The 21st Century learner
It is common knowledge that incredible technological changes are defining our current reality, impacting on our approach to society, to planning and to breaking new ground in terms of education. This phenomenon has immensely widened the gap between the teachers and their students. It is therefore imperative that educators must understand the overarching characteristics, perspectives and styles of the students belonging to the Z generation.
They are the students who with access to more information through smartphones, broadband Internet access at home, or an online connection at school than any other generation at their age. Though anything they want to know is only a click away, they also recognize threats online, such as identity theft, cyberbullying, and phishing. Thus, understanding Generation Z’s characteristics and the socio-cultural and political contexts they live in seem to provide insight into how their perspectives have been influenced. All those who are involved in the field of education including policy planners, curriculum designers, textbook writers, teachers and teacher educators must be aware of their perspectives when it comes to learning and teaching and fulfilling their aspirations.
Characteristics of the Z Generation
All the school students today belong to Z Generation born between 1996 and 2012 and the majority of the teachers are from X and Y Generations. It has been found that learning for the students belonging to Z Generation is entirely different from that of all the previous generations. They are truly the first digitally native generation. Those who were born in this generation are very comfortable with the internet and social media. They are the ones who see these tools as a good way to socialize or communicate with people without feeling isolated from the rest of the world.
Generation Z students prefer to engage in hands-on learning opportunities in that they there try to apply what they learn to their real life. Plus, these students are good observers and they prefer to observe how others complete their tasks before applying the learning to them. Further, they are much interested in coming to know that the concepts they learn either in school or elsewhere have a broader applicability rather than the practice examples they experience in the classroom.
Intrapersonal learning is yet another characteristic of the Z Generation. The reason behind this feature is that the individual nature of technology has greatly influenced them to get accustomed to learning independently. They focus on setting their own pace and making meaning of their learning before they share their experiences with others. This does not necessarily mean that they prefer individual learning. They prefer collaborative work and need social learning.
Learning styles for Generation Z students
Generation Z students are not interested in using technology for unnecessary or useless purposes and instead, they are keen on incorporating it in such a way that they can view the world with different perspectives or, in other words, they can think differently. Particularly, they employ technology in their problem-solving in order that they may think deeply and have an insight into what they are engaged in doing. It has also been found that they want to attend school for social connections but not for achieving vocational skills or skills of technology which they can easily gain by themselves.
It is evident that the majority of the Z Generation students today connect with people around the world online, and they are really good at using many technological devices to play games, find materials, read, and consume information. They do not want others to shape their journey but they need others as guides to help them shape their lifestyle by themselves.
Traditional teaching-learning methodology
Generation Z students are of course not interested in the work done in the school environment. Because of the traditional teaching and learning mythology, many students seem to have got tired of the school life which has inevitably resulted in paying less attention to school work and finding information from other sources.
Today, in Sri Lankan context, and almost in all the schools, Advanced Level students keep away from school in Grade 13 classes. I was informed by some parents that even the students in Grade 11 classes show reluctance to go to school in the second half of the year. There are many students who have got fed up with the school work.
Gen Z-ers have a greater tendency to be involved in social learning environments in which they can achieve hands-on experience by directly engaging in the learning process. On the other hand, they are more inclined to embrace career-focused experiences. They are highly interested in involving themselves in the learning process rather than coming to school and listening to a lesson done by a teacher. They can actively take part in the learning process if such opportunities are provided for them to immerse themselves in educational experience and to enjoy by encountering challenges thrown by the technological world. It has been revealed that they are much comfortable to work with other students even outside of their schools by using digital tools such as online forums.
Generation Z as a digital Generation needs an environment where digital tools are integrated into their learning process. Unfortunately, there has not been a shift towards this in our school environment and traditional teaching-learning methodology they experience in many schools in the country does not either motivate or inspire them to be active learners.
What is to be done?
All these changes boil down to the fact that there has arisen an essential need to meet the students ‘where they are’ in their networked digital adolescent lives. In other words, we have to have a shift in pedagogy in order to meet their needs. This does not necessarily mean that we are expected to use more technology in the classroom, but this new paradigm needs to take advantage of the new media to the teaching-learning process.
Palfrey and Gasser in their book Born Digital: How Children Grow up in a Digital Age provide important information on how teaching and learning process can be changed to arrest the problem. Today, it has been found that much of the learning generally takes place outside the classroom. Teachers thus have to adapt their methodology in such a way so that students’ in-school activities can be connected with their out-of-school interests.
Another view presented by them is that technology can also be used as a means to a specific end. In the globalized economy acquisition of 21st-Century skills is paramount important to face the new challenges thrown by the new digital society. Perhaps, a student may need to write a computer code or even to hack in order to show the weaknesses of the information system. By doing these things they are overtly or covertly getting themselves prepared for the new job which will inevitably be there when they leave the school or graduate. One may raise the question whether technology can be used for developing students’ character.
Use of social media today has given rise to a big number of ethical issues. Students too are encountered with ethical questions when they use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other media. Plagiarism has also become one of the big issues among the younger generation. If technology is in the hands of inspired and motivated teachers and learners, there will definitely be a big shift in the quality of education given in schools. But the greatest problem today is that there are very few teachers who have the ability and a clear sense of how to use technology in the classroom.
On the other hand, very few schools have attempted to find out the connection between how the students belonging to the Z generation are actually learning and the teaching and learning methods used by their teachers. It is vehemently important for the schools to adapt to the ways of how children process information and they also must understand that modes of learning are drastically changing in the digital age. This is apparently a very complex situation because if the technology is to be appropriately used these changes must be fully appended. Moreover, in order to understand these changes our frame of reference has to be expanded from classroom learning to other areas where students’ learning takes place.
(The writer is a senior lecturer attached to Siyane National College of Education, Veyangoda.)