Educating Millenials – A Learning Process for a Generation of Opportunity and Flux

Post by Kyle J. Baker, Director of the Peak Collaborative.


My good friend and colleague Michael Q. McShane recently reviewed a new book on “millenials” by Arthur Levine and Diane Dean, Generation on a Tightrope, for EducationNext. You can read his thoughtful review here.

While the authors have done some good work given how challenging it is to accurately study something (in this case, a generation) that is unfolding as they write about it, and I don’t think McShane or I agree in principle with much of what they’ve written, in some cases they miss the mark as many of those who have attempted to write about this generation have.

One of the reasons why we see so many ambiguous statements and theories about who millenials are and what they need is because they (we) are a generation that doesn’t like the idea of being boxed in by a label or Wikipedia entry.  Trying to come up with a definitive model for “millenials” is like choosing a blade of grass that best represents an entire meadow…every time one is chosen (written), my response as a part of the generation that is being described is “I guess…maybe…partially…somewhat.” Fast Company not only boosted their sales and web hits when they coined the term “Generation Flux,” but they might have finally nailed the generational descriptor that cultural critics have been searching for.

So what does a generation whose only clear characteristic is constant change need from an educational system?

The authors identify “3 C’s” that they say millenials must be taught in order to be successful in today’s world:  Critical thinking, creativity, and continual learning.   I don’t disagree with these recommendations, but like McShane, I’m not sold that these are revolutionary conclusions. Sure, we may need to rethink how we instill these things in students today, but as McShane artfully points out in his review, the giants whose shoulders we stand upon also needed and honed these skills.

These broad-stroke statements are all too common in writings about the millennial generation…Check out this earth shattering list of essential things to do in order to manage millenials successfully:  11 Tips for Managing Millenials  So…I guess the takeaway would be that millenials are human beings?

McShane states that one of the most critical challenges that must be addressed today is teaching people to read, filter, and interpret the enormous amount of data being put in front of us every day (it’s both exciting and somewhat terrifying that when we say “data” here we’re talking about such a vast expanse of information that is accessed continuously through so many different mediums).

I agree, but I would contest that cultivating the spirit and skills of creativity, critical thinking, and continual learning in today’s students is also part of our essential educational mission.  In order to do so, however, we’ve got to get more serious about defining what these things look like in practice.

Maybe it’s just me, but I see the foundational quantitative training McShane suggests as intimately linked with these ways of thinking.  In fact, in addition to a renewal of the arts and cultural studies, I think the best way we could serve students related to this discussion would be to shape a learning process that looked something like this:

The (needed) Millennial Learning Process

1.  Pose a Question.

2.  Gather Information.

3.  Filter for Fact.

4.  Extract Credible & Relevant Information.

5.  Articulate Findings. (Here is where creativity definitely comes in to play…”articulate” might seems like a cold word, but what really need is people who can tell the story of data in both an accurate AND appealing way.)

6.  Mine the Gaps. (Yes, this is a play on “mind the gap”…but here we want to “mine” for gaps in the available information.  What we need here is to teach our students to step back from the information they’ve gathered, from the key findings they’ve pulled together, so that they can say “look, right there, this information is incomplete, part of this story is missing.”)

7a:  Begin again (Ask a Question).


7b:  Begin Authentic Research (this obviously opens the window for a whole additional discussion on the if/how/when of when we need to teach real research skills as opposed to how to google stuff, although that is certainly also an essential daily skill for millenials!).


Lastly, the authors miss  two major elements of the individual and generational millennial identity (as I said, I think this is an identity that will always be in flux, but we can still identify some general characteristics.

First, McShane is totally right…it’s absolutely awesome being a millenial…well, for some of us.  For many of us, our way of life is so gadget, experience, and food rich that it is mind blowing.  I distinctly remember getting an Apple IIe when I was a kid and being amazed that I could push a button and a corresponding letter would appear on a glowing screen.  Today I carry a computer in my pocket that allows me to access an infinite amount of information in seconds…and play Words With Friends.  In fact our lives are so inundated with “new” that in many cases we cross a threshold (or perhaps fall of the tightrope?) into being overwhelmed, exhausted, and isolated by the “fun” and “exciting” things we go ga-ga for.  Granted, not everyone born into the millennial generation has access to this type of abundance.  It’s important to acknowledge that the socio-economic gap in the US is widening by the day, that the past realities of prejudice & war McShane describes in his review are still present today just in different forms, and that global issues such as famine, disease, and climate change are in urgent need of being addressed.  In a strange way, this leads directly into the second piece of the millennial identity that the authors bypassed:

A “C” that the authors would be wise to add is “community.”  In my work with young adults as well as my rigorous, ongoing socio-cultural research (aka observing people in coffee shops and airports, hanging out with my own friends, etc.), community is not only THE thing that millenials are seeking (yes folks, when they’re staring at a Twitter feed on their smartphone while you’re trying to talk to them, they’re seeking community-based connectivity), it is also the thing that most disturbs them.  What do I mean by this?  As McShane points out, those growing up in the millennial generation have more information available to them than anyone ever has.  One outcome of this has been an increase in awareness that those on the fringes of our communities…the vulnerable, the hidden, the impoverished…are there in part because of our own actions and the socio-political structures we’ve created.  Only recently has this information been brought to the attention of the masses, and as a result millenials aren’t able turn a blind eye quite so easily.  While researchers like Robert Putnam have pointed out that membership in traditional social organizations and fraternal orders have plummeted, meaningful community engagement is on the rise.  You only need to spend a short amount of time around millenials to realize that their deep cravings for acceptance, belonging, and shared identity fuel their search for “community.”  As educators, we must address this need by helping students learn what community is, how it is built and sustained, and how communities can enact social good when they come together around a common goal.

As educators, we must keep holding each other as members of the field accountable.  No longer is it acceptable to chalk up systematic deficiencies to “kids (or parents) these days,” nor can we allow leaders to create ideological enemies (maybe a better word would be excuses) by pitting rigorous evaluation against diverse & innovative educational practices.   These things are not opposites and need not be placed in competition with each other.  In order to create an educational system that prepares students for authentic success and well-being, we’ll need to continue crafting the kind of deep, holistic, and dynamic learning process that honors the true nature of all millenial and post-millenial (do they have a name yet?) students.

While the world of the millenials is so far best defined by “flux,” it is also flush with opportunity.  We as members of the educational field bear a great responsibility for ensuring that millenials are poised to seize it.

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