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Posted on Nov 1, 2009

Learning and Working with the Net Gen

by Bill de Jager, SCSBC Director of Learning  ◊  

What was the name of Richard Nixon’s dog?

If you don’t have a clue or aren’t sure who Nixon was, don’t worry. Someone on your staff probably will know. It’s just one of those generational things.

Each of us is deeply attuned to the characteristics of the generation in which we were born. Each generation has experienced world events, national politics and scientific discoveries that have defined and shaped its beliefs, assumptions and outlook on life. Most of us are aware of the four generations since 1946 to the present1:

  • Baby Boomers (born between 1946 – 1964)
  • Generation X (1965 – 1976)
  • Net Generation (1977 – 1997)
  • Generation Next (1998 – present)

All four of these generations are probably working and learning in our schools. Most of our administrative teams, staff, board and committee members are either Baby Boomers or Generation X’ers. Our new teachers, fresh out of PDP, armed with the latest educational research and teaching strategies, and wired to the hilt, are part of the leading edge of the Net Generation. Our middle and high school students are also part of the Net Gen. Our elementary students find themselves in Generation Next, a generation that will be shaped by events that will happen in the next decade or two.

Let’s focus on the Net Gen, keeping in mind our middle/high school students and our young teachers. They have grown up with O.J. Simpson, Columbine, Exxon Valdez, the Gulf War, September 11th, Iraq War, AIDS, Band Aid, Live Aid, Tiger Woods, Bono, Princess Diana, and Al Gore.2 But “clearly the most significant change affecting [the Net Generation] is the rise of the computer, the Internet, and other digital technologies … the first generation to bathe in bits.3

So what defines, what characterizes, our middle/high students and our young teachers?

Don Tapscott, in his recent book, Grown Up Digital, suggests that they are different from Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers in eight differentiating characteristics:

  1. They want freedom … freedom of choice to freedom of expression. 4 They relish choice and are not overwhelmed with 500+ TV channels and the proliferation of products, brands and tunes. They use their digital tools (the newest version!) to access their choices. They use digital technology to design how and when they work and expect their employers to provide space for self-expression. How much freedom of choice and expression are we willing to provide to the Net Gen as they learn and teach in our schools?
  2. They love to customize, personalize. 5 The media world is acutely aware of this need; therefore, it provides a plethora of ring tones, web page designs, and a multitude of entertainment choices. Providing rich variety now extends to almost all products that the Net Gen is purchasing. Will we increase our students’ engagement and learning if we continue to customize our teaching for a variety of individual learning styles?
  3. They are the new scrutinizers.6 They expect that the true and complete information about products and services will be provided by companies. Rather than passively accepting mediocrity and misinformation, they have no hesitation questioning and intensely scrutinizing what is being offered and presented. How will we respond to our students and young teachers who may question the what, the why, and the how of our current schooling?
  4. They look for corporate integrity and openness when deciding what to buy and where to work.7 They are willing to spend the time to explore and research future employers and companies (including schools in which to learn and work?) to see if those employers, companies and schools truly live out the values that they purport in print. Have no doubt that our schools websites are thoroughly examined. Do our schools’ website, promotional materials, and initial orientations for prospective parents, students and teachers reflect an openness and integrity to what our schools’ values actually are?
  5. They want entertainment and play in their work, education and social life.8 Their growing attachment to interactive experiences, especially video games, has honed their outside-the-box thinking, their understanding that there is usually more than one way to arrive at a goal, and their desire to have learning and working to be playful and entertaining.9 Are our schools leveraging the possible educational value of shaping instructional and learning choices that increase student engagement through play and entertainment?
  6. They are the collaboration and relationship generation.10 They facebook, twitter, skype, text, and video game each other constantly. Sharing files for learning is unquestioned. They buy products (perhaps even the schools in which they choose to learn and work) based on their best friends’ recommendations. How can our schools tap into the power of their collaboration and relationships, leveraging that force to strengthen a vibrant school culture and to heighten effective pedagogical practices?
  7. The Net Gen has a need for speed – and not just in video games.11 They expect real-time conversations and connections anywhere in the global village. They expect rapid, almost instantaneous, flow of information over a vast global network. Are our schools providing rapid access to appropriate networks so that our students don’t feel discouraged and road-blocked in their quest for authentic research? Are we providing a repertoire of learning tools that helps them efficiently navigate in those networks?
  8. They are the innovators.12 In their constant quest to be innovative in their collaboration, entertainment, learning and working, they want the newest tech tool because it usually can do so much more than what they currently have. Are we promoting innovation and imagination in the learning and working in our schools, supporting our promotion with the necessary tools?

No doubt, there will be voices in our school communities who will insist that pandering to these eight characteristics will just reinforce the Net Gen’s affinity for lack of shame, work ethic and values; ignorance; narcissism; Net addiction; intellectual theft; cyber-bullying; violence bred by video games; and their parents’ coddling.13

Tapscott suggests that the unease, defensiveness and hostility to the Net Generation are to be expected. They are a major generational threat to the Baby Boomers, developing a classic generation gap.14 What an irony for those of us, the young adults of the 60’s and 70’s fighting the “Establishment,” who are now finding ourselves reacting just like our parents did!

If communication only happens in the recipients’ language, isn’t there an obligation for the Baby Boomers and the Gen Xer’s to familiarize themselves with the Net Gen world, so that the non-negotiables of Christian education, in whatever form and context, are carried forward from one generation to the next?

Oh, by the way, the dog’s name was Checkers. Most Boomers know that … and the Net Gen would have immediately googled it!


1 Don Tapscott, Grown Up Digital, 2009.
2 Tapscott, 16.
3 Ibid. 17.
4 Ibid. 34.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid. 35.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid. 35.
12 Ibid. 36.
13 Ibid. 3-5.
14 Ibid. 7.

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