Teaching Gen Z

Generation Zs (5 to 6 year olds) make up the bulk of our school populations now. So how different are they from other previous Generations – X and Y – and what does this mean for what teachers need to do more of and less of?  Below I explore this issue – who Gen Zs are and  the implications for those who teach them. 

Any paper with the ‘Gen’ word in the title needs some initial throat-clearing. So I want to acknowledge at the outset that when we speak of a particular ‘generation’ – Baby Boomer, Gen X, Y or Z – we are inevitably talking aggregates, not individuals. ‘Gen Z’ is a construct that allows us to simplify (and also to by-pass) the complexity and multifaceted nature of individual behaviour in the 5 to 16 years age bracket in the year 2015. In other words, the term ‘Gen’ works as a short-hand for pulling together masses of disparate psychological, sociological, demographic and other data in order to render large and diverse populations both homogeneous and distinctive as age-based social categories. This makes it possible either to ignore any data not held to be statistically significant or to seize on data to feed moral panics along the lines of: ‘Texting is ruining spelling’; or ‘Attention deficit disorder is now an epidemic’; or ‘Screen-watching is dangerously addictive’. Evoking ‘Gen something’, then, should always come with a health warning: if dumped unceremoniously on parents, expect the retort-‘my child is not at all like that!’

That caveat noted, short-hand terminologies like ‘Gen Z’ have their uses, not the least of which is that they help us understand some aspects of social change over time. As Australian social commentator Bernard Salt reminds us[1], it is easy to forget how radically values and attitudes can change in a relatively short historical period. Just fifty years ago, the idea of calling the boss by his or her first name, or couples living together before marriage, or gay marriage, or children telling their parents what they want, would have been considered an affront to good social order. By the same token, we would now be appalled by many behaviours that were commonplace in the sixties: smoking uninvited in someone else’s home or car, throwing bottles and other rubbish from a car window, schoolkids getting ‘six of the best’, and so on.

In more recent times, we have become used to naming age groupings – Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y – to understand how the notion of ‘commonplace’ behaviour changes as the decades unfold. For example, appearing to be talking loudly to oneself in public would no longer count as weird – it would simply be presumed that you are ‘connected’ through a personal device. Behaviours like ‘texting’ and ‘tweeting’, now commonplace for Gen X and Gen Y, were non-existent when Baby Boomers were young. Now it is the turn of Generation Z to be scrutinised, characterised and differentiated from previous generations. Next it will be Generation Alpha (born after 2010) that will be put under the forensic spotlight. Then after that, who knows how long a ‘Generation’ will last, given all the predictions about the unprecedented rate of technological and social change ahead.

Regardless of the shelf-life of future Generational categories, it is Gen Z that matters when it comes to education in our schools today. In 2015, Gen Zs make up the vast bulk of our school students, so it behoves us as educators to imagine how their lived world is experienced differently from our own, and what the implications of this might be for teaching them.

Of all that is being said about how Gen Z is different from X and Y, there are a number of Gen Z proclivities, documented in research in Australia[2] and elsewhere,[3] which have particular relevance for the sort of pedagogy likely to initiate and sustain their engagement in formal learning in schools and colleges. Six of these are presented below, and should be read with the aforementioned health warning in mind.

Attribute 1. Gen Zs are more likely to be risk minimisers than risk takers. Unlike earlier generations, Gen Zs spend a great deal of their time as ‘home bodies’, staying close to their digital gadgets and to the people who fund them – mostly their parents. What little time they spend outside is likely to be in structured activity that is organised by adults who may also act as their chauffeurs. They agree with their parents that the ‘outside’ world is not a safe place to wander around in, so their preference is for screen-based play indoors where they stay connected with on-line peers. As risk minimisers, they are more likely to save than to spend when it comes to their own money. They are also more abstemious in their alcohol intake, and they take fewer risks with drugs than their elders. As a more sober and prudent generation, they are less likely to fight at school or to have ‘risky sex’. A downside of their risk-minimising propensity is a preference for ‘low challenge’ learning tasks leading to ‘easy success’ over ‘high challenge’ tasks that demand intellectual risk-taking. So staying in the grey of uncertainty for prolonged periods of time is not one of their strengths when it comes to engaging in learning tasks.

Attribute 2: They have been described as ‘growing up too fast and also not at all’.

Gen Z is the first to be born after the advent of the Internet, so for them computerised technology is just living. Their ease with new technologies means that they are likely to be able to exploit new affordances faster and more fully than their parents or teachers. Many parents learn about new screen-based games and apps from their Gen Z children, so Gen X or Y parents are likely to play the same digital games in parallel or together at home. This sharing of play activity blurs the categories ‘adult’ and ‘child’ into one, and so affords Gen Z’s parity with older generations when it comes to the digital world. At the same time, however, Gen Zs have seen more of the darker side of human nature through their constant presence on-line, and this can mean that they have strong moral-ethical sensibilities at an early age. It can also see them clinging to ‘home base’ for longer, relying on their parents to resource them, rather than exploring beyond the front gate. To this extent, they are likely to stay dependent and vulnerable well into adulthood. Gen Zs are more likely to continue to live with their parents into their twenties and beyond, given the high cost of housing and the familiarity they experience at home. Moreover, parental tolerance for Gen Z’s engagement in sexual activity in the home, as with Gen Y, might make them less likely to move out when partnered.

Attribute 3: Praised since birth, Gen Zs are likely to have high levels of self-confidence and self-worth.

To illustrate, the following appeared on a Queensland classroom wall next to drawings of the six year olds in the class:I am special. In the whole world there is no-one just like me. I am unique and wonderful and I am amazing. I am good at some things and great at others. I do some things quickly and others faster. I am clever and funny and daring. …I am growing each day in so many ways. So make sure you’re watching because I am really special and you don’t want to miss it.” The point is that this level of self-congratulation is not unusual for Gen Zs, many of whom who are encouraged to see themselves this way by well-meaning parents and teachers. With such high levels of self-esteem and the affordances of easy-to-use digital tools, it is unsurprising that Gen Zs may feel they have exceptional capacities. Whether this level of self-confidence will turn into a plus or a minus in the future remains unclear. It is likely that it will be both. Its upside, strong self-belief, is likely to be an antidote to tough and uncertain times. Its downside may be that praise unattached to actual achievement can make for personality that is more vulnerable when accolades dry up and positive feedback is replaced by ‘no thanks’.

Attribute 4: They much prefer social interactivity to passive receptivity.

Gen Z’s intolerance for being lectured to or talked at, is greater than any previous generation. Because they are a smart and globally connected group, they don’t relish listening quietly to parents or teachers, even charismatic ones. Because their on-line world is one of constant interruption and distractibility, they take their information in bite-sized chunks, not in long-winded lumps. And their idea of a ‘long-winded’ lump is closer to a minute than an hour. Books are not ruled out altogether because their more educated parents have known the value of early reading and have read to them since birth. But they prefer engaging with multi-functional gadgets and with websites, apps, and social media outlets that invite them to be interactive creators, disseminators and evaluators of ‘stuff’ – of texts, sounds, images and any combination of these. ‘Likes’ matter to them when it comes to their on-line presence and products, so the quest to accumulate ‘likes’ and/or to master games can take up much of their time and attention, particularly as they negotiate their teen years.

Attribute 5: Gen Zs are comfortable with data overload, finding ways to work with it and around it.

Speed of ‘access’ really matters to Gen Zs. They do not think it a miracle that Google can search 100 billion pages in a few seconds — indeed, they are more likely to experience increasing frustration by what they perceive as a delay or slowness of access or delivery. Whether it’s hair-braiding or horse-breeding, algorithms or anklets, they expect to find whatever information they want and precisely at the time they need it. While they are a more intelligent generation than any previous one, they will struggle to differentiate the information that is really useful for complex problem-solving from the overwhelming amount of useless, extraneous, impeding or misleading information that is proliferating globally. They are more likely to go for the quick answer than check the reliability of information, and this creates challenges for their teachers. Moreover, what counts as brilliance in their multi-player, problem-based game world is not aligned with what is assessed and rewarded in formal schooling.

Attribute 6: The widening gap between their formal schooling and the skillsets they require will leave many ill-equipped for their working future. Gen Z’s have sniffed the wind when it comes to future employability. They know that university degrees are no passport to job security and this worries them, though they still have their sights set on a tertiary education if they can get it. They know that well-paid, meaningful, permanent fulltime work is increasingly unlikely, even for many of their own parents. They are prepared to be flexible in relation to the where, when and how of paid work, but will expect the same from future employers. Many will demonstrate high levels of entrepreneurial skill as they scan the horizon for more interesting ways to be remunerated or simply to do what they enjoy doing. They will be unlikely to offer long-term commitment to do a particular job out of a sense of loyalty to their employer.

So what for teaching?

What implications flow from the above brief snapshot for teachers of Gen Z students? Well, firstly, the idea of an effective teacher as mostly an ‘out-front talker’ is a real problem, as is the idea of the learner as mostly engaged in singular, silent desk-work. So there are implications for both the traditional Sage-on-the-Stage and for the Guide-on-the-Side that is supposed to have supplanted the Sage. In other words, death-by-worksheet is as problematic for this generation as death-by-lecture. As Daniel Pink[4] has pointed out, low-level routine transactions — the sort that have been so characteristic of the ‘post-Sage’ classroom worksheet — are no longer passports to financial or social success. This is so because the capacity to learn and reproduce time-honoured social and relational behaviours is no longer the key to future success that it once was. Instead, social relations and forms of exchange are constantly being assembling, dismantled, and re-worked. It follows that learning activity for Gen Zs moves beyond the singular, silent individual working routinely, to engaging with communities of shared interests which are themselves liable to fragment and/or merge with others.

Working in groups that share their interests and their idea of fun[5], Gen Z’s learning action is more sideways, slippery and short-term than vertical, linear and lasting. Given that they are accustomed to finding what they want at speed, Gen Zs may well find the traditional teacher’s pacing to be an irritant rather than an advantage, especially if they are practised in cutting corners to get results. Virtual space allows them to ignore or by-pass any oral or written introduction or preamble, to disengage quickly from anything ‘boring’, and to re-engage just as quickly if it becomes worthwhile.

Flexibility, then, is important for maintaining Gen Z interest and engagement. Like Gen Y, they look less to traditional information sources for their learning, or to want to wait patiently for explanations. As journalist Nina Hendy puts it, “volumes of dense static learning content are increasingly out of touch with the modern, real-time enterprise” because young people’s learning practices “last for only a moment … like a live news ticker running across the bottom of a television screen”[6]. This does not mean that teachers need to emulate the live news ticker in their pedagogical practices, but it does mean that they need to think about designing for learning in ways that help Gen Zs maintain focus on long-term projects and extend attention for longer periods of time than they might be used to. Staying in the grey of ‘not yet’ is a very important capacity when it comes to creativity, and not one that will come easily to these otherwise fast smart young people.

‘Two-way’ pedagogy

The capacity of rock stars to keep young people enthralled for long periods of time is undeniable. However there are lessons for teachers in noting how rock performances have been influenced by new generational preferences for participation rather than passivity. Freddie Mercury’s performance at the 1985 Live-Aid Concert, for example, is legendary, but quite differently engaging from Blue Man Group’s appeal two decades later. Mercury’s success on stage was highly dependent on his singular capacity to “tease, shock and ultimately charm his audience with various extravagant versions of himself”[7], and it was this capacity to mesmerise an audience of 72,000 people at the Wembley Stadium concert that ensured every eye was on him.

While the best of Sage on the Stage would never have had to mesmerise such a large number of students at one time, there is no doubt that the ability to keep their students in rapt attention has been held to be the mark of the successful teacher in popular culture. It is unsurprising that depictions of iconic teachers —John Keating in The Dead Poets Society, or Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver, or Mark Thackeray in To Sir with Love are all singular figures with a capacity to inspire that is very much about their personal pedagogical charisma, and not related at all to what they might have learned in a teacher training course. Nor did they have to contend for attention with the seductions of their students’ digital tools. Great teachers, like great performers, seem to be ‘born not made’.

The appeal of Blue Man Group two decades after Freddie Mercury is an instance of the difference the digital world has made to the pedagogy of performance, and provides some clues as to how teachers might need to adjust their pedagogy, especially those with a preference for ‘every eye on me’. While Freddie Mercury pre-empted increased audience participation, Blue Man Group takes participation and interactivity to another level altogether, aided and abetted by the affordances of smart communication technologies. Described as a “creative organisation”[8] rather than a rock band, Blue Man Group seamlessly exploits the affordances of digital tools, weaving them into their highly interactive and unpredictable performances. Blue Man’s performance works against the idea of a singular dominating figure. With their blue plasticised faces and grey ‘pyjama-style’ costumes, the three key performers remain undifferentiated in terms how they look or what they are likely to do, with each playing a variety of unusual percussion instruments, and each being ‘set up’ for failure and coming in for their fair share of teasing.

