot at changing the world for good.

I attended a phenomenal conference where a really important concept was discussed:  the differences in generations. If you are unfamiliar, people who are born within certain frames of years (give or take) usually have very similar characteristics with how they go about their daily lives. Usually, these groups are determined by a major event that happens in society (think September 11th, Pearl Harbor, etc.). As of today, there are five major groups:  Traditionalists (1922-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980), Millennials (1980-1994), and Generation Z (1995-2012). There is also a new classification called the “Xennials” who were born from roughly 1977-1985. Generally, these folks don’t really associate fully with Gen X or Millennials but have some traits of both (they have been fondly nicknamed the “Oregon Trail” generation….if this made you laugh, you’re probably a Xennial because you get it).

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Today, in our classrooms, we have formally moved from the Millennials to Generation Z.

As educators, we often get so sucked into just the concepts of having students in our classroom, that we forget that they are generational. Each category learns, interacts, and thrives differently. The Traditionalists, for instance, are very black and white thinkers. Baby Boomers are extremely hard workers in a very traditional sense and Gen X’ers often work outside of a traditional role or location. Millennials, who have been in our classrooms for the past several years, value work-life balance and are willing to deal with less money if it means more time in their personal lives. If you look at that progression, it somewhat goes from one end of the spectrum to another.

Now we have Generation Z, and they are bringing the pendulum back a bit.

Those in Generation Z were born between 1995-2012. They have never known a life without the internet. They grew up with technology around them, so it isn’t a novelty to them. They see the mistakes their Millennial counterparts have made with technology and are VERY conscious of their digital footprint (which is also why they love Snapchat so much!). TV? They barely watch it in real time. Cell phones? Most of them receive one before their 12th birthday (and generally, it’s a smartphone). Need to look something up? They’re chronic YouTubers. There is a great article from Business Insider that breaks down exactly what Generation Z is like. The most compelling quote from that piece is from a 15-year-old, who said:

“Everything in our generation is immediate. Since we have been raised in an age where texts and messages can be sent in the blink of an eye, we are less patient than other generations because we are used to having instant gratification. But our generation is also very determined to show that we are capable of real thoughts and using the technology and communication methods we have been given for making change, despite what older generations expect from us.”

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Generation Z is the compromise that many have been waiting for.

Generation Z has already lived through a recession (or two). They’ve seen the effects of the student loan debt crisis. They have a different outlook on “what it takes”. They don’t want to fall into the same traps, and therefore their future outlook is different…and their entrepreneurial spirit is strong.

That’s not the only difference about them. They are passionate. They don’t want to help….they want to solve. Those in Generation Z don’t want to feed the homeless…they want to put an end to homelessness….period. Social injustice? How can we fix it? Big picture issue? Let’s figure out how to make it right.

Generation Z female looking intently at a paper lantern she is holding

This changes the entire dynamic in the classroom.

Generation Z is not passive. They want to take a role and be active in whatever they do. Student-Centered learning will work better for this generation than any other one that has come into our classrooms before. The older, more traditional methods simply will lose these kids quickly (not to mention, the average attention span these days is 8 SECONDS). They want to learn because they want to make a difference….but they don’t want to be passive learners. By NOT adapting to a student-centered model, we are not meeting the needs of this newest generation.

It is not a matter of “Well, the classroom has always been this way and these kids just need to learn how to learn that way”. This is a backward school of thought. If we KNOW what type of audience we are getting in the classroom, why wouldn’t we be doing everything we can to help to make sure they are learning the best way possible? We are supposed to differentiate for every student, are we not? We are literally preparing these students for a workforce that looks totally different than it ever has before…in some cases, the jobs we are preparing them for don’t even exist yet. By keeping our classrooms the same, we are taking this brand new generational shift and all the changes that come with them and ignoring them. Frankly, that’s not acceptable.

As educators, we need to make sure that our classrooms are challenging and engaging our students. The data is telling us exactly what makes Generation Z “tick”. It is our responsibility to propel our curriculums forward and express them in a way that not only allows these students to “get it”, but to embrace it and passionately move forward in their education. They need to feel that they are making the difference and that their learning matters. The EASIEST way for us to make that happen is by creating a student-centered environment.

Let’s not be a generation of educators that is stuck in the past. If we are to help our students become globally aware citizens who are doing good in the world, we need to make sure they are being trained to do just that. I am not saying (to be clear) to push beliefs upon them; actually, that would make this teacher-led, wouldn’t it? Instead, spark their curiosity, make them willing to ask the tough questions and look back and beam with pride as they move forward in this world and become the good that we all hope to see.  Let’s help them become the leaders they are destined to be.  Consider picking up a copy of “Generation Z Leads: A Guide for Developing the Leadership Capacity of Generation Z Students” to help you along the journey.

Thanks for reading.

Inspired to create your own student-centered classroom? Click to check out Student-Centered World's online professional development opportunities to help you become the student-centered teacher you wish to be

About Jenn

After moving from a teacher-dominated classroom to a student-regulated one, Jenn found herself helping colleagues who wanted to follow her lead.  In 2018 she decided to expand outside of her school walls and help those out there who were also trying to figure out this fantastic method of instruction.  She realized that, even though there was a ton of information out there about why student-centered learning is beneficial in the classroom, there wasn't a lot about how to go about making the transition to this method; thus Student-Centered World was born.

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