As state virtual school leaders, it’s naturally important for us to understand and connect with our students. Students are learning in schools that are increasingly more and more “powered up” with digital technologies. It is likely a mistake to assume that today’s students are similar to the previous generation of students. They are, in fact, a new kind of student.
Social scientists have labeled this current group of K-12 students as “Generation Z.” Generation Zs are those students falling after the Millennial Generation, born in the late 1990s or through the mid- 2000s. They are markedly different than their Generation Y (also known as the Millennial Generation) predecessors, and they already seem “old school” when compared to their successors, Generation Alpha.
Generation Z Background
Generation Z is the product of a turbulent time in our nation’s history that is punctuated with an incredible upswing in technology. We might think that today’s young students live in very sheltered, cushioned life with every convenience in the world at their fingertips. Some of that might be true, but it does not tell the entire story. Generation Z has grown up during a very difficult recession that they have seen firsthand. They have seen foreclosed homes in their neighborhoods. They know someone with a parent who couldn’t find a job.
Generation Z, or Gen Zs, consume more media than any generation in the past, but it’s a different type of media that often comes to them unfiltered. The GenZ media is filled with stories of terrorism and school violence. Gen Zs generally know someone who’s been to war. They’ve never known a time when they have not had to take off their shoes before boarding an airplane. School violence does not get lost in the news cycle for them. It’s frighteningly real. In a sad commentary, Gen Zs ranked the top events (Cassandra Report, 2013) that have had the most impact in their lifetimes.
Here’s a reverse order look at the top three:
3. The first Black President was elected
2. The emergence of social networking
1. School violence
Do you know how much of an impact something has to have to unseat Twitter, Vine, Instagram, and Facebook from the number one spot?
Gen Zs are resilient. Digital content and constant gaming have not only rewired their minds, it’s also led them to disregard “no-win scenarios.”
From Emily Anatole’s Generation Z: Rebels With A Cause
Gen Z is smaller in numbers (than Gen Ys), but there is evidence to suggest that their influence, fueled by an innate and constant connection to the world around them, will outstrip their size.
Whereas Gen Ys (ages 18-34) are optimistic, Gen Zs are realistic. They understand how scary the world can be, having grown up post 9/11, in the wake of the Great Recession and amid countless reports of school violence. They’ve seen the effects of the economy firsthand and are more aware of troubling times. These dark events will undoubtedly make them more cautious and security-minded, but will also inspire them to improve the world.
The Gen Zs are proving to be more socially responsible, but don’t count on their blind loyalty. They’ve not shown brand loyalty in the marketplace, and they’ve witnessed the lack of corporate loyalty when their own parents and older siblings lost their jobs during the recession.
The Internet is allowing Gen Zs to do things that their previous generations couldn’t do. The Internet and digital apps are letting them become entrepreneurs and make exciting breakthroughs at an early age. If they need funding, they’re finding it on Kickstarter. Teens like Sam Washko, Shree Bose, Christopher Tate, and Rachel Davis exemplify exactly what this crowd of young students can produce.
This is the common model for success with this crowd of high achievers:
Challenges + Internet + Digital Tools + Models of Innovation = Success
What are our takeaways for our classroom, virtual as well as brick-and-mortar? First and foremost, we have to make education relevant for them. They see way too much of the real world and are connected to it through social media in ways that we never were. NCVPS teachers are required to make daily announcements in their courses. One of the features of the daily announcement is to show the relevancy of what students are learning to what is happening in the real world. We do not just rely on course content. Our teachers are creators, as well. We’ve always known that relevance is essential in education. Now it’s imperative.
We also need to make education engaging. We need to play on the strength of Gen Zs and appeal to their need for multi-media consumption and engage them in online communities. At NCVPS we have graphic user interface (GUI) specialist who adds engaging game-like learning objects to all of our courses, and we design our courses to meet a variety of learning styles, including text, video, audio, and images.
Phil Parker writes in “Do you know how Generation Z pupils learn?”
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 kinesthetic 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!
Sarah Fudin adds in “GEN Z & WHAT DOES IT MEAN IN YOUR CLASSROOM?“
- Leverage technology to provide immediate feedback and use game-based learning.
- Engage students in a variety of collaborative projects that use social media.
- Make lessons visual.
- Focus on critical thinking and problem-solving lessons.
- Teach students how to validate online content.
- Have students work on projects in depth and complexity.
We would love to hear your feedback on your Generation Z observations. Are they demonstrating these characteristics in your classroom, or in your home? How are you satisfying your digital needs? Drop us a note or leave us a comment.
By Adam Renfro, Outreach and Support Coordinator, North Carolina Virtual Public School