Embrace challenge of teaching ‘Generation Why’

Forming our Future
By Paul Artman
It is a natural in education that we rely on the alphabet, so naturally we all remember that “Y” follows “X.”  The generations of society have recently taken on the concept of being named by this alphabetized genre, thus this brings us to the study of Generation Y or as some have noted Generation Why.  Here are classic examples of the prevailing generation as played out in your home, school and workplace.  We can also ask, how do we better prepare this generation of learners?
First, we offer a historical primer on the generations that began to be defined as a result of the world wars’ experiences.  People of the Greatest Generation were born prior to 1928, and offer the heroism that saved our freedom through the sacrifices of World War II. I am proud to pause and salute my United States Naval veteran dad at this moment. As a result of his service he gained the opportunity to witness history by being present while the Japanese Surrender Instrument was being signed.
This generation deserves our respect for selfless acts of courage portrayed as the mundane, but hardly so! May God forever bless this Greatest Generation. The other generations followed one by one, including one we can call our own. So, how do we deal with our present generation?
The Silent Generation was born between 1928 and 1945, but then came the not so silent Baby Boomers breathing first breath from 1946 to 1964. Much has been written about we Baby Boomers, but fast on our heels was Generation X born between 1965 and 1980.  Births from that point until the early 2000s have been dubbed Millennials or Generation Y. If you teach, work with, or better yet, live with a member of Generation Y, then you probably want and deserve this explanation and insight into one of the rarest generations to ever grace God’s green earth.
So, what is so unique about navigating Generation Y?
As we interchange Generation Y for Generation Why, it was teen expert Eric Chester who coined this new term. His generational understanding is based, in large part, on youth who continually question standards and expectations imposed by society. In other words, these students, and now young adults, often co-workers, ask the questions, “Why does it matter?” or “Why should I care?” You may ask, “Why do they ask such questions?”
However, we as educators and parents must realize that we have within our charge a generation that has never worked in a world without computers, never known a world without the possibility of destruction, does not understand the concept of black and white television or endured a building without air conditioning.
This generation grew up with “neighbor strangers” and thinking that everyone of worth has tattoos and piercings, or at least should have such. Likewise, these students have inherited more family responsibility and baggage than any previous generation. Are you getting a clearer picture?  Here is a generation whose values have been molded by television and their view of success hinges on figuring out an angle or maybe “just winning the lottery” to solve all their financial needs forever.
Generation Whyers are impatient, disengaged, skeptical, image driven and blunt. These attributes seem difficult with which to deal or perhaps even insurmountable. Our work may be cut out for us, but Whyers also have many positive attributes. All is not lost as this generation is resilient, loyal, tolerant, innovative, self-reliant, creative and motivated learners. This may seem to be a dichotomy, but in reality this is a true snapshot of our complex, young friends.
With that said, we also realize that they are clay with which we attempt to mold a lasting and fruitful future.  As teachers and parents, how do we work with Generation Whyers? It is a must that we accentuate the positive and set only positive tones at all times. This generation responds to relationships built on trust, openness, and honesty. Today’s youth are motivated by the digital world; therefore, adults must join the world of technology to understand, analyze and meet learner needs.  Many adults will become the second in the family to adapt to the digital world, but this adaptation is a must for relating to our younger charges.
Today’s learners thrive on instant feedback and possess unlimited energy; on the other hand, they have short attention spans and must be afforded motivation.  Here again, technology’s bells and whistles play a part in relating to and teaching our students. Remember, this generation has been fed a constant diet of high-energy games, digital images, and constant communication even during sleep time. As parents and teachers we must be cognizant of the differences in generations and especially of the individual children who count on us for education, guidance and love.
St. Ignatius of Loyola offers us the key to teachers teaching and parents rearing their children, “They are to adapt themselves to the temperaments of the individuals with whom they deal and, to win them over, they are instructed to enter the other’s door but to come out their own.”
Simple enough, no matter the generation or the generational differences, we are charged in Catholic education and the Christian home to be faithful, understanding and to find ways to bring up our young in a manner which positively sustains the future for all of us. It is up to us as teachers and families to remain prayerful, motivated and optimistic no matter the generational characteristics.  We must be able to continually adapt to the matters at hand, as we remain flexible and motivated in our dealings with the younger generation. If we do all these, we will certainly have another productive generation to follow.
(Paul Artman, Ed.S. has been the  principal of Greenville St. Joseph School for 10 years.)