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Goldfish in Water: Educating Gen-Z

*Note: This story originally appeared in June 15, 2023 edition of

Asking a member of Generation Z about how they feel technology impacts their educational experience is like asking a goldfish about water: It is simply there, like life itself.


The answer does not imply ignorance in any of its definitions. Rather, it reveals an essential truth about the current generation wending its way through the education system and into the work and leadership force. It also poses an important question: What characterizes this cohort and how do those attributes shape and reflect the system of education they encounter today?


Generation Z is not simply Millennials 2.0. If you can remember being sent home from school on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 because the world changed, you are a Millennial. If you cannot, you are a member of Generation Z—a Zoomer. That distinction is important, because the realities of history that Zoomers were born into—mobile devices, the social media revolution, renewable energy, climate change, constant mass school shootings, the sustained war in Afghanistan—have created a unique environment within which education now exists.


Since 2007 I have worked in higher education, first as an instructor at the Community College of Vermont, and now as a professor of writing for the Savannah College of Art and Design. My students began as late Gen Xers, then shifted to primarily Millennials, and are now comprised completely of Zoomers (except my graduate students, who are still mostly Millennials). These distinctions are important because each group brings a different world view and different challenges and expectations to the classroom.


Generation Z has long suffered Baby Boomer hangover: Rock’n’roll, Vietnam, disco, drugs, Ronald Reagan, 401Ks, Barack Obama and Donald Trump all characterize the schizophrenic journey of the Boomers


Millennials are removed from that. They are caustic and jaded and buried under debt, the result of the Educational—Government—Banking Complex that changed higher education into an upscale theme park at usurious rates. They have reacted to all that by reproducing at historically low generational rates.


Zoomers are so far wildly different—and, some might way, diffident. They are goldfish. They look past you, through you, without affectation. They are the generation that lived through a hundred-year storm surge: Covid. In March, 2020, they were sent home from school, which, in America, is the defining and foundational social development experience. They spent the next year and a half sitting in front of computers, going deeper and deeper into the virtual world, until it welded itself seamlessly to their reality.


The challenges of educating Zoomers are bound by those experiences. Their attention spans have shrunk not because they are stupid, but because that is how the world works. We are more episodic than ever, inside and out. They require continual feedback and specific examples of what is expected of them: No more “I’ll know it when I see it.” This generation requires clear expectations rather than platitudes. And because they are the fastest growing generation in the workforce, they are bringing those expectations with them.


Zoomers exist inside the technology. Modular learning is more important than ever to them, because of that required specificity. Learning must be chunkable and hands-on: the opportunity for instant application is everywhere. AI isn’t just an existential threat to them. They view it through their goldfish lenses: another piece of reality to be incorporated into their world, whether that’s learning or working. Factional bickering serves no purpose to them, not even as informed debate.


The eldest of this generation are just now reaching their mid-20s. According to the insurance companies’ actuarial tables, their prefrontal cortexes will soon be developed enough to rent automobiles. The question is: Will they want to? Educators and generational leaders (aging Boomers and fulsome Gen Xers) will be wise to abandon the kinds of caterwauling that has traditionally riven inter-generational negotiations or they risk being lapped by a generation of thinkers who are so present in the moment that their goldfish minds will sweep them away long before we understand who they are.

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