That was the instant response in recent conversations with two young men attending high school. One is a freshman who attends a small, primarily rural, school. The other is a junior at a large suburban "mega" school. To each, I casually asked "How's school?" And, each offered their conclusion: "boring."
Both of these young men are intelligent and creative. One of them is a musician and a budding chef. The other is curious about blacksmithing and metal art. Both boys are athletic - football, baseball, lacrosse. They are each well-liked, enjoy the company of many friends and admirers. They work hard and earn good grades. Independently, they represent the characteristics that every teacher anywhere across the country wishes for in their students.
When pressed, each of these students can highlight specific activities or classes that engage them. IB biology, jazz band and sports were specifically mentioned as favorites, serving as anchors to the rest of their occurrences. But, taken as whole, they retain the same conclusion: school, as they experience it day in and day out, is simply boring.
What's happening? The answer to that question can, and should, be found in talking with kids. They will tell us that the methods currently employed in schools feels out of touch. They would communicate that memorizing facts and the answers to other people's questions is contrary to what they value, the way they think and how they prefer to learn. They would suggest that sitting passively, quietly absorbing information that is delivered through lectures and one-way presentations is, well, boring. They would acknowledge a great deal of respect and affection for their teachers, while lamenting that they are expected to learn within an outdated system that depends on traditional teaching styles and methods. They might even argue that the world has moved well beyond being served by classical definitions of what is worth knowing and how it should be taught. And, they would be right.
The students in today's classrooms are Generation Z or Post-Millennials, born after 1997. They are of a generation that is unique to the history of our modern world due to the significant impact and advances of technologies that have defined their experience. They did not have to learn and adapt to emerging technologies as previous generations did. Seemingly, they were born understanding them. They have always known the internet. They have experienced digital communication their entire lives. Consequently, they expect information to be but a click away. And, they have little patience, or attention span, for experiences that feel pedantic or drawn out. Some social scientists argue that the gap between Gen Zs and Millennials, the previous generation, is far greater than the gaps between any other generations. Yet, who are the teachers that are guiding and influencing these young citizens? Hopefully, some will be Millennials who would be between the ages of 22 and 37 years old. However, the bulk of their teachers will be Generation X, ages 38 to 53, with a few remaining Boomers (like myself) who were born between 1946 and 1964. Unless the adults in our schools pause to consider exactly who their students are, and then thoughtfully adjust their instructional strategies to conform to the unique needs of this generation of learners, schools will be deserving of the label being applied - boring.
Who are these kids, these Generation Zers? And, how are they different from other generations? George Beall offers eight distinct characteristics in his revised November 6, 2017 post to HuffPost.
1. Gen Zs tend to be less focused. They expect and anticipate rapid changes around then, and may exhibit a shortened attention span.
2. They are skilled multi-taskers.
3. Millennials love a bargain, many suggest due to their experiences during the 2008-2009 recession. Coupons and discounts hold less of an interest to Gen Zs.
4. Gen Z is full of Early Starters. Many employers are predicting that more teens, between the ages of 16 and 18 will go straight into the workforce, opting out of the traditional route of higher education, and instead finishing school online, if at all.
5. Gen Z is more Entrepreneurial.
6. Gen Z has Higher Expectations than Millennials. They expect speed and they expect loyalty.
7. Gen Z is big on individuality.
8. Finally, Gen Z has a global perspective.
So, what are some instructional implications of these characteristics? Deep Patel, entrepreneur and author, urges educators to be intentional in five key areas.
1. Dive deep into a cause they care about.
2. Offer volunteer activities in schools and communities.
3. Use educators as a resource. In the U.S. alone, educators influence 56.2 million K-12 students and 20.4 million college students.
4. Create an experiential environment.
5. Use technology, including response technology.
"If the education system were to build entrepreneurship and technology into its core curriculum and take into account the marvels of online information and new forms of learning, these tools and devices could be a platform for building meaningful relationships with information, with people and most importantly, with ideas." This thought was written by an 18 year old high school student and entrepreneur named Yehuda Leibler. Further, this young man, who has already founded several companies, states: "The teaching methods that once worked don’t anymore and don’t bring out the best in today’s students, so we turn to our devices as a distraction in the worst cases and if we’re lucky, as a tool for unconventional self-education, but that distinction is never made by those who need to recognize it most. Generation Z will change the world, we already are. But how we do so will largely be influenced by those who guide us on this path, instill our values and build our initial relationships with modern developments." (Published on April 6, 2018 in the Thrive Global Newsletter.)
For too many students, our system of American education has become irrelevant and boring. And, the sad truth is that it is the adults that design and manage our instructional systems that have allowed this to become their reality.
It doesn't have to be this way. We can, and must, do better.