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Teaching Millennials

This article was written for publication in “Partnership Perspectives” in Autumn 2017, the full magazine can be downloaded here: https://www.partnershipuk.org/perspectives.htm

In 1969, one of television’s ground-breaking documentaries came to BBC2. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, and standing in front of Notre Dame in Paris, Kenneth Clark started presenting his personal view of European  Civilisation. The opening sequence, set against what the Guardian described as, “an opening burst of terrifying church organ”, comprised pictures of imposing architecture and art, from St Peter’s in Rome to Michelangelo’s David. While Clark stated “What is civilisation? I don’t know”, his demeanour and presentation was that of an expert passing on his wisdom to those who were watching.

Forty years later, another documentary started on BBC4. The opening sequence involves the presenter, Alice Roberts, walking towards the  camera through the African savanna, to a soundtrack of traditional African music. This continues with shots of Roberts with various people: having her face painted, riding a bike, climbing a rock face, and caving. Dressed as though she is on a gap year, her first words are, “They say this is where it all began”. She may be an expert (a medical doctor and anthropologist) but she is passing on group wisdom, not personal knowledge, and is inviting us to explore the subject with her.

These two documentaries illustrate some of the issues surrounding teaching different generations, and especially teaching Millennials, which I hope to explore in this article.

Who Are the Millennials?

The dates which are used to define the Millennials vary quite widely, with the start anywhere from 1975 to 1984, and the end somewhere between 1994 and 2002. McCrindle’s middle line of those born between 1980 and 1994 is as good as any, and his table is reproduced below.  This generation goes under various names—Millennials, Generation Y, dot.com Generation, Echo Boomers, the New Victorians.

Description Born Age
Builders Before 1946 72+
Boomers 1946-1964 53 – 71
Generation X 1965 – 1979 38 – 52
Millennials 1980 – 1994 23 – 37
Generation Z 1995 – 2009 8 – 22

Learning Styles

While the title of this article is “Teaching Millennials”, it is probably better to talk about, “How Millennials Learn” as the issue is not so much the way things are taught as the way in which those being taught learn. Over the last few decades, it has become more prevalent to consider individuals’ learning styles as a guide to how teaching should take place. There is a recognition that some people seem to learn better through words, others through images, still others through activity. There is, however, less agreement on how many learning styles there are. The Learning Styles Inventory gives four classifications of learners, ‘divergers (concrete, reflