Updated: Oct 31, 2022
By Juliet Revell - PLD Facilitator, Digital Circus.
“When I look at the younger generation, I despair of the future of civilisation.”
Attributed to Aristotle, this quote evokes the timeless generational divide. While I searched for a hard and fast attribution, I haven’t found one. I did, however, find a myriad of other interesting material. Generational banter appeals widely, but the rhetoric can slide sideways and downwards quickly. “Ok Boomer” anyone?!
They’ve been dubbed Generation Alpha. This new tribe of tamariki. Born from 2010 onwards, the year the iPad arrived. Wired, woke and worried? Or is that just us as teachers? Are these kids really that different? I’ve been exploring. We are shaped by change and as educators, we see societal shifts quickly. They play out in our classrooms.
Who are Generation Alpha? What defines them? How are they different from other generations? Mark McCrindle and Ashley Fell in Generation Alpha: Understanding our Children and Helping Them Thrive contend that Generation Alpha has five defining characteristics. They are: Digital, Social, Global, Mobile and Visual. Let's unpack.
That ‘digital’ is listed comes as no surprise. We know what exponential growth looks like on a graph, and thanks to COVID, have an authentic experience. My friend’s four year old commands Alexa to play Ed Sheeran’s ‘Bad Habits’ repeatedly, much to the chagrin of his teenage sister. AI’s recognition of speech is surprisingly good even when faced with dubious articulation. Alpha are skilled at using voice to search. Conducting some (highly scientific) research in a New Entrant classroom, I found tamariki know they are able to choose from a vast array (or stick to their favourite Vlad and Nikita videos.) The machines are learning, and they are quick. The AI that creates essays, Generation Pre-Trained Transformer (GPT 3) is described by Wikipedia as an ‘autoregressive language model’. GPT3 uses deep learning to produce text, as if written by a human. At this point, the software isn’t completely accurate, for example there may be discrepancies found in referencing. Plagiarism software won’t detect them, though, as the text is generated and not copied. AI isn’t coming. It’s here. Machines choose our Netflix recommendations, customise the ads that we see, and open our phones (facial recognition) but how much do we see?
A parent quoted by McCrindle (2021) observed that while technology was a luxury in her childhood, it is now socialisation that is the luxury. While McCrindle (2021) recognises socialisation as worthy of nurturing, the research finds that Alpha (possibly more than any other) are influenced by their peers. Being ‘hyper’ connected comes with advantages and disadvantages. The negative side to this connectivity; safety, online behaviour and distraction, coupled with COVID and world politics has contributed to the growth of the ‘Well Being’ and Mindfulness movement.
Today, regardless of where a child lives, they may be influenced by the same viral phenomenon. Remember Pokemon GO? McCrindle uses this as an example. Pokemon GO grew to 50 million users in just nineteen days. Mobility is discussed in terms of how Alpha will “study, travel and live.’ This generation will have many different careers, work in locations that suit them or their company, and have to adapt to changes in their environment quickly.
Alpha are exposed to visual stimuli, which includes massive amounts of marketing. Alpha will watch their peers demonstrate and share online. We already see them preferring to watch other children play rather than play themselves on occasion!
McCrindle suggests that Generation Alpha’s future is bright. Alpha are being shaped in diverse and challenging times. As teachers, what we have to give are our values. Our value lies in our humanity. Creativity, flexibility, resilience, empathy and connection remain the key dispositions required for the Alpha workforce. Anything that can be automated will be. There is no automation that will ever impart the connection we have the privilege of creating with our ākonga. Modelling balance is critical in challenging times. The writer Anne Lamott guides us to remember “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” Well being is central to our restoration and growth. Find what works for you and do that. Humans have timeless needs of belonging and connection. This is a universal truth that will never change, regardless of how automated our world becomes.
Empathy is a skill that can (and must) be taught, nurtured and grown. It is more than the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes, just as a true Growth Mindset is more than ‘not giving up’. Empathy requires the ability to relate to the other by feeling what they are feeling. McCrindle describes three key characteristics of empathy:
That children are able to understand and value the uniqueness of others.
That they can identify different emotions and be equipped to name them.
That they are able to regulate their own emotional responses and positively respond to the emotions of others.
Teaching the vocabulary of emotions becomes an explicit part of this process. Brene Brown’s “Atlas of the Heart” (2021) has been developed to provide this vocabulary, detailing descriptions of eighty seven emotions (with an adult audience in mind). The ability to feel empathy for the other becomes critical to counter what we see in an increasingly polarised society. The author Wayne Dyer said “If you have the choice between being right and being kind, choose being kind.”
The New Zealand Curriculum (2007) vision is for “young people who will be creative, energetic and enterprising,” along with “confident, connected, actively involved, and lifelong learners.” How well are fostering creativity, enterprise and the active involvement of tamariki in their learning? We need our learners to be adept in collaboratively solving real world problems. Why? Those same two words. Exponential change. All around us. Carroll, Goldman, Britos, Koh, Royalty, & Hornstein (2010) point out that “students need both the skills and the tools to participate actively in a society where problems are increasingly complex and nuanced understandings are vital.”
McCrindle (2021) explores the need for learning beyond the three Rs. Growing technical and transferable skills, such as those created in STEM learning is key. Driving Design Thinking as a change initiative provides a vehicle to grow these skills. Empathy is integral to Design Thinking. The Design Thinking process can incorporate digital technologies as tools for learning, and/or a digital outcome. It ensures opportunities for collaborative, real world problem solving and innovation. Are your teams using a unified framework to grow these significant skills? Understandably teachers may present anxiety about change. I have this anxiety myself. These feelings are natural and real. Acknowledge them. We are moving into a world where the power of traditional hierarchies are being questioned, where we will see more collaborative working environments. How to begin? Use the strengths you have available within your teams.
Ewan McIntosh, in How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen (2014) argues that leading innovation is “about showing an understanding of the people that you are trying to bring with you, and your vision, and providing space for those to innovate around you.” Transformational leaders organise, support and develop their teams. Early adopters will be happy to share their initial Design Thinking lessons in order to support others. This enables development team wide and provides an opportunity for their reflection. As teachers, we have a collective responsibility to innovate in order to teach our tamariki. Alpha tamariki need these dispositional skills. The Design Thinking Process motivates tamariki to ideate and create original solutions fostered using empathy. Your tamariki will see that they have an impact on their world.
Just as we impart the values that carry us through in our physical world, our learners need to have foundational values for the lives they live online. Having an equitable start with this kind of education would provide stability, and foster wellness in and out of digital spaces. Netsafe advocates for following six principles in the development of digital citizenship:
1. Ako | Young people are “active agents” in the design and implementation of digital citizenship, including approaches to online safety
2. Whānaungatanga | An unbounded, coherent home-school-community approach is central to the development of digital citizenship and online safety management
3. Manaakitanga | Approaches to digital citizenship are inclusive, responsive and equitable in design and implementation
4. Wairuatanga | Digital citizenship in action positively contributes to wellbeing and resilience development enabling safer access to effective learning and social opportunities
5. Mahi tahi | Digital citizenship development and online safety incident management are fostered through partnership approaches, coherent systems and collaboration
6. Kotahitanga | Evaluation and inquiry underpin the ongoing design of digital citizenship approaches, based on rich evidence from young people and their whānau.
There is much to be navigated. Our awareness and intention are key when we think of what’s ahead. How do your learners see you? Do you model the dispositions that they themselves will need? Are you willing to be flexible and adapt? What do your tamariki see you doing? I’ve recently got a new pair of glasses. In days of old, these ones would have been deemed ‘coke bottles,’ or ‘jam jars.’ Yes, I have been mocked, The new lenses are fantastic. Oh, the things I can see! The places I will go! And these glasses don’t have AI embedded, yet. Are you ready?
Brown, B. (2021). Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Random House Publishing Group.
Carroll, M., Goldman, S., Britos, L., Koh, J., Royalty, A., & Hornstein, M. (2010). Destination, imagination and the fires within: Design thinking in a middle school classroom. International Journal of Art & Design Education,29(1), 37-53.
Hipkins, R. (2014). Key Competencies for the Future | New Zealand Council for ... Retrieved from http://www.nzcer.org.nz/nzcerpress/key-competencies-future.
"The future of education 2020 - McCrindle."
Accessed 15 May. 2022.
McCrindle, M., Fell, A., & Buckerfield, S. (2021). Generation Alpha: Understanding Our Children and Helping Them Thrive. Headline Publishing Group.
McIntosh.E. (2014). How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen. Edinburgh, United Kingdom. NoTosh Publishing (a division of NoTosh Limited).
Ministry of Education (2007). The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media.
Robinson, V. M., Hohepa, M., & Lloyd, C. (2007). School leadership and student outcomes: Identifying what works and why (Vol. 41). Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Leaders.