We carry within us the wonders we seek around (Religio Medici , part 1, section 12, Thomas Browne); the most important being the self. Locke an English Philosopher defines the self as "that conscious thinking thing, which is sensible, or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself.” According to him, “children come with an ‘empty’ mind, a ‘tabula rasa’, which is shaped by experiences, observations, sensations and reflections and these are the sources of all ideas”. (John Locke, Wikipedia). Adolescence is the time when these ideas start taking concrete shape.
These are ideas that inspire us to be scientists, mathematicians, data analysts, spiritual masters, body artists, and soon enough, artificial intelligence psychologists or legal counsel for the robots. Importantly, ideas that can shape us into mindful, tolerant, humble and kind individuals.
As teachers, we need to be facilitators of these ideas; carefully treading through Generation Z’s own few utopian and many dystopian beliefs. It is our obligation to allow, enable and encourage them in their journey to explore their self, adopt and nurture their unique ideas. To gently shine the spotlight in the direction where many of the positive ideas reside. This journey of exploration and self-discovery begins in the classroom.
Gen Z is growing up on steroidal shots of free spirited thinking. They seek respect, independence and purpose. They desire an equal voice. An equal voice at home and an equal voice at school. An equal voice among peers and adults. Therefore, one of my important duties as a teacher is to ensure that every student present in the classroom gets space and time to be heard and acknowledged for her or his unique perspectives to a subject or a situation.
This environment of mutual respect for me is also the beginning of the relationship with my students. This means, I must speak less and hear more. While I confine my role to a navigator and hand over the steering control to the students, I also tread the challenging path of maintaining classroom order and not losing sight of the distance the class needs to cover that day. The classroom order must not go out of gear and, that needs a combination of classroom practices.
These are strategies that, I believe, may never fail a teacher. The top-most being, not to practice authority. No one likes authority. Neither adults, nor children. Days of standing atop a citadel and demanding respect are gone. Now, we are at an eye level. Remember every ‘conscious thinking thing’ (Locke) is capable of observing and understanding what’s reasonable. And, therefore the role of conversation and demonstrative behavior will take the relationship much farther than indulging in a game of playing the ‘I have the authority’ card. We are dealing with young adults. Placing the confidence in their ability to distinguish the right from wrong is more likely to have them follow the desired path.
Choose to begin the day in the class with a mood or a thought check. A simple conversation on how the soccer practice is progressing or about how the preparation for the annual fest is coming along is a better way to starting engaging. Not speaking for more than 15-20 minutes at a stretch is the golden mantra. It’s quite unlikely that anything beyond that may get retained anyway. Intersecting the ‘teacher talk’ at the end of 15-20 minutes with a hands-on activity or peer discussion is extremely helpful in keeping the class active and attentive for much longer. Concluding the class with a quick quiz or exit ticket is a teacher’s point of reflection. It is also a starting point for the next class.
The classroom experience is also the harbinger of developing passion for the subject. Many of our sciences, particularly parts of physics and chemistry, may seem insipid as they are based on facts that appear quite abstract. However, these are real concepts about real life and phenomenon that occur around life. It’s important to make these connects. Connections that deal with real life of Gen Z. For example, explaining kinetic energy with a floss dance challenge and exploring sound by creating our own symphonies and measuring its frequency and pitch gives students a sense of achievement, and see a purpose in their idea.
Asking questions is the best form of learning. These are inquiry based and experiential activities engaging students through the process of trial and error. They are designed to evoke critical thinking. Ever so often, these experiments fail, and thereby impart one of the most significant learnings – the scientific temperament. Failure is an opportunity to reflect. Encouraging students to reflect on their setbacks and restart the process is a life skill that students will always thank you for. These engagements are also collaborative in nature giving the much-needed sense of belonging to a tightly knit community lending a shoulder to each other and harmoniously giving space to another point of view.
As a teacher, it’s important that I do not get carried away by showcasing a ‘know it all’ avatar. Robin Koval, CEO of Legacy, and co-author of ‘Grit to Great’, notes that “Gen Z fact-checks everything, so over-the-top claims ‘don’t fly’” (What comes after generation Z, Fortune) Therefore, ignorance if any shows in the classroom. A strong conceptual knowledge is always a strength and mastery of your subject an essential requirement. And yet, there will always be a question to which the answer is not readily available. It is in such situations that one must remember that one virtue that will make you even more successful with today’s kids than your expertise in the course material. And this is authenticity. This connected generation can tell an act in a minute. An act is the fastest way to lose your connection. Readily acknowledging situations where you need to study more and ‘come back with the right answer’ will go farther when you are at an eye level with the class. Nothing endears as authenticity does.
I also believe that to have a super engaging class I must have enough real-life examples up my sleeve. These are examples students should be able to observe, experience, demonstrate, question and importantly extend to more situations. As stated by Célestin Freinet a noted French pedagogue and educational reformer, “The child does not tire of doing work that is in line with his life, work which is, so to speak, functional for him”. (Célestin Freinet, Wikipedia)
Koval in his work also mentions that “kids in this generation are mobile and social natives. They have never known not having a device” (What comes after generation Z, Fortune). Gen Z is friends with technology and they understand apps better than their own breathing pattern. As a teacher, I need to acknowledge and embrace this. Instead of shunning devices out of the class, it may be more productive to use them towards the purpose of enhancing the learning experience. Encouraging technology with purpose such as online simulations, online quizzes and creating learning videos are few of the effective ways of imparting conceptual clarity.
At the end comes the most vital part of shaping the idea. And, that’s care and affection. Colour the ‘tabula rasa’ with pretty pastels of values, not charcoal greys of grades. Grades, competition and ranking turns a rich journey of self-discovery to a race for pole position. Be kind. Punishments, in a way, means giving up on the child. You can be firm but fair.
We must not forget that “children are motivated by security” (Célestin Freinet, Wikipedia) and security comes with affection, care and kindness.
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