The promise of PBL with Millennials

Howe, Neil, and William Strauss with Reena Nadler. Millenials & K-12 schools: Educational Strategies for a new generation. (2008) by LifeCourse Associates.
It is the premise of Howe and Strauss’ helpful guide that the digitally-weaned kids in middle and high school today (“Millenials,” born between 1982-2002), in their expectations, predilections, attitudes, and work habits, are qualitatively different than the adults who preceded them–and who are now their teachers and school administrators. The authors nicely delineate just who the “Millenials” are, how they differ from the “Generation X”ers and ”Boomers” in charge of their schooling, and how the wise educator will adapt to them.

Howe and Strauss’ strategies are helping me plan for the increased numbers of Millenials I’ll be seeing in six weeks. The plans that worked fine with their older brothers and sisters will not fly with these kids. And since my workload is greater anyway in the US economy these days, I must find new ways. It can be hard to go against one’s generational (and thus automatic) proclivities, but there’s plenty for the Gen-X or Boomer teacher to be excited about in teaching Millenials.

The authors claim that Millenials, unlike Boomers and Gen-Xers, have a penchant for group work. Their “collective peer personality” is decidedly conformist. Also, they are used to feeling special, and getting much of their sense of self in social contexts. And so it seems clear that Projectbased learning (PBL) groups—I’m thinking literature circles–should be an excellent vehicle for their learning in a large classroom (next year 30+ sizes). Of course, unit questions have to be authentically stimulating and one must establish up-front protocols, delegated roles, and clear assessment standards, but Millenial PBL could be one of the labor-saving strategy I’ve been looking for. It could be the “right tool for the job I and my colleagues are facing. It will meet student needs and help the teacher survive. With PBL’s shifting the learning away from teacher/text-student, and toward student-student, Millenials should thrive in group work in ways their older siblings never did.

The team-oriented and compliant Millenials, by far the largest generation in the US today (about a quarter of the entire population), contrast starkly with their immediate forebears. For one thing, they are inclined to trust authority, go with the flow, take direction, and feel personal responsibility for their behavior. They have been taken raised by highly conscientious parents, and show, in the main, certain features. Howe and Strauss identify seven main Millenial traits. The Millenial is:
  • Special–which means the entire family is accompanying junior to school. Educators should enlist parents and grandparents as collaborators, getting them to partner with the school. This “specialness” extends in the student’s mind to his entire cohort. According to the authors, “Millenials respond well to the message that not only are they special as individuals, but also that they are special as a group. You can appeal to today’s youth as a special ‘generation.’ A positive collective message about their whole generation will be received much more favorably today than it would have been (by Gen-X youth) in the 1980s or 1990s” (42). Smart admins will tweet the positive news of their school’s specialness.
  • Sheltered –their anxious Gen-X parents and the post-911 realities have made parents loathe to allow these kids to wander out of site. As a result the students are safer, but more indolent, and unhealthy. Howe and Strass cite experts who claim that Millenials’ lower physical activity has contirbuted to the tripling in the sare of children and teens classified as obesd, a triplin in the “pre-obesity” rate—and perhaps also to the rising incidence of ADD ADHA, and asthma. The wise administrator will ensure a safe campus, with clear safety policies and PE for the body, and “small school” programs that make learning environment “smaller, tighter, more structured, more integrated, and more personal (49).”
  • Confident—positive attitude toward schooling (amen!) and a feeling of personal safety allow them to set goals and work toward them easier than past generation. Somewhat ominously, the authors say “these post-Columbine students have grown accustomed to the sight of aggressive security. They are more likely to associate such shows of force with safety (rather than with threats to liberty) (52).” Their attitudes are supposed to suits “the new mood of post-9/11 America” (52). The wise administrator will stress goal-setting, applied learning for all students, and, interestingly, will address “new challenges with Millennial boys,” creating “contextual, project-and work-based environments for them” so that they do not slip ever-further behind the girls (who are now 70% of college degree achievers). “Millennial boys respond…well to project environments such as work-based learning and service- or expeditionary-learning, in which they apply their knowledge to real-world situations and can see how academic skills dovetail with job skills. Career academies…[show] greater success (in grades, absenteeism, retention, and college admission) (55).
  • Team Oriented—Because they are the most “connected” generation in human history, they will work better together, they can also bully better together. Schools should explicitly teach team-skills, and tie student effort in with the larger team of the community, of which the school is one part. There is a real irony in the authors’ description of how Millennial’s use of technology has changed: “”Boomers invented the ‘personal’ computer to get away from the establishment and be creative on their own. Millennials use their PCs to ‘friend’ each other, join groups, and to create large peer communities (58).” Teachers should build leadership skills (inherent in team skills) into student learning activities.
  • Conventional—unlike previous generations, Millennials have no natural antipathy for their parents. The generational culture gap has closed, it seems. Students will be trusting of national institutions, well-behaved, and not attracted to extreme positions. They may resonate with are current president, who in his campaigning presents himself as “trusting, consensus-moimnded, and coolly rational” (64). For this conventional bunch the Common Core is tailor made; “studnts feel empowered by all of the knowledge and skills they share in common. A core curriculum brings students coloser together, reinforces a snse of collective mission, minimizes the risk of individual failure, and reassures everybody that they are all progressing and meeting adult approved learning goals” (65). They want their learning “essential,” where “the entire student community [is on] a common achievement track.” And the feedback they crave is on rubrics that allow them to track their achievement with continuuous monitoring. They don’t want large, open-ended projects. The wise administrator will grow a culture through telling stories about the community’s history, making kids feel part of something larger than themselves. Mission statements work with these kids.
  • Pressured—the authors cite the Horatio Alger Association report (2009) and others that document how Millennials are about twice as worried about grades and college than Gen-Xers, sleep-deprived, and 66% feel stress “often” or always.” They are likely to use stimulants or cognition-boosters like Red Bull or Adderall. While this group does well with the pressure they put on themselves, they can also deprive themselves and indulge in “obsessive rituals of self control” in response to the pressure they feel. Smart eduators will co-opt the self-pressuring students through long-range goal-setting instruction, standards-based assessment, and alignment of all curriculum with postsecondary education targets.
  • Achieving—The Millennial has adapted to rising standards. “Most high aschool students today support stnadardized testing and higher standards, and believe that the best cure for… classroom boredom is a tougher curriculum…[they believe that] ‘being smart is cool’” (75). As a whole, this cohort shows a “left-brained tilt,” and so math and science are more inherently interesting than arts and social sciences. They are also naturally fluent users of information and communications technology (ICT). The smart administrator will play to the achieving Millennials by keeping standards and expectations high, inviting them to innovate with ICT, and focus the whole community’s energies on achievement goals. This means getting the entire faculty into Professional Learning Communities and making achievement a school-wide event.
In addition to telling us who the kids in school today are, the authors describe the generation of school parents today–who are also the teachers. These are the people driving the march towards standardization and undoing schools as we’ve known them, and that’s because, as the authors put it, these parents “assume that anything immeasurable is untrustworthy” (93). They focus on price and choice, and want to feel that they’ve got a bargain [Hello corporate charter takeovers and vouchers]. In fact, unlike the Boomers, this cohort of tax-paying parents is “less patient and respectful as problem-solvers” (95). They are bottom-line focused folks who like rules, goals, accountability, and “ROI” or data showing returns on investment of school dollars.