Throughout the performance, the three react, in a parody of childlike bewilderment, to (adult) commands from a ‘voice-over’ announcer who is never seen, working both with and against that authoritative voice, and encouraging the audience to do likewise. Their parodic takes on rock culture, eg, the track “How to Be a Megastar”, have strong appeal to today’s young consumers of cool. And this is a crucial point for Gen Zs – they catch on quickly, a characteristic that explains their reluctance when it comes to long-winded telling from ‘above’, especially if it comes across as patronizing.

At times, the three blue men are displaced by simulacra in the play between the physical and the digital. This demonstrates the power of digital identities to transcend human powers: they can jump higher, run faster, hit harder than anyone — including the world’s best. Why privilege the physical when the simulacrum is the source of so much capability and pleasure? A reminder here that Gen Zs are more likely than their teachers to privilege the virtual world when it comes to their learning.

Much of the performative excitement of Blue Man Group is generated through special effects that are designed to engage most of the senses most of the time. Their performance challenges pedagogical norms by turning the audience gaze on itself. This is achieved when the blue men step into the audience, using cameras to probe the inner workings of the biological bodies of individual audience members. These ‘gullet’ images are simultaneously made accessible on the big screen, mocking the forensic gaze of the audience, while at the same time being self-mocking, another invitation to fun and parody.

Blue Man Group concerts, needless to say, are relentless in terms of activity, with multiple things going on at any one time and multiple identities performing in multiple ways, including the audience. Their playfulness has invaded not only the world of the rock concert but also an educational world desperately in need of an infusion of ‘hands on’ excitement. Their enthusiasm for engagement is childlike in the best sense. As group member Lou Quintanilla puts it:

In a lot of ways, the Blue Man is like a child; he’ll look at the world in a different light that adults would see as mundane and turn it into something new and musical….Blue Man is big on new ways of learning and entertaining that teaches kids how to think on that level and not just rely on what is taught.[9]

The ‘hands on, minds on, plugged in’ form of entertainment that is characteristic of Blue Man Group provides a host of clues for teachers seeking first to engage Gen Zs in learning. In particular, they show the importance of ‘identity-forming activity’ for enculturation into a field of practice, what educationist John Seely Brown calls “learning to be” rather than “learning about”[10]. Audience members are explicitly invited to reject the passive role of onlookers, just as visitors to Blue Man Group exhibits are invited to do much more than ‘pass through’. The disposition to fun and play through music-making works as an important antecedent to more meaningful engagement through more rigorous thinking and doing. It does not guarantee value-added creativity of the quality of Blue Man Group, but the invitation is an explicit entrée into a world in which one can ‘be musical’, as distinct from merely ‘from the outside’ watching musicality being performed.

From Sage to Guide to Meddler

Some teachers can’t get beyond the role of ‘Sage-on-the-stage’, despite the now decades-old advocacy of ‘Guide-on-the-side’ as more pedagogically enlightened. Yet, while both ‘Sage-on-the stage’ and ‘Guide-on-the-side’ have their place in the complex landscape that is teaching, there is a further shift of gears needed for Gen Z teachers – that of ‘Meddler-in-the-Middle’. Like Blue Man Group, Meddler-in-the-middle is both interactive and interventionist, positioning the teacher and student as mutually involved in assembling and dis-assembling cultural products. The teacher is in there doing and making mistakes alongside students, not just moving like Florence Nightingale from desk to desk or chat room to chat room, watching, encouraging and monitoring. Meddling is a re-positioning of teacher and student as co-directors and co-editors of their social world. As a learning partnership, meddling has powerful implications for what ‘content’ is considered worthy of engagement, how the value of the learning product is to be assessed, and who the rightful assessor is to be.

