Or maybe, I’m not doing it wrong. I’m doing it differently. Gen Z students are not like me, a Gen X middle-aged teacher. Gen X is fiercely independent and experimental in our own way. That’s significant: our own way. According to David Barnett in the UK’s Independent, Gen Xers work hard and play hard, we learn from the past and the future and we make things work when we need them to work.
School was not touchy-feely. It was the Banking Concept or it was study hall. There’s a reason Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was so popular. But now education needs to be more interactive, more attractive, less boring. And let’s be clear: reading is boring.
According to Darla Rothman in A Tsunami of Learners Called Generation Z, “continued interactions with a fast-paced, sensory laden, multimedia environment predispose/influence a brain to a shorter attention span. In the classroom, the average student’s attention span is seven to ten minutes; but online, it is now eight seconds. That has a lot to do with hypertext, which encourages learners to point or click on a link to get the information they need without reading all of the text. “Keyword spotting” is a preferred strategy to locate needed information” (3).
Reading anything on paper, with its lack of color and sound, the inability to easily move from one source to another (the many tabs open in any one browser) must seem to them as interesting as a blank white wall. The lack of fluidity is not native to them. The lack of choice in where to focus attention chokes them.
This is not to say any of this is good. It’s just different and it’s what I have to work with. I can’t change it. I can’t suddenly force an entire generation to give up their apps or the sheer volume of information they are accustomed to having on an hourly basis. Gen Z students are not digital natives, many can work apps, but not software, however they are connected at the brain to streams of information that they don’t see as supplemental. These streams to the majority of them are necessary as air.
Their culture is a visual one. Perhaps if I want them to understand rhetoric, to write about rhetoric, I need to start there. I need to help them unpack and interpret what they see instead of what they read; what they hear instead of what learned elder has said. It’s like putting medicine in whipped cream. I must be stealthy and sneak in my antiquated forebears who taught me so much through their books.
(I wish Kindle had a multiple open book feature. Would they read more? I might.)
So what does Gen Z need? Visuals. Interactivity. Groupwork. Tangible products that they can tick off a list so they can “move on” to the next thing. They may not be so different from Gen Z, at least my version of Gen Z. Coming from a small town half industrial, half farm in the early 80s, no one cared whether or not I succeeded. I didn’t expect teachers to, I did my own thing because I was curious. That meant books. Newspapers. AM Radio.
The curiosity is different, the venues of information are different., but the drives are the same. It’s just a matter of maturity, which I can’t control in them, and the ‘aha’ moment, which I can facilitate if they are willing.