A Gen-Xer myself, who found his first success at teaching Gen-X children with whom I shared a certain distrust of authority and a preference for the individual’s rights–over and against those of the group–meeting the Millennials represents a pretty big shift for me. Looking back at my early teaching, it was a congenial arrangement; respecting the child was easy since s/he so resembled me. 

In general, Gen-X kids were used to an individualized track in their learning, and shied away, or even rebelled from, collective activities. We would not appreciate being identified with our peers. We were also much more likely to be disobedient, criminal, pregnant before marriage, and violent than are Millennials. We did not trust government to do a good job, and watched out for our own best interests; according to the authors, Gen-Xers “embraced free-agent risk and trust the marketplace” in jobs (87). 

In the classroom, it was an era in which individual students stood alone before the group and expressed who we were, and felt more or less comfortable doing so. And now, as adults advocating educational reform, Gen-Xers are the ones who “have provided the most vocal constituency for school reforms that set standards, require transparency, impose accountability, and enable all forms of parental choice, from home schooling to vouchers to charter schools” (88). This focus on the individual leads us to demand those metrics that definitively tell which teachers are worth keeping and which not, union-negotiated contracts and tenure laws be damned.

Schools should anticipate Gen-X parents and their Millennial kids, communicating proactively and showcasing accounting systems for measuring student growth [hello standards-based grading!]. This group of parents will get involved if given “ownership” over projects, and will be pleased if they are convinced that in a competitive market of schooling, their kid is getting the best value (95). The school should communicate in real time using televisual and social media tools. In fact, an idea I have long desired will gain traction with 
this generation, say Howe and Strauss:


Some years down the road, when less Boomers are left to object, schools may even install real-time video monitoring systems that let parents tune into whatever is happening in their childs’ classroom (98)

And because they are always looking for the best solution, these parents will respond positively to “customized” education, read “blended learning” and alternative assessment.  

Howe and Strauss’ book helps the educator respect the modern child, who after all, should be the subject of modern educators. Emerson’s educational creed (from the post-mortem On Education) is partly:

I believe that our own experience instructs us that the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret. By your tampering and thwarting and too much governing he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child. Wait and see the new product of Nature. Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions. Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude [emphases added].
One can respect the child too much. How is Ralph’s belief not an abdication of the adult role of guide and disciplinarian? The politic Emerson anticipates the question:

But I hear the outcry which replies to this suggestion–Would you verily throw up the reins of public and private discipline; would you leave the young child to the mad career of his own passions and whimsies, and call this anarchy a respect for the child’s nature? I answer–Respect the child, respect him to the end, but also respect yourself. Be the companion of his thought, the friend of his friendship, the lover of his virtue–but no kinsman of his sin. Let him find you so true to yourself that you are the irreconcilable hater of his vice and the imperturbable slighter of his trifling [emphases added].

Knowing how they are comforted by the rod and staff of standards,  I will keep my rubrics at the ready, the better to hate Millennial vices and slight their “trifling” communication.  And online, as I chat with my Millennials and respect who they are,  how important it is that I offer them realtime feedback on their developing communication skills? 

Pardon this version of the 23rd Psalm

The class is Millennials. I shall not sweat. They make me down to lie in social networks; they lead me beside the information streams.
They restoreth my faith in education; they leadeth me in the path of righteous educational choice for the greater good’s sake.
Yea, though I find myself in 30 plus sized classrooms,
I will fear no evil, for my knowledge of their peer personality protects me.
My rubrics and common standards, they comfort me.
They have prepared a table before me in the presence of their families: they annointeth my digital footprint with “like”; my inbox runneth over. 

Surely social capital and connectedness shall inhere in my digital footprint:  and we will dwell in the cloud for ever.

image from wikimedia

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