Teaching Gen Z

Adithi Muralidhar

The year was 2001. It was a rainy morning in August. I was carrying a heavy bag over which I had draped a raincoat. I was also carrying an umbrella, but alas, by the time I reached school, which was only a 10 minute walk away, I was drenched. Rainy days were days on which I found school most boring. For one, all physical education periods were cancelled. Not only did I find myself dull on a cloudy and dark morning, I seemed more distracted by the pitter patter outside than the chatter inside the classroom. But my day was better if we began with a biology class and my day was not so good if we began with a maths class. Such was the power of a subject and its teacher. Biology was a subject that I looked forward to during my school days. I also adored the teacher who taught it. She had a booming voice, which could capture even the sleepiest of the kids, was articulate in her descriptions, and drew resplendent diagrams on the blackboard which brought biology alive for me. However, in retrospect, the classroom followed a somewhat traditional trajectory. There was a topic at hand, the teacher drew the necessary diagrams on the blackboard, followed by an explanation of everything she drew. She summarized her teachings and the class ended. Everything that the teacher narrated in the class that day would be something new, something unheard of, and at times something that blew your mind.

Fast forward to 2018, I happened to be (as a non-participant) observing an 8th grade science classroom, where an energetic teacher was following the same pattern of teaching that I described above. The topic was very alluring, but the interest among the children dwindled. The teacher though very enthusiastic and articulate could not keep a grasp on the children’s diminishing attention. This made me reflect on all the things that had changed since the 2000s and how that has affected teaching and learning in school setups.

We are of course, now more aware about the developments in teaching-learning methods, thanks to the mounting evidence that comes from the domain of educational research. Scholars working in this area have provided insightful direction on how pedagogy and curriculum may be improved so as to make learning more relevant, authentic, and meaningful for students. However, even if we consider a teacher who has “updated” her teaching methods, there are still some areas which are difficult to address. I will discuss a few examples (observed in an urban context), where a teacher may face dilemmas while teaching the Gen Z – children born between the end of last century and the first decade of this one (2000-2012). All of these issues are equally pressing in a rural context, but the degree, expanse, and exposure to these issues will be different from that of an urban setting.

Back in the day, it was the teacher who had the answer to everything. Anything that she taught in class was new, refreshing, and different. We would passively absorb knowledge.

Today’s scenario: Children come armed with information
But today we are living in an era where children have information at the click of a button. If the teacher is teaching about the structure of the kidney, all the student has to do is type “structure of a kidney” in Google search and lo! you have your entire topic summarized with diagrams in a second. In addition to this, you have more children going to tuitions where these topics are “covered earlier” leaving the child almost nothing “new” to learn. Not to mention, ChatGPT, the AI-powered language model has taken the world by storm and the implications of this in education sector is far-reaching.

Artwork: Shilpy Lather
Photos courtesy: www.freepik.com

Challenges for the teacher
So how does the teacher negotiate between covering the topics of the syllabus while also delivering something “new” to the children? How can the motivation to learn something new be retained in the classroom? More importantly, how does a teacher address a situation when a student is asking something to which the teacher does not have a response? Is it ok to say, I don’t know? How would children react to that? Will they think I don’t know anything? Do I tell them – I don’t have time to address your question now… will they see through my attempt to ignore their question? Will they judge me? Or shall I retort with an angry comment that shuts down their questions? These are some of the questions that rise in the minds of teachers when posed with a similar situation. It can be daunting.

Before, it was almost impossible to address the diversity among children in the classroom. In a class of 60-70, you would come across children with different learning styles, who had different personalities, who came from different cultural backgrounds and had varying interests. In fact, there was a time when we ourselves were oblivious to issues surrounding adolescents, mental health, gender, sexuality, emotional health, etc., and they did not find a space in the school discourse.

Today’s scenario: Being sensitive to and addressing diversity
However, now-a-days, teachers and parents in urban schools are more exposed to the nuances of this diversity (at least to a certain extent) and therefore there is scope to address it. For example, we hear about cases of children facing depression and anxiety due to exams, or we come across cases of bullying, or issues pertaining to adolescents and mental health. Exposure to these instances helps the teacher become more perceptive to her children and identify occasions which may need her intervention. This is a good practice, but it is also challenging.

