September 20, 2007

Generational Knowledge Gaps

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

clip_image002Classes started this week at my campus. As I prepared for the first day, I realized that many of the students in my classes were quite young when pivotal moments occurred in our culture—events that I consider recent. For example, it was only six years ago that the events we now refer to as 9/11 took place. That means that many of my students were twelve or thirteen when that occurred. 

What perception would a young pre-teen or teenager have of such events, if any? I was very young when Kennedy was assassinated; a discussion of that event is less emotional for me than it is for my parents. I assume that some of my current students perceive events like 9/11 differently since they were at a much younger age at that time.

clip_image004We teachers tend to use cultural references or stories relevant to our own realities and prior experiences. I have a colleague whose references to Benedict Arnold go unacknowledged by students; I often wonder if my references have become dated too. When presenting information about the scientific method and defining data, I know that one of my hopefully (humorous references) to Data, the character on the Star Trek series, doesn’t get the laughs it once did.

Besides cultural references and historical change, the differences between generations can also be measured by how we use of technology. I recently took class on teaching online courses and was fascinated by how technology can be used for distance learning classes. Although I don’t think it is an appropriate mode of learning for everyone, I was surprised by the capacity for interaction. I also realized that some students might be quite adept at using such technologies, perhaps more so than some of the faculty who are setting up those courses. 

I’ve also been setting up a new computer system and transferring my old info into the new system. I’ve given up on Microsoft for the time being and gone Mac and wireless. The younger generation in my family congratulated me for this change—since now when they visit, their computers will log on easily from any room of the house. Prior to this, they had to disconnect the old pc from the modem and plug in, then complain about how slow it was.

All of these issues led me to ponder the generational differences in knowledge and how that can affect how we live our lives. The younger generation is certainly more ”plugged in” than previous generations were (since such technologies didn’t exist), and they have more knowledge at their fingertips. When our family gathers, those under 40 check their email via cell phones and notebook computers while those over 40 are often quite happy not to be connected and bothered. Those in their twenties always seem to have their BlackBerrys or other gadgets handy to share a phone number or go to the web for the answer to some question that we may be discussing. My father, in his eighties, is not enamored with ATMs and cell phones and he has me over to program his VCR, among other things. 

There is a lot of research (and personal opinion) on generations and their differences. In workshops on generational differences held on our campus, speakers alert us to the need to change what we do on campus to accommodate the different styles and experiences of younger people. The main gist of these workshops hinges upon identifying the different learning styles and preferences of Gen X, Gen Y, and the Millennium generation (i.e., students) from those of Boomers and other older generations (i.e., professors). While I appreciate the intent and enjoy trying such ideas, these presentations seemed more based on assumptions than research, so I am a bit skeptical about how useful they are. 

The work of William Strauss and Neil Howe (authors of Generations among other books) is well known. They hypothesize that generations have repeating features or personalities, albeit across very different historical circumstances. While I appreciate that there are patterns across history—in fact sociology and other social sciences study these patterns—I wonder about these types of theories.

Certainly, communication is made more difficult when we don’t have common cultural references that bond us together. Yet does growing up in different eras really create vast gulfs between us? One cannot assume that these generational patterns affect everyone in those cohorts in equal ways. Strauss and Howe refer to both the G.I. (born between1901-1924) and the Millennial (1982-2001) generations as civic generations, yet people born in other generations certainly volunteer and participate in other forms of civic behavior. (Otherwise, many nonprofit organizations would have perished by now!) 

As for technological differences between generations, is the preponderance of tech savvy young people (compared to older people) enough to warrant the conclusion that young people “get” technology more than older people do? 

People within any one group are often more diverse than theories suggest. For example, there are average height differences between men and women, but the range of height differences among men is too great to say that men are always taller than women. The difference between the tallest man and the shortest man is greater than the difference in height between men and women, on average. 

clip_image009With this in mind, might Gen X have diversity within their ranks, as would the Boomers? Might there be tech savvy Boomers who, while they didn’t grow up with the same technology, have changed their lives and are fully embracing—and understanding—the technologies we now have available? Also—might there be some Gen X’ers or Millennials who aren’t plugged in? 

My father, who never used a computer in his working life, does check his email daily and has many virtual conversations with other WWII vets. While he won’t be programming any software anytime soon, neither will many Gen Y’ers. My daughter first learned computers on the lap of her grandmother (see photo above).

When I hear theories that place people into groups, they may have some validity, yet not everyone in those groups conforms to those patterns. Do you think these generational differences are reliable patterns, or might they exaggerate the differences between us?


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Thanks for not buying in to the stereotypes of my generation, Gen Y, that seem to be running rampant as of late.

Thanks for not buying in to the stereotypes of my generation, Gen Y, that seem to be running rampant as of late.

Thanks for not buying in to the stereotypes of my generation, Gen Y, that seem to be running rampant as of late.

Thanks for not buying in to the stereotypes of my generation, Gen Y, that seem to be running rampant as of late.

I think that sometimes the generational gap is exagerated because my mother and father are both good with computers but my brother and I are even better with them than our parents but my mother and father do not have that big of a generational technology gap between us.

"The main gist of these workshops hinges upon identifying the different learning styles and preferences of Gen X, Gen Y, and the Millennium generation (i.e., students) from those of Boomers and other older generations" Different generations have different realities on technologies. It calls for multiple realities.

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