Generational Thinking

by | Aug 1, 2017 | On a Personal Note

Guest Written by Dr. Mark Gotcher, Russellville School District Superintendent
Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials… these are names given to the last set of generational groups in modern history. Depending on what researcher you’re reading, the last millennial graduated from high school in 2017. So who is in our classrooms today? Who are these bright, young, eager minds, that have never known a day without the internet, a smartphone, or 9/11? I’ll introduce them to you later.
When I began teaching in the late 80s I had little to no awareness of how my students thought, how they best learned, or how to adjust my teaching style to their learning (or thinking) styles. When I became an assistant principal in 2001, I discovered that some teachers struggled to connect with students while others seemed to connect with a natural ease. As a superintendent, I began to explore and research generational differences and how generational understanding impacts the way one thinks about parenting, business and marketing, management of people, and learning in the classroom.
I have grown to understand that each generation sees things uniquely. This is largely due to their collective experiences having lived through a particular time period in their formative years. The challenge for many of us is taking time to understand a particular generation and how they think and process information. When we do, what we learn can be valuable as we parent, supervise in the workplace, lead in an organization, or teach in the classroom.
Millennials, by most accounts, were born in 1980. There are more Millennials teaching our students today than Gen Xers. Currently, Millennials are the largest population in earth’s history, with 30 percent struggling to support themselves and 40 percent unemployed, but 79 percent hold college degrees. Surprisingly, 51 percent still live at home and one in eight take their parent to a job interview (I had to read that again as well). However, 80 million are in today’s workforce. They are the first generation that doesn’t need a leader/teacher to get information. Actually, millennials have learned that they move in and out of being a source or a consumer of information. They have never viewed the teacher or professor in the classroom as the primary source of expert information but simply one source of many they can access. How does this understanding of the way “they learn” impact the way “they teach” our new generation of students?
Now let me introduce you to the Homelanders (or Generation Z). This generation, by most accounts, was born in 2000. Homelanders became the name of this generation from an online survey by Forbes Magazines. The name emerged from 9/11 attacks, Homeland Security, War on Terror, and a sense that homeland was no longer safe. Therefore, this group was kept more at home than in previous generations. Not surprising, the parents of Homelanders are more protective than in previous generations. We are also viewing this generation as the most ethnically and racially diverse generation. Unlike their millennial predecessors, there appears to be a turn towards a traditional mindset and a push towards academic achievement. One of the most striking statistics about the future of this generation is that there were approximately 50,000 centenarians (people 100 years old or older) in 2000; the year that Homelanders were born. According to the U.S. Census Bureau predictions, there could be 5.32 million centenarians by the year 2100. This is a remarkable potential increase in people living to 100 years old. Imagine the impact this generation will have on health care, the job market, and retirement as we know it.
Yet, how do we connect with this generation in the classroom? Fundamentally, this generation connects with a social approach to learning. A social learning approach shifts the teacher from a “keeper of the knowledge” to a “facilitator of the learning.” This can be demonstrated in a number of ways: peer brainstorming, peer assessment, peer evaluations, peer questioning, etc. All of these examples allow for students to take a major role in their learning while the teacher guides and directs them in this process. I believe that effective teachers are still the most important factor contributing to student achievement.
Finally, it will take the whole community to understand any generation entering our classrooms or the workplace. We all must be open to finding ways to connect with them for their success and the success of our community. John Maxwell, leadership author, states “everyone communicates, few connect.” As an educational leader in this River Valley, I choose to connect.

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