I published this article More Than ‘Millennials’: Colleges Must Look Beyond Generational Stereotypes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. LVI, no. 7, October 16, 2009.
I wrote it in response to what I saw as a lot of disparaging remarks made about the cohort of young people that have been labeled as ‘millennials’. This was not just in the media but also among educators. I spent much of my teaching career teaching members of this cohort and felt that they were being maligned, because my own experience with them was nothing like what was described.
I like this essay. From the descriptions of properties of generations, I thought about the fantasy of zodiac horoscope astrology signs. Among us as rational people, we tell ourselves we would never fall for generalizations based on dividing people’s personalities based on the 12 months of the year, or based on the years in the 12-year Chinese calendar cycle. Those “types” are so obviously meaningless. But we have to wonder if talk of Gen X or Gen Z is really that different? Without the handy connections to obvious fantasy such as star signs, the equivalent fantasy of generational divides can pass under our radar for bs detection. Thus, even smart and well meaning educators can be pushed into reification of such generation labels as if they mean actual things. There was real evidence that baby boomers were a thing. But even my generation never had evidence for all the stereotypes associated with it. No later generation has ever had such stereotypes documented to belong to it.
It seems like a minor step from those to the supposed four learning styles. I always agreed that it is good to have some variety in one’s teaching methods. But I never saw why we should think of our students as being almost incapable of learning by their non-favorite three modes. It is not as if there were ever enough sections to run by dividing up by learning styles. When did any school ever say that say the 10 am section is only for kinesthetic learners? And why weren’t there research papers and conferences and articles in the CHE about how to teach differently the students who took the 8 am section from the 10 am section from the noon section? Those seemed to me to be more real self-selected categories, yet they never got such analysis. But even those I think were smaller issues than the constant issue of engaging students in every section as individuals. I wish I had been able to read Mano’s essay the year I started teaching, so I could have avoided worrying about such categories. Thanks.
Mano Singham says
I totally agree with you about how ‘learning styles’ theory was seized upon to create the kind of bad practices you describe. I saw so much of it when I was studying K-12 science teaching.
In my teaching I used something called the Kolb Learning Cycle which was quite different. What it involved was making sure that you use multiple forms of teaching so that you provide an entry point to all your students. So you cycle through things that are concrete (showing them demonstrations or having them do experiments), allowing them time to think about what they say and why that might be so (a reflective period), allowing them to create their own hypotheses (an inductive process that allows for abstract thinking), and then having them make predictions based on their theories about what they would expect to see in a new concrete situation (a deductive exercise), and then having them test it out (leading to a new concrete situation), and so on.
That was the ideal cycle. In practice different situations required different order of activities but the key idea was to have all the elements regularly involved so that different people with different interests and propensities (not styles) got engaged. As someone who is theoretically inclined, I myself enjoy the inductive and deductive parts most but I knew that others much preferred to actually see and do things and that was what got them interested in the material. But what was important was that rather than try and identify supposed intrinsic qualities and teach to that (which is the learning styles dogma and results in reinforcing just one way of learning), everyone eventually ended up doing everything, so that they become well-rounded thinkers, going beyond their initial interests.
I also very much like this essay, and I was caught by the assertion that college has become vastly more complicated and difficult to navigate. I got my BS in Computer Engineering in 1980, from a University of California school. I went back to school part-time in the mid-2000s when I had quit working to take care of my parents, and slogged through lots of upper-division background classes before writing a thesis and graduating with an MS in geology in 2013, from a California State University school. For those not in the know, California has two university systems, with UC schools being more research oriented and CSU schools being more teaching oriented. Theoretically, a UC school is much harder for an undergraduate to navigate than a CSU school, which is far more focused on the needs of undergraduates.
I recall my undergraduate UC experience being extremely easy to navigate. It was generally not all that difficult to get into the classes I needed, although the section might not be my first or even second choice. I lived in a dorm for the first two years, which was one year too many in hindsight, but it was not an unpleasant experience. Phone calls home were expensive (ancient readers like myself might remember the concept of long distance phone charges) and so I endured an adjustment period of not speaking with my parents daily, until it became the new normal. I was a slow learner and carried a minimum load in many quarters, so it took me four and half years to get that degree. During that time, I remember standing in line to add a desperately needed class twice, both times because someone hadn’t added all the sections into the university computer system. The second time was a great gift, because it allowed me a long conversation with the man in front of me in line…who eventually became my husband, now of 41 years.
The process of getting my MS was easy for me to navigate as well, because my subject isn’t all that popular, and classes were never oversubscribed. But I watched the undergraduates around me, and saw them struggling. Most of the lower-division classes were oversubscribed, especially those that were required for many majors. They were juggling far more than I had as an undergrad. My CSU is a commuter school, and in fact has trouble filling its dorms. Undergrads often live with their parents, and juggle school, work, and caring for younger siblings. Or they are older students (most not as old as I was, though) who were juggling all those things but the children they were caring for were their own. I recall several instances where a baby dozed in the back of a classroom during a lecture, or a child quietly made pictures with crayons, because all the options for childcare fell through for a student that day. I never heard an instructor complain about it. It took the 40% of incoming freshmen who did graduate, an average of six years to do so.
I’m sure that experiences vary from school to school, but my sense was that life itself had simply changed for the worse, for many California college students, during the decades between my first and second ventures into attending university. But both times, I knew that most students were doing the best they could with the hand that life had dealt them. All that makes me believe that the fundamental issue is not with generational changes in attitudes so much as decadal changes in the economic reality of living in the US.
The “deep” analysis of generational behavioral traits is, and always has been, nothing more than a pseudo-intellectual veneer for whining about “kids these days”. It’s appalling that any college professors take it seriously.
John Morales says
DrVanNostrand, milieus and mores change over time, so it’s hardly surprising various generational cohorts change accordingly, being people of their time.