They grew up in an internet-connected world – and many can’t remember a time without it. They’re known for their hard-working, risk-averse and independent nature. They number about 2.47 billion people (that’s 32 percent of the world’s population). They’re Generation Z, and today, they account for the vast majority of students within our K-12 schools. But is teaching Gen Z more difficult than pervious generations?

Like every generation, Gen Z has distinct characteristics – especially when it comes to learning. Their classrooms look different than those of previous generations. They turn to different sources of information than their predecessors. They consume that information and use it in ways that Millennials and Gen Xers never dreamed of (at least, when they were students, too). 

So how can we make sure we support Gen Z learning in the most effective ways possible? Let’s take a deeper dive into the generation, the trends we’re seeing and the methods you can use in your classroom to help them succeed in their learning outcomes.

A Quick Study Guide to Gen Z

Not everyone agrees on what Gen Z should be called. Some say Zoomers, Gen Tech, Post-Millennials, iGeneration… you get the picture. Opinions even differ on Gen Z’s exact birth years – though we think it’s safe to say the late-1990s to mid-2010s.

What Gen Z characteristics can we agree on? Studies about the generation show some trends that are particularly relevant in the classroom:

Gen Zers are digital natives. Gen Z is the first generation to grow up with Internet access, playing on computers and tapping on smartphones – and some members can’t remember a life without them. Technology is simply part of the fabric of everyday life, rather than a tool they use. For them, there is little to no separation between in-person and online experiences.

Gen Zers socialize online. They rely on social media to connect, watch, listen, read, play and share. The most popular platforms change and shift over time, but right now you can expect students in this generation to spend roughly six hours a day on Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram and YouTube.

Gen Zers want in-person interaction. Sure, they make tech-savvy students, and much of their social lives takes place online. But members of this generation also value face-to-face interaction and collaboration. Extend that into the classroom, and you’ll find that 57 percent of Gen Zers prefer in-person learning activities with classmates. For Millennials, that number is just 47 percent.

Gen Zers expect personalized and on-demand experiences. When they want to watch a movie, there’s Netflix. When they want to buy something, there’s Amazon. Much of Gen Z’s life is lived on-demand, influenced by algorithms that populate their news feeds, suggest content and recommend products. 

Gen Zers have shorter attention spans. So says the research anyway, which measures the average Gen Z attention span at just eight seconds. Compare that to Millennials, who clock in at 12 seconds on average. Possible explanations for the drop include the pervasiveness of on-demand services and smartphones.

Gen Zers are practical. They value self-reliance and independence, particularly when it comes to self-directed learning. They’re likely to search a video on YouTube to learn a new skill or explain a new concept. Their pragmatic attitude extends to matters of money and social issues as well.

You may have students in your classrooms who differ quite widely from the Gen Z characteristics above. Consider these generalizations a tool for the purposes of understanding and identifying the overarching trends that inform our classroom.

How Gen Z Learns

Millennials were raised with technology too, but the key difference is, they weren’t always surrounded by it. They straddle a time between analog and digital. Their classrooms were dominated by textbooks and chalkboards, rather than tablets and smartboards. So it makes sense that Gen Z’s learning style would be different from theirs.

What does that look like in practice? Let’s take a look at the methods that resonate with Gen Z’s characteristic and make teaching Gen Zers easier.

Learning by doing

Get in there… and get hands-on! Gen Zers want to tackle challenges in a fully-immersive environment that lets them conduct their own research, make decisions and take action. Not only do they find hands-on learning to be more effective, but Gen Zers also say it can help make learning more fun and interactive. 

It’s no wonder that 64 percent rank interactive classroom discussions and 60 percent rank working through problems as the most helpful tools for learning. Compare that to just 38 percent who prefer learning by seeing (think reading course materials), and 12 percent who value learning by listening (like classroom lectures).

Learning via video

Close that textbook, because today’s students are overwhelmingly turning to video platforms like YouTube for learning. Not only does Gen Z spend a significant amount of time on YouTube each day – upwards of three or more hours, to be exact – but 59 percent say it’s their preferred learning method.

In fact, video is already a prominent in teaching Gen Zers, with 55 percent reporting that YouTube has contributed to their education, learning or personal development over a 12-month period. Not only does it mesh with existing behavior with nearly 80 percent of Gen Zers using the platform, but it also satisfies their desire for on-demand content and tech-forward learning.

Social learning

Collaboration counts for this generation that seeks to engage, share knowledge, co-create with and learn from others both online and offline. Their social learning networks could include their classmates, friends, family, and even people from around the world. 

Social learning allows students to learn from each other through observation and participation, solving problems faster by combining complementary skills, and adopting solutions that students wouldn’t otherwise think of alone. Ask Gen Zers how they prefer to study, for example, and 80 percent will tell you: with friends. 60 percent are also happy to share their knowledge online with others.

Personalized learning

Though they take more standardized tests than any other previous generation, Gen Z’s learning style is anything but standard. As the most diverse and technologically connected generation to date, they’re used to being bombarded with information geared just for them, in the ways that suit them best.

When classroom activities and instruction involve multiple formats, with different levels of challenge and options for assessment, learning can be tailored for each student’s individual needs. Adaptive learning is an example of personalization in action. Involving students in learning decisions and direction can help personalize the experience without overburdening teachers as well.

Hybrid learning

Gen Zers transition smoothly between online and in-person interaction, whether it’s the way they socialize with each other or the way they learn. Hybrid learning is all about blending the traditional classroom with methods used in e-learning. And good news for this generation: technology has a huge role to play when teaching Gen Z.

Hybrid learning offers students more opportunities to make choices and take control over their learning journey. Gen Z learning tools like Google Classroom can streamline assignments and facilitate communication between students and teachers. Plus, e-learning tactics help create a more fun and engaging learning environment. Take Kahoot! for example – a platform that lets teachers and students create and play learning games in a simple way, online or in the classroom. 

The Gen Z-Friendly Classroom

So what does all of this look like in a curriculum designed to make use of Gen Z learning tools and teaching Gen Z? Consider building these aspects into your curriculum mapping and lesson planning processes:

Cross-disciplinary alignment

Connect and promote learning across several subjects, from STEM to arts and language. Not only does this serve to keep Gen Z students engaged, but it also provides opportunities for them to learn in the ways that suit their individual needs best.

Student-informed learning

Give students opportunities to get involved in their own development. Offer more choice in how they want to consume classroom materials, complete assignments, receive assessment and access resources.

Experiential learning

Build in opportunities for community-centered learning that involves hands-on solutions to real-world problems. Authentic learning activities, for example, engage students with meaningful work that has a useful outcome for a genuine audience.

Integrated technology

Don’t leave those smartphones at the front of the classroom – find ways to include them in your lessons instead. Tech can be your friend when it comes to engaging a generation of tech-savvy students with shorter attention spans.

Visual aids

Integrate video in particular, and keep it short. You may want to rely on a curated set of videos from YouTube, create your own for your classroom, or ask students to co-create their own videos as part of an assignment or learning activity.

One final word on teaching Gen Z students: they still need strong educators to lead their classrooms. Ask them how important teachers are in their learning and development, and 78% will tell you: very or extremely important. 39% say they prefer learning with teachers leading their instruction. That, at least, is one thing this generation shares with those that came before!

Additional resources in reaching Gen Z students; Gamification in the Classroom: How to Get Started, Got Gaps in Classroom Time? Try Anchor Activities!, and 3 Tips on Using Tech to Foster Engaged Students.

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