Do you know how Generation Z pupils learn?

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How do the learning demands of Generation Z differ and does your teaching meet their needs? Phil Parker explains.

I write this post having spent the morning on Skype to China, talking about their attempts to get teachers responding to Generation Z learners. In order to equip us with a creative and enterprising workforce, this generation needs 21st century teaching and learning.

As a nation with the largest manufacturing output in the world, China has realised if students are educated using rote-learning and conventional teaching they won’t develop creative, enterprising people like Steve Jobs. That is their goal. 

I wrote last year about Gen Z but now I want to focus on how they learn and the implications it has for educators. If you’re not familiar with the term, let me explain. The oldest are leaving school, the youngest are just starting it. They are the first children of the 21st century who have grown up in an entirely digital world. Some call them “digital integrators”, others the Facebook Generation.

They are radically different to previous generations but we risk educating them in the same way. From extensive global research let’s describe how these learners are different:

They are “tech-savvy” so life is filled by mobile gadgets that access the world. Via Facebook, Twitter etc they are in constant contact with people 24/7. They aren’t turned on by technology, it’s a tool. 

They are kids with brains rewired by the internet – answers to questions come from Google and YouTube, but they lack the critical-thinking skills to evaluate sources. According to Stanford University, this is freeing up brain capacity to develop such skills far earlier than previous generations. Gen Z are fast becoming the most successful problem-solving generation.

Their brains have become wired to sophisticated, complex visual imagery. Audio and kinaesthetic learning is out. So is talk – or lecturing as Gen Z sees it. They’re avid gamers, they’ll spend 30,000 hours gaming by the age of 20. They want learning to be the same: a sequence of challenges with instant feedback on progress, clear goals and rewards linked to them. Their gaming profile is shown at the end of the challenge which displays their overall accomplishments; e-Learning profiles are what they demand. You want to engage Gen Z? Turn lessons into video games!

Project-based learning in “flipped classrooms”, where knowledge is explored at home and applied in lessons. It has implications for the configuring of classroom furniture and technology; look at how modern offices are set out to see how big business is using the same idea. 

Ninety per cent of the world’s data has been created in the last two years, the shelf life of “knowledge” has never been shorter. The focus worldwide is shifting – from memorising knowledge to a process of gathering, analysing and applying the knowledge. It’s called “curating”.

Do your schemes of work reflect this? Also, 1,250,000 teenagers manage their own website; they create a blog every second of the day. Gen Z wants to learn collaboratively and online. Best practice? Get them blogging and podcasting with other people, other schools.

Pedagogical issues abound, Gen Z wants two things above all. Flexibility to learn in the way they find works best. This means giving them a diet of varied methods, so they can choose. Follow with a “learner profile” so students record this personalisation. It needs them to be far more reflective, far more independent as learners to allow this to happen.

I’ll finish with two important points: first, Gen Z mindsets are the focus of every forward-thinking nation; 65 per cent of primary learners will work in careers that currently don’t exist, are you preparing your students for this free-thinking adaptability?

Second, if Gen Z are “digital integrators” then we can’t teach them in analogue, where teachers do the teaching, spoon-feeding them knowledge. Those days are gone. Politicians might decree what is to be learned but we are free to decide how!


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