I have been reflecting on the types of students we have in our classrooms this term, especially as it relates to their level of “comfort” with technology as their primary tool for learning. “Comfort” is a tricky word in this context. For most of us as instructors, we learned in an environment completely or mostly devoid of technology as we know it today. In middle school, the first PET computer I learned on required me to insert a cassette tape and wait up to an eternity for the program to load. Then came the first Apple computer, dot matrix printers, and the rest is history.
The difference between “then” and “now” is pretty obvious when it comes to technology. Think about the difference though, between Gen Z students and millennial students. The last birth year for millennials is 1996, with Gen Z-ers born in 1997 and beyond. (I’ve heard that those born today may be called “Gen C.” I can’t even imagine what life will be like for them yet).
In terms of technology, millennials got to experience the fast rise of the internet, the first iPhone, and the like. Gen Z students, however, are technical natives. They have never known a time when technology wasn’t in their pocket and when technology wasn’t their go-to activity during down times. Not only has technology influenced how, when, and for what purpose Gen Z students seek information, but it has also influenced how they prefer to learn.
Just as the game they grew up on, Minecraft, offers endless possibilities with no one right answer, Gen Z students also prefer to create their own adventure. Students want options. In the classroom, this might look like a set of learning outcomes that have to be met, with the end product or the way the student gets there, being left up to them. In the end, they have a product of their own that can likely be shared with the world via the internet, if they so choose.
You see, where millennials thrived on group work where each person took a piece of the project and contributed to the final product (everyone gets a trophy), Gen Z’ers place much more value on individual success. They value creativity and the synthesis of information to create something new. Group work for them might mean that they present their ideas to a group and get feedback to help improve their final product. Is this a bad thing? Not at all. In fact, for students whose entire lives are digitally driven, group interaction in this form is positive and should be encouraged. In addition, synthesis is a form of high-order learning on Bloom’s taxonomy, and while assessment may look different than an assignment or test involving recall and comprehension, the end product will likely represent something very meaningful to the student.
We can help our students by making sure they understand the value of what we’re asking them to do and learn, to their future. As educators, we should be challenged to think more broadly about what we ask our students to produce and how we assess their process and product. Use these challenging times to give yourself some freedom to re-think not only how you teach but also how students demonstrate their learning. When we give our students more agency, they may feel more “in control” of their educational experience, which is a good thing right now.