From the February 2020 issue

How Gen Z Learns: It’s More Self-Paced and Collaborative Than Ever

They're roughly ages 5-24 – and their classrooms are very different from those of their millennial and Gen X parents. Find out more about how Gen. Z learns.

The letter z filled with illustrations of kids

“Alexa, who invented homework?”

The question – known so well by our household virtual assistants – says as much about kids’ classic disdain for math worksheets as it does about the drastically different ways our children are accessing information into the 2020s.

Instant educational gratification has become the norm. Beyond a quick answer to who masterminded after-school assignments (Alexa says it’s probably Roberto Nevilis, by the way), our kids have multiplication facts, key historical dates and more at their fingertips. Trying to draw a horse? There’s a YouTube video for that. Learn that dance move everyone’s doing? Just open TikTok. And current events? Forget the news; my middle schooler learned of the recent conflict in Iran after his Instagram feed was full of memes referencing a potential WWIII.

The 21st-century learner isn’t bound by library hours, dial-up connections or even the content selected by teachers or parents. And that’s just scratching the surface. The answer to how Generation Z learns is more than “in front of a screen.” It’s in groups, with projects, by doing, through relationships – and this knowledge is key to propelling our kids forward, even if it means a mindset shift for us millennial and Gen X parents.

“There’s a misconception that different is not better, or that it might be worse,” says Gary Abud, an educational consultant with SAGA Educators in Grosse Pointe and the 2013-14 Michigan Teacher of the Year.

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That isn’t the case, he says. Instead, the latest ways to reach Gen Z – those born between 1995 to 2015 – aim to change the school experience for the better.

An individualized approach

The one-room schoolhouse features prominently in any imagining of America’s educational roots. While today’s schools couldn’t look more different, there’s one aspect that’s making a comeback: individualized education.

“Personalized learning has grown tremendously. The students are going at their own pace, individually, even though they’re in the same classroom as other students,” Abud says. “If a student is excelling, they don’t have to wait for the next day’s lesson to be able to learn more, and a student who needs more time isn’t left behind.”

While one student practices division basics, a classmate might be working out more advanced equations. Like the multiage classrooms of the past, teachers are increasingly individualizing curriculum to match a student’s progress.

“The teacher was able to manage all those things simultaneously. In some ways, the personalized learning movement builds on that, but uses modern technology to augment the way that it’s done,” Abud explains.

Sarah David, who teaches language arts to eighth graders at Novi Middle School, has also watched this trend unfold – and she embraces the change.

“In previous generations, the experience was that you sit and take in what you are told to take in, in the way that it’s told to you. Take notes, be silent – it’s all delivered in one way, and it’s expected that everyone learns at the same pace,” David says.

Today, teachers use multiple methods to reach students and try to provide options – “whether it’s in how a student can demonstrate their understanding of a topic, the method that they’re learning, or in what they’re exploring or learning about,” she says. For instance, David can offer flexibility on a language arts assignment that usually starts with reading a predetermined article.

“They don’t all have to read the same article as long as they’re focusing on the particular skill. As often as we can, we offer choice,” she says.

Inspired by collaboration, projects

If there’s one thing most people understand about Gez Z, it’s that they’re always communicating – both “IRL” and online. So it’s no surprise to see collaboration take center stage in the classroom.

“Hands down, we see that this is a very social, very communicative generation,” Abud says. “Part of that is that they’re growing up with these high-powered communication tools (like Alexa) at their fingertips, which require you to communicate verbally. If kids are growing up with that in their homes these days, they’re getting the message that verbal communication is important.”

Even more than that, he says, educators are seeing the results of letting kids build learning and understanding through talking with one another. By working with a partner or in a group to solve a problem, students learn from each other, brainstorm solutions and gain important social and cooperative skills.

“Learning is very social, and that is probably more true today than ever before,” Abud says. “So many things are social in our culture. When students are collaborating, I think that’s a good match for how their brains are going to naturally learn things. When kids can talk through their ideas with someone else, it helps their brain to solidify that learning and understanding even better. It’s crucial.”

Student engagement is also increased through hands-on educational activities, which have been proven to help kids retain what they learn. Gen Z students know this better than anyone, as project-based learning has exploded over the past decade thanks to the growing body of research behind it.

It’s another concept that isn’t necessarily new. Project-based learning was supported by influential philosopher John Dewey in the early 19th century; he called it “learning by doing.”

“Project-based learning has taken on a big contribution to education over the last 10 to 15 years,” Abud notes. “Rather than just learning content by itself, students are doing real-world projects that are related to their content as a way to learn things but also a way to develop skills that go beyond the content area that they’re studying.”

Leaning on relationships

There’s no doubt that online learning – from mobile devices and videos to interactive learning platforms and fully digital classes – has a major influence on how Gen Z learns.

“We see classrooms that are fully online being run for students in grade schools and college, and we see a lot of blended learning,” Abud says.

Still, it isn’t the be-all and end-all, Abud and David agree. While online learning can be highly engaging, it isn’t a “magic pill,” David says. The personal component is critical.

“With social media and phones, kids have access to all the news and their global understanding is broadening a lot more quickly,” she says, but they don’t always have the broader, “lived” experience to match. “It’s up to teachers and adults to help bridge that gap and how to make sense of it.”

With that in mind, today’s students also benefit from high-quality relationships with their teachers. But Gen Z learners can be skeptical; trust and respect must be earned.

“The new trend is that relationships come first. You have to build a relationship because that’s the way that students know that you care, that you’re interested, that you want them to succeed,” she explains.

Fairness means a lot to Gen Z learners, too; it’s part of why David’s school has a “no-zero” policy, has eliminated extra credit for menial tasks, doesn’t grade on neatness unless it’s art class and emphasizes second chances. “Kids should never feel that we’re setting them up for a ‘gotcha’ moment,” she says.

By the same token, teachers are focusing more on connecting lessons to everyday life – answering students’ age-old “why do I need to know this?” inquiry.

“In the past, there was kind of this almost mystery of, ‘Why are we learning this?’ If they can see that it does apply to my own life, then that is far more engaging,” David adds.

Potential downfalls

While many teaching methods catering to Gen Z improve the student experience, parents should know that kids today don’t have it “easy.” Far from it, Abud says.

“In some ways, the academic pressure that’s out there is even more today than it has ever been before,” Abud emphasizes, pointing to staggering rates of student stress and anxiety.

And some of today’s strategies can backfire. Individualized learning, for instance, can come with the unspoken expectation that all students should excel even faster.

“If you’re on grade level, now you’re behind. That perception is out there, whether people want to admit it or not,” Abud says. “That’s part of the crushing academic pressure that is going on.”

With this pressure, Gen Z learners can find themselves “shortcutting” – or gaming the system to gather enough points for a good grade, regardless of what they’ve really learned – or even withdrawing completely.

“Instead of making an attempt and doing poorly, they’re just not doing it. A student can then get in trouble for not doing their homework at all, or not studying and doing poorly on a test, and they can say, ‘Well, I didn’t even try.’ They can sort of protect their image,” he says. “That’s a very maladaptive coping strategy that we see commonly in junior and high school.”

Parents should watch for warning signs like habitually missing homework assignments or disengaging from school.

“They’re scared of the way they are going to be perceived,” he says. “It’s no longer just a ‘you did poorly,’ it’s ‘you’re not good enough and you’ll never amount to anything.’ I do see that that’s a direct result of the academic pressure being put on students today.”

If your child is distracted with her cellphone or retreating to a video game, consider that it may be a reaction to stress rather than a Gen Z weakness.

“The psychology on this is very, very clear: We procrastinate or let ourselves get distracted because it’s a mechanism to deal with stress,” Abud says. “When parents see distraction or procrastination, it’s a red flag that stress is going on. They need to allow their student to vocalize and name the stress and find a way to deal with that.”

Ultimately, reaching Gen Z is an ongoing learning process that the best teachers and advocates are still working out – just in time to decode Gen Alpha.

“It’s challenging to keep up with all of the best practices and what research is showing and want to do all of it, but it’s impossible to do all of it,” David says. “It’s empowering to know that there’s more to learn and more to do.”

In the end, it’s a matter of giving her students the best chance at success – and that sometimes means throwing out the old, outdated rulebooks. “I am here to help you succeed in every way possible.”

Try This at Home

Understanding how today’s kids learn best isn’t only useful in the classroom. Consider these tips for supporting your Gen Z learner at home.

  • Give your child concrete examples of what you expect from him or her, local educational consultant Gary Abud suggests. This is helpful with household chores and at the homework table. “Find a picture of what the finished product should look like,” he says. “That could be a way to get parents and students working together.”
  • Offer your child plenty of feedback – and don’t be vague about it. “Gen Z students want specific and frequent feedback,” Abud says. “The frequency of the feedback they’re getting is really important. They don’t want to go very long without knowing, ‘Was this right or wrong?'”
  • Keep the big picture in mind. Fretting over a single low test score or underwhelming report card can send a harmful message. “Be aware of the language parents use to talk about academic performance. That can trigger unintentional pressure,” he says. In other words, “Don’t make such ado about grades,” but “keep them in perspective of the bigger picture.”

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