Meddler-in-the-middle challenges more long-term notions of ‘good’ teaching in a number of ways. Specifically, it means:

  1. less time giving instructions and more time spent being a usefully ignorant team member in the thick of the learning action;
  2. less time spent being a custodial risk minimiser and more time spent being an experimenter, risk-taker and learner;
  3. less time spent being a forensic classroom auditor and more time spent being a designer, editor and assembler of high challenge tasks;
  4. less time spent being a counsellor and ‘best buddy’ and more time spent being a collaborative critic and authentic evaluator; and,
  5. less emphasis on grades and more emphasis on the achievement of PBs (personal bests).


These priorities are not easily achieved because of the weight of past teaching practice, the inflexibility of formal educational systems, and the experience-based expectations of peers, parents, and students. In particular, educators will need to endorse the value of engaging in ‘serious play’ with slippery concepts across and beyond the traditional disciplines. If play, as futurist Pat Kane predicts, “will be to the 21st century what work was to 300 years of industrial society – our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value”[11], then our learning institutions will need to re-imagine play. Far from being a trivial human action, it needs to be recast as one of a range of multi-literacies through which our students can be “energetic, imaginative and confident in the face of an unpredictable, contestive, emergent world”.

To get serious about play takes us outside our comfort zone as teachers. For example, a playful question such as ‘How would you explain plastics to Henry the Eighth?’ moves both the History teacher and the Science teacher away from their traditional turf. It is valuable not only for the fact that it is ‘Ungoogle-able’, but also because there is no one correct answer. And its value lies in the space it creates for imagining and creating as well as for investigating both the properties of plastics and Tudor times. This sort of play is predicated on holding incompatible ideas together to create a third unanticipated space or idea. In doing so, it not only builds the creative capacity Gen Zs will need to sustain themselves in a fast-moving and unpredictable world, making for a richer and more dynamic engagement with ideas in the now.

None of this is likely to happen until we as teachers re-imagine the learning process as one in which our students are entitled to experience the pleasure of the rigour of complex thinking through serious play. Kieran Egan, author of The Future of Education, provides a glimpse of what this “richer education scheme” could look like, as a combination of epistemological, psychological and emotional characteristics”[12]. He offers “Ironic Understanding” as a tool for upgrading our understanding beyond theoretical or abstract thinking, in that irony allows us to recognise “not only that language can be used to mean the opposite of, or something radically different from, what is actually stated, but that there is always some difference between what we mean and what we can put into language”[13]. To understand how Dylan Thomas might describe his child-self as “green and dying”, to get what is meant by “faith unfaithful kept him falsely true”, begin to grasp that “what enables also constrains”, all such ironic engagements allow access to the profound through the playful.

It will not be easy for teachers in traditional settings to make the pedagogical shifts that will engage Gen Z. With moral panics around declining literacy levels and with policy settings fixed on standardised curriculum and testing, young people could be forgiven for presuming that learning is about passing tests or pleasing parents and teachers. Moreover, students can be a most powerful force for conservatism once they have been enculturated into schooling as passive consumers: ‘Just give us the 10 main points and we will serve them back to you in exams!’ The challenge for teachers is to meddle-in-the-middle in ways that model the systematic curiosity of the engaged learner, with and without digital tools. In this way Gen Z’s teachers can make the pleasure of the rigour of learning both visible and accessible not just to this generation of students but to future generations.

[1] Salt, B. (2011) The Big Tilt: What Happens When the Boomers Bust and Xers and Ys Inherit the Earth (Melbourne: Hardie Grant)

[2] See, for example, the McCrindle website http://generationz.com.au/

[3] See http://millennialbranding.com/2014/geny-genz-global-workplace-expectations-study/, for some global comparisons across the Gens

[4] Pink, D.H (2005) A Whole New Mind. New York: Penguin.

[5] see Beck, J. C. & Wade, M. (2006) The Kids are Alright: How the Gamer generation is Changing the Workplace. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, for more on this.

[6] Hendy, N. (2014) Gen Y in the Workplace, Quest Kudos Magazine, Autumn, p.26.

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org./wiki/Freddie_Mercury, accessed 28 Dec, 2007.

[8] http://www.blueman.com/about_whatisBMG.shtml, accessed 29 Dec, 2007

[9] Ibid, p.3

[10] Seely Brown, J. (2006) New Learning Environments for the 21st Century, Change, 6, (5), p.2.

[11] Kane, P. (2004) The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living. London: Macmillan.

[12] Egan, K. (2008) The Future of Education: Re-imagining Our Schools from the Ground Up. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, p.84.

[13] ibid, p.81.

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