Challenges for the teacher
So now, in addition to being sensitive to the diversities of a heterogeneous classroom, there are other aspects a teacher needs to be perceptive and sensitive about. But are teachers equipped to address such scenarios? Say a teacher sees one girl bullying another girl because “she is behaving like a boy”. How should the teacher address this situation? How is a teacher expected to deal with sensitive issues around gender identity when children themselves are at a stage where they are learning about themselves?

The most sophisticated form of technology that we engaged with during our school time was a desktop computer.

Today’s scenario: Keeping up with technology
Today children are exposed to android phones, tabs, Bluetooth devices, and gadgets that have completely transformed the way they interact with their peers as well as teachers. They easily figure out how to use apps like Instagram, Threads, SnapChat, Facebook, etc., and at the same time struggle with a simple table-top experiment in a science class. On the contrary, there are also situations where a mundane science experiment is not motivating enough for the children to engage with, because they find it undemanding of their mental faculties. I was attending a major science exhibition event last year and I saw this middle school student with his phone perched on a selfie-stick. He was recording a video for his “YouTube channel” near the stall which was showcasing a liquid nitrogen demonstration. I wondered if the marvel of nitrogen gas excited him as much as his cell phone’s features.

Challenges for the teacher
How does a teacher engage children in relevant interactions in the classroom with and without the usage of such technology? Is a teacher expected to compete with these technological gadgets that hold children (and even adults for that matter) hostage to the screen?

Biases have always been embedded in our thoughts and actions. All of us, including children, are influenced by our parents, peer community, and society at large. But a teacher also had a strong influence on children back in the days.

Today’s scenario: Breaking biases
With the increased amount of exposure to media and internet, I have noticed that children have started to form very strong opinions about scientific concepts and social issues from a very young age. Some children seem convinced that they know the right answer because Google said so. Others seem to have opinions on social, political, and environmental issues which they feel are one hundred per cent correct. I remember, during the pandemic, a child had mentioned that because of China, the whole world was suffering. This issue in particular created a huge debate even among the adult population.

Challenges for the teacher
How do we go about breaking these strong notions that children have? When the answers to questions are complex and beyond one-word, how can we convey the same to children? With the amount of media content they imbibe each day, how can teachers make them unlearn the wrongs in a 35 minute class?

Parting thoughts
With the increasingly changing world which has been moving leaps and bounds in a matter of just a few years, the exposures and experiences of children are evolving. The expectations from a teacher have also been expanding to match these changing times. A teacher’s job has always been rewarding but challenging. However, the challenges of teaching Gen Z are multi-fold and complex. The points raised in this article are merely the tip of the iceberg. In fact, these will overlap with other socio-cultural issues that already factor into the teaching-learning process. But it leaves us thinking about how one should negotiate the complex parameters of today’s world and make learning a meaningful and joyful experience for children.

There is no one solution to this. But for starters, it is important that teachers are open and accepting of these new dimensions in their schools, be it exposure to new technology or the evolving dynamics of the society. It is also important to constantly remind oneself that nobody knows everything. We are all constantly learning and updating our knowledge. Teachers are also in the same basket. Professional training of teachers can include specific components on diversity so that teachers are not only aware but have some know-how of how they may deal with sensitive situations. When it comes to learning new technology, it is not necessary that it is always the teacher who imparts new knowledge. Perhaps we can look for opportunities where students “teach” their teachers about the changing technologies. Lastly, in order to have a more holistic understanding of issues and topics, and therefore disintegrate strong biases, teachers could possibly engage their class in more dialogic teaching, argumentation, and discussing socio-scientific issues. These are some possible ways in which the teacher can sow the seeds for critical thinking and reasoning. Such formats of classroom discourse help bring in multiple perspectives which can challenge biases and stereotypical notions in the classroom. At the end, it is also important to remember that teachers stand to gain a lot of support if they have a peer community with whom they can share their concerns. Not all support and peer groups may offer solutions, but knowing that there are other teachers having similar challenges may help one see things in fresher perspectives and rise up to the challenges of teaching Gen Z.

Disclaimer: This article is an experiential and anecdotal account, and is purely based on personal observations and experiences.

Acknowledgments: Discussion with Saurav Shome led me to add the last point on having peer support groups for teachers. I thank him for his constructive feedback and inputs. Many thanks Disha Dbritto for sharing her valuable experiences as a teacher and also for her helpful comments.

The author works at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, TIFR, Mumbai. She also runs a nature blog called Earthly Notes (www.earthlynotes.com). She can be reached at adithi@hbcse.tifr.res.in or adithi.hbcse@gmail.com.

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