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Four Changes That Will Win the Heart of Generation Z Students

Ours is a world where students are savvy and aware—and very difficult to “wow.” Many are well-informed, well-entertained and have already traveled to places we never traveled until we were well into our adult lives. They scroll through their phones looking for something that will capture their interest. Due to over-exposure to information some have become jaded. Teachers today compete for their attention against the likes of YouTube, Instagram, Netflix and Snapchat. “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” writes Herbert Simon.

So how do we lead a kid who is so difficult to impress?

My advice? Don’t try to wow them. Try to win them.

I believe educators and parents can play a unique role in the lives of students. While Hollywood can capture their attention for a few moments, caring adults can engage them in a way that’s personal and meaningful. Recently, I had a conversation with a faculty member who said he’s taken on the challenge to “win” the hearts of his students. His report card? Just like students will binge-watch a series on Netflix, he’s working to get students to want to “binge watch” his classes and other science programs on YouTube or TV.

Question: Would students want to binge watch your class?

It’s Better to Win Students Than to Wow Them

photo credit: NEC Corporation of America Education – Creative Commons via photopin (license)

I believe both educators and parents must play a role that no one else plays in the lives of students. This means we don’t merely imitate culture, but we complement it. We do what only we can do best. To succeed, leaders must understand what Generation Z needs most from them. Here are four changes we can make to win them:

1. Shift from playing the “hero” to playing the “guide” or supportive role.

According to mythologist, Joseph Campbell, nearly every great story has a hero with a problem who needs a guide to help them solve it. Think Luke Skywalker and Yoda, Peter Parker and Uncle Ben, or Frodo and Gandalf. Too often, adults (teachers and parents) position themselves as the “hero” of the class or the family, leaving students disengaged. What if you positioned yourself as a “guide” helping students to become the “hero” of their own story and discovery? What if you placed the onus on them to search and find the answers, and you gave them clues, hints and lots of encouragement along the way? People become engaged when they are the hero of the story. This means your role shifts from supervisor to consultant. You’re not a sage on the stage, but a guide on the side.

2. Support the issues that are at the core of what matters most to teens today.

Instead of always demanding students to “get on board” with your subject and your ideas, what if you enabled them to choose what matters to them (within the confines of your class or topic) and you help them pursue it? When students believe they get to choose and “own” the activity, you get a whole new level of engagement from them. In short, students support what they help create. Coaches—what if your student athletes got to run the practice next week? Teachers—what if students got to choose the focal point of an entire week of your course? Or, what if in the midst of your social studies class, you allow students to choose a meaningful cause with which to engage in the real world? Suddenly, everything moves from theory to practice. Better yet, students move from apathy to passion.

3. Present reality and allow students opportunities to create a unique identity.

Students today curate their identity from social media and social issues. Because they are often involved in several at a time—they can have multiple personas. What if you presented a current reality in our culture or in the global economy and allowed students to create their identity through involvement in solving a problem? As I see it, most teens are still figuring out who they are. The best way adults can help them is through guiding their involvement with real—not virtual—experiences. Students are capable of so much more than we expect of them. If we only give them artificial or hypothetical ways to spend their time, we get artificial young adults. If we let them create their identity through purposeful action, they’ll become the best version of themselves.

4. Utilize various social media platforms to enable them to curate themselves.

By this I simply mean we should leverage the mediums and language students find natural and familiar. We must begin where they are, then lead them to where they need to go as mature adults. Social media is their natural habitat. It is their native tongue. What if you leveraged the five biggest social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook and let them curate their identity and their story. Our focus groups revealed todays students’ identity is fluid; sometimes they feel their gender is fluid. I believe we can play a role in helping them become congruent in who they are and what they stand for. What if you engaged them in the ways I described above, then give them time to post pictures and tell their story?

It’s Our Move…                                                                                                                      

Generation Z is a population that’s growing up in different times than I did. I bet you’d say the same thing. Today, the influence of culture is both positive and negative and creeps into our lives from every device imaginable. We must play the role of a guide, helping students to discover who they are so they can play the role they’re gifted to play. It’s our move.


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