Two weeks ago, thanks to a referral from Common Sense, we received an email from Nicholas Mancall-Bitel, a freelance writer, working on an article for BBC Capital about the challenges of teaching Gen Z (ages 10-24) and Gen Alpha (ages 0-9) students.

On the topic of teaching to a “distracted generation,” Mancall-Bitel’s focus was on how teachers can engage young digital natives who grew up with apps, videos, screens, social media and other digital platforms on a daily basis. He was looking to identify particular obstacles teachers face today in teaching digital natives, as well as the ways teachers have integrated digital citizenship and new educational media into classes in order to engage Gen Z and Gen Alpha students.

Mobile phone with apps

We connected for an interview on February 11; on February 20, How Can a Distracted Generation Learn Anything? was posted to the BBC website.

We are always looking for opportunities – like Nicholas Mancall-Bitel’s request – to showcase the work of EGUSD teachers who develop innovative, meaningful ways of meeting their students’ needs. We immediately reached out to several teachers for their thoughts, which we in turn shared during our phone interview.

Cathe Petuya – Computer Resource Teacher, Herman Leimbach Elementary School shared the following:

“Yes, our students today are distracted. They are used to fast-paced programming without time for reflection or even polite debate.  This practice has left them with a strong desire to bond with others on a more personal level but without the skills to do it in a healthy way. My teaching is all about the relationships I build with my students. Nothing matters until they know they matter to me.

Today’s students have been fed a steady diet of “fast food” in every facet of their lives. The gift of time has been cast aside for the misguided goal of accomplishing more sooner.  We have to realize that children’s physical and emotional development can’t be rushed, but it can be derailed. And that is what is present in my classroom every day.  

Deeper learning occurs during periods of reflection.  More information is retained when it is connected to a story.  It is how humans are wired.  So I try to embed opportunities for students to talk often, listen to others, and respond with a personal connection.  By focusing on these needs, I know I can create an environment where students trust me and their classmates so they feel safe to take risks and try again when they stumble.

VoiceThread and Seesaw, the Learning Journal, are my top go-tos  for getting students to reflect and respond. They work perfectly for any age group and on any topic and on any device. The point of those options is for students to tell their story and connect with others beyond the classroom.  It is the perfect way to expand their vision of what could be and practice kindness and consideration for others – a key component of learning digital citizenship. Adding in video production reveals many more layers of skills to be built through collaboration, planning, and performance. Kids want to do and share and be known.  Tech used in the right way can make all that happen and so much more.”

Conrad Bituin – 6th Grade Teacher, Maeola Beitzel Elementary shared the following five suggestions:

  • Most important thing for me is to try to incorporate their “outside” interests into assignments, or even just into the class discussion. This starts with relationship building, and ends with authentic differentiation.
  • More technology related – I use what some would call “app smashing” (See I try different combinations of technology tools to create an experience for the student. YouTube is great, until you get to the 10th video – then it’s “just another YouTube video.” Combining various tools and technologies allows the student to experience content in different ways.
  • I try to keep in mind that just because many of our students are digital natives that have only known life with a device, this doesn’t translate to being successful in every aspect of technology. We still have conversations about appropriate use, class expectations, and effective use of technology (just because we can do it, doesn’t mean we should). I also keep this in mind when introducing new applications – many students still need to be instructed on how to use the system, and when.
  • The old educational adage “voice and choice” can also be harnessed in limitless combinations through the use of technology!

Erica Swift – 6th Grade Teacher, Herman Leimbach Elementary School spoke directly to Mancall-Bitel and was quoted in the article several times.

Building relationships and cultivating a culture of kindness was a common thread. When both of these factors are in place, student engagement is likely to happen and schools witness positive digital citizenship in action.

Teaching to a “distracted generation” is a reality and an ever-changing challenge. We are pretty sure if you read the BBC article and the additional insights shared in this post, you will start the week with new ideas to best engage your easily distracted students in whatever topic or subject you are addressing. It is our hope that this post will lead to an ongoing discussion on tips and best practices for building and maintaining student engagement. Please share any insights or resources you might have in the comments below.