Teaching Across Generations

This article summarizes some of the points in part of a resource guide from a U.S. college. It uses a schema dividing students into:

  • Silents
  • Baby Boomers
  • GenXers
  • Millennials

and lists characteristics of the various categories of people and their supposedly favoured “learning styles” and preferred teaching styles.

I agree with the cautions in this article more than I do with many of the conclusions. I believe it is very true that “flattening diversity is a risk” (para. 8) and that the “validity of generational labels” is questionable “since much of the initial research and classifications were based on observations of middle-class, white Americans” (para. 7). Can such results be reliably transferred to a teaching environment such as what I deal with instructing Continuing Studies students of many different ages and cultural backgrounds in Vancouver, B.C.?

In my opinion, based solely on my personal observations as a professional technologist, there is almost as much tech-talent diversity within any of the cohorts mentioned as there is across the population. I’ve met elders who are very technologically savvy, just as I’ve met Millennials who are functionally tech-illiterate, even if they can operate some electronic devices adroitly.

I think we do a disservice to our students if we try to pigeon-hole them and serve up material homogenized to suit only a preconceived idea of what a particular cohort might want or need. My opinion, is that we should utilize modern tools and techniques for teaching because they provide a richer set of experiences for all types of students, not because particular types of students are only capable of learning in particular ways.

The whole idea of conceptually dividing students using a schema based on age cohorts seems very much like an offshoot of the concept of “learning styles”, which I feel has been effectively debunked. I think it is a false hope that by dividing students into definable groups when can then develop teaching styles to suit these artificially created groups’ learning styles.

As Cindi May writes:

recent review of the scientific literature on learning styles found scant evidence to clearly support the idea that outcomes are best when instructional techniques align with individuals’ learning styles. In fact, there are several studies that contradict this belief. It is clear that people have a strong sense of their own learning preferences (e.g., visual, kinesthetic, intuitive), but it is less clear that these preferences matter.

May, C., (2018). The Problem with Learning Styles. Scientific American.

One needs only do an Internet search on the terms “Misconceptions about …” any of the cohorts discussed above to see there are many differing opinions about the characteristics of these groups. Indeed there is considerable doubt that these cohorts even exist as definable groups. (See Leah Georges TedxCreightonU Talk and note she says “fellow researchers and I aren’t exactly sure that these generations are real” [2:38].) Just as Georges implies that businesses are wasting their time trying to adjust to ill-defined/supposed characteristics of different generations, perhaps educators are wasting their time endlessly trying to accommodate generational differences that may not really exist. As Georges states “we are so much more similar than we are different” and “people want work that matters, they want flexibility, they want support, they want appreciation, they want better coffee”.

Just as workers want these things that are not “tied to a generation” it seems to me our students want the same for themselves, plus a few other things like modern teaching methods and tools and giving students individual attention where they need it– things that don’t need to be specially targeted at imaginary sub-groups of the student population.


Return to Different Generations of eLearners