Teaching Generation Z: A Student Revelation

Generation Z students sitting on a curb looking at their smart devices

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We know that currently, it’s Generation Z in the classroom.  What does that mean? The Z Generation years range from those born in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.  Who knows who will be after Gen Z, but for now there are specific characteristics of Z Generation students that may just surprise you.  

Though there is a misconception that there are a lot of Generation Z negative characteristics, they are actually our best shot at changing the world for good.

I attended a phenomenal conference where a really important concept was discussed:  the differences in generations. If you are unfamiliar, people who are born within certain frames of years (give or take) usually have very similar characteristics with how they go about their daily lives.

Usually, these groups are determined by a major event that happens in society (think September 11th, Pearl Harbor, etc.). As of today, there are five major groups:  Traditionalists (1922-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980), Millennials (1980-1994), and Generation Z (1995-2012). There is also a new classification called the “Xennials” who were born from roughly 1977-1985.

Generally, these folks don’t really associate fully with Gen X or Millennials but have some traits of both (they have been fondly nicknamed the “Oregon Trail” generation….if this made you laugh, you’re probably a Xennial because you get it).

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Today, in our classrooms, we have formally moved from the Millennials to Z Generation.

As educators, we often get so sucked into just the concepts of having students in our classroom, that we forget that they are generational. Each category learns, interacts, and thrives differently.

The Traditionalists, for instance, are very black and white thinkers. Baby Boomers are extremely hard workers in a very traditional sense and Gen X’ers often work outside of a traditional role or location. Millennials, who have been in our classrooms for the past several years, value work-life balance and are willing to deal with less money if it means more time in their personal lives.

If you look at that progression, it somewhat goes from one end of the spectrum to another.

Now we have Generation Z, and they are bringing the pendulum back a bit.

Those in Z Generation were born between 1995-2012. They have never known a life without the internet. They grew up with technology around them, so it isn’t a novelty to them. They see the mistakes their Millennial counterparts have made with technology and are VERY conscious of their digital footprint (which is also why they love Snapchat so much!).

TV? They barely watch it in real-time. Cell phones? Most of them receive one before their 12th birthday (and generally, it’s a smartphone). Need to look something up? They’re chronic YouTubers.

There is a great article from Business Insider that breaks down exactly what Generation Z is like. The most compelling quote from that piece is from a 15-year-old, who said:

“Everything in our generation is immediate. Since we have been raised in an age where texts and messages can be sent in the blink of an eye, we are less patient than other generations because we are used to having instant gratification. But our generation is also very determined to show that we are capable of real thoughts and using the technology and communication methods we have been given for making change, despite what older generations expect from us.”


Generation Z is the compromise that many have been waiting for.

Generation Z has already lived through a recession (or two). They’ve seen the effects of the student loan debt crisis. They have a different outlook on “what it takes”. They don’t want to fall into the same traps, and therefore their future outlook is different…and their entrepreneurial spirit is strong.

That’s not the only difference about them. They are passionate. They don’t want to help….they want to solve. Those in Z Generation don’t want to feed the homeless…they want to put an end to homelessness….period. Social injustice? How can we fix it? Big picture issue? Let’s figure out how to make it right.

Generation Z female looking intently at a paper lantern she is holding

This changes the entire dynamic in the classroom.

Generation Z is not passive. They want to take a role and be active in whatever they do. Student-Centered learning will work better for this generation than any other one that has come into our classrooms before.

The older, more traditional methods simply will lose these kids quickly (not to mention, the average attention span these days is 8 SECONDS).

They want to learn because they want to make a difference….but they don’t want to be passive learners. By NOT adapting to a student-centered model, we are not meeting the needs of this newest generation.

It is not a matter of “Well, the classroom has always been this way and these kids just need to learn how to learn that way”. This is a backward school of thought.

If we KNOW what type of audience we are getting in the classroom, why wouldn’t we be doing everything we can to help to make sure they are learning the best way possible?

We are supposed to differentiate for every student, are we not?

We are literally preparing these students for a workforce that looks totally different than it ever has before…in some cases, the jobs we are preparing them for don’t even exist yet.

By keeping our classrooms the same, we are taking this brand new generational shift and all the changes that come with them and ignoring them. Frankly, that’s not acceptable.

As educators, we need to make sure that our classrooms are challenging and engaging our students.

The data is telling us exactly what makes Generation Z “tick”. It is our responsibility to propel our curriculums forward and express them in a way that not only allows these students to “get it”, but to embrace it and passionately move forward in their education.

They need to feel that they are making the difference and that their learning matters. The EASIEST way for us to make that happen is by creating a student-centered environment.

Let’s not be a generation of educators that is stuck in the past. If we are to help our students become globally aware citizens who are doing good in the world, we need to make sure they are being trained to do just that.

I am not saying (to be clear) to push beliefs upon them; actually, that would make this teacher-led, wouldn’t it? Instead, spark their curiosity, make them willing to ask the tough questions and look back and beam with pride as they move forward in this world and become the good that we all hope to see.  Let’s help them become the leaders they are destined to be. 

Consider picking up a copy of “Generation Z Leads: A Guide for Developing the Leadership Capacity of Generation Z Students” to help you along the journey. (ad)

Videos for Teaching and Generation Z in the Classroom

According to an article from EdWeek by Lauraine Genota titled Why Generation Z Learners Prefer YouTube Lessons Over Printed Books, every single survey completed showed that Generation Z found YOUTUBE to be their preferred method of information delivery.

What does that mean for the classroom? We need to really rethink our strategy of using videos for teaching. Let me explain what that means when it comes to Generation Z videos.

Using Videos for Teaching…Appropriately

Many people hear this concept of teaching with videos and immediately think, “Wow…how lazy!” Often our perception of using videos in the classroom is popping in a film so a teacher can do something else while their students are occupied with something.

That is NOT an effective way to use videos for teaching.

Granted, is a movie day a nice break in the schedule every once in a while? Sure! I used to try to show one “real” movie in my history class per unit so the students could make connections to the events vs. how Hollywood portrayed them.

This isn’t what is meant by using videos for teaching, though.

There are many ways to use videos for teaching in a positive way that isn’t the “easy way out”. I personally have found the most successful way is by flipping the classroom. When you flip the classroom, you are allowing your students to learn the content before they get to class, lending more time for hands-on discovery of that information once you are back together in the classroom.

There are plenty of ways to flip the classroom with various readings or activities; however, videos are SUPER easy to put together and they appeal to the students that are completing the assignments.

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In the article referenced above, it was discussed that anything that someone needed to know could be discovered on YouTube. A few quick keyword searches and that information is being explained, often with visuals or hands-on demonstrations, to be watched (paused, rewound, etc.) as many times as necessary.

It appeals to every learning style and Generation Z has figured it out. They’re the youngest generation to realize that time is money! Why in the world would we NOT take advantage of the fact that there is a simple way that these kids are willing to take the time to implement to help their learning?

There are a MILLION different ways to do this. You can use videos from the internet that are already created. You can make your own Podcasts or even a Voki. 

I also LOVE LOVE LOVE EdPuzzle. With EdPuzzle, you can create videos (or use ones that are already on there) directly from YouTube, etc., add questions, and the students can work at them at their own pace. Check out our whole write up on flipping the classroom with EdPuzzle here.

Making This Even MORE Student-Centered

A different avenue to go with this is to have your students actually create the videos that are used. One favorite example of this was when my students created a documentary on World War II. Each student had a different aspect of the war to discuss, and then I compiled all the pieces together into one video, popped it into EdPuzzle, added one question for each student’s work, and then we watched the whole thing. They LOVED it.

An easy way to do this in the classroom is with your student’s own smartphones if you don’t have access to iPads or other fun gadgets in the classroom.

I also purchased a simple green screen sheet that they had the option of using. They would record in front of it and then using the software of their choice (they know SO much more about this stuff than we do!), they would add in backgrounds, etc. that went along with what they are saying.

Take a look at how easy this is to set up in your room (ad):

FlipGrid is also a great tool for the students to create short videos and then view each other. They can comment on them and the possibilities become endless.

I have seen some students who are incredibly shy who have blown it out of the water when given the opportunity to use FlipGrid….or Voki…..or even creating their own EdPuzzle.

In the simplest terms, they are creating a medium that they all prefer and then have the opportunity to show it off to one another. It is a brilliant concept on so many different levels of the educational spectrum.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to this method of instruction. There are a million different ideas and it is up to you to decide what to try. What matters is finding what works for YOUR students.

There is nothing wrong with giving something a go and seeing if it takes off. If it does? Awesome! If not, does it need to be tweaked or changed altogether?

There is nothing wrong with messing around with these ideas….or trying them all out. I was having my students create a Voki once and a high school junior turned to me and said how excited he was to do this because no other teacher in the school came up with such creative ways for them to do their work.

It really wasn’t thinking that far outside of the box, but when the students were only used to traditional methods in the classroom, it meant a world of a difference. However, when you are in the field of student-centered learning, there is no higher compliment that you can receive!

Go ahead out on that limb….your students (and your sanity!) will thank you. Thanks for reading.

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