Educating Generation Z

A curly-haired child reaches up to finish drawing an object on a large chalkboard. The entire board is crammed with an assortment of doodles, including airplanes, fish, computers, plants and lightbulbs.

Educating Generation Z

The young people heading back to school this week — from kindergartners to university frosh — represent a new generation that will be more educated, connected and sophisticated than any that has come before. Researchers across Canada are developing the curricula and classrooms to prepare them for the world they will inherit.
August 25, 2015

Few school-aged children in Canada can remember a time before they could carry most of human knowledge on a phone in their pocket. They prefer to communicate in images, have limited attention spans and are part of a global social network.

This cohort, the oldest of whom were born in 1995 and are now entering university, is known as Generation Z. We are only just getting to know Gen Z — the youngest are still toddlers — but the first impressions of marketers and researchers are that they are very different from their predecessors.

They are digital natives, like the Millennials, but less coddled. They have seen the impact of recession and were never sold the myth that they were inherently special or that a university degree was all they needed to succeed.

By the time Gen Z students enter the workforce, what you know will matter less than what you can find out and how you can use that information.

In a sense, Gen Z are a blend of the best of the generations before them: self-directed, entrepreneurial, outward looking and keen to change the world. The challenge for educators is figuring out how to adapt their classrooms to this new kind of student. Gen Z students are mentally nimble but easily distracted, so it can be harder to reach this group, to hold their attention and to maximize their potential. At the same time, the prevalence of learning disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is climbing and problems such as bullying are being magnified by social media.

Rosemary Tannock, senior scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, explains how her research is providing teachers with evidence-based information and resources to use in their day-to-day teaching that will help ADHD students succeed in school. (This video is only available in English.)

And it’s not just the students who are changing. The skills they’ll need in order to succeed are also evolving. Thanks to the pervasiveness of the internet, by the time Gen Z students enter the workforce, knowledge will matter less than it ever has before, far less than research, analysis and deduction. In other words, what you know will matter less than what you can find out and how you can use that information.

This is a period of profound innovation for education. These are students who will wilt in the traditional classroom setting, seated in rows before a teacher reading from a curriculum checklist.

As if that weren’t enough, Gen Z students are preparing for a poorly defined job market dominated by work that hasn’t even been invented yet.

Researchers in laboratories funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation are looking at how classrooms can adapt to this new reality. They are developing new techniques and ideas that will impact not only the way this generation is taught but how and why.

This is a period of profound innovation for education. While some would argue that classrooms aren’t changing quickly enough, the unique needs of Gen Z are poised to force change. These are students who will wilt in the traditional classroom setting, seated in rows before a teacher reading from a curriculum checklist.

Everything from lecture models, seating arrangements, curriculum documents and marking schemes is being revisited.

Click on the links to the right to find out about some of the latest ideas in education and how they are reshaping the classroom.

Kate Hammer is an education reporter based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The New York Times.

This article was originally published in August 2014.


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