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What Does Your Generation Have to Do With Education?

Charlotte Chase, Ph.D.

Treasurer, Board of Directors, American Association for Adult and Continuing Education (AAACE)

The impact of generation on education has been researched extensively. Optimizing education for each generation is still a quest for most educators, though some guidelines can be heeded.

How many times have you tried to learn a new skill? Gain updated information or even pick up a new device only to find that it a learning curve must be established before you can effectively use it? How does your age affect how you learn with technology? 

Learning new skills

Much attention has been given to generational attributes and how they relate to buying patterns, social media preferences, and just about every aspect of life in general. These specific attributes extend to the use of technology and learning, too; for example, just watch any two people from different generations pick up a smartphone. The older person invariably taps with one finger while the younger person uses both hands to spell out the message. The deft use of a smartphone is not the primary test of generational capabilities, but it does illustrate differing degrees of comfort with its use. 

As we age and our physical characteristics become more limited, our use of technology may become more challenging. It may be more painful to manipulate certain objects, and the ability to master finer details may be more visually difficult. Conversely, we have many previous experiences from which to draw, and an established and effective means of concentration.

For the younger groups, familiarity with a diverse array of technology sets the stage for more effective learning. Ease of manipulation and natural curiosity are also piqued. However, a lower attention span and desire for quick positive reinforcement may impede learning and slow down mastery of a new skill.

Variety matters

How do today’s educators from the preschool age to the graduate school market simultaneously meet multiple student learning preferences to teach the same course content and fairly evaluate students? As with everything from cereal to types of walking shoes, the answer is variety.

Traditional learning or online learning each offers many ways to embed a variety of learning activities and competency checks to ensure that students will have an opportunity to become engaged at some point within the course. If an educational institution relies solely on one method – for instance, online universities heavily reliant on the submission of written papers for assignments – students who quickly become bored with these assignments may seek alternative means to complete their degrees. Similarly, if a fifth-grade class is relegated to sitting behind computer screens all day for all purposes, these students may become disruptive or underachieving. 

Integrating tech

High quality teaching involves creative, organized, and expert insights into how groups of students will learn best. It does not rely on last year’s lesson plans or curriculum design. It calls for asking questions of students and observation of what lessons seem to demand the best from students, and it is quick to alter course should methods prove to be unsuitable.

In one company, a group of highly paid and intelligent engineers found themselves in a training workshop that called for personal interactivity. This group performed well when the sole training method was lecture. When called to interact with each other, the entire group of engineers sat silently for the full 20 minutes of the exercise. When the surprised trainer began to comment about the meaningful aspect of this exercise, the engineers began to listen. They were not going to interact, but they would certainly listen to how important it was that they do so! The key to success when designing instruction and organizing information with or without the use of technology to the students of the 21st century is to add variety to the lessons. Students will react more favorably to some lessons and less favorably to others. But they will learn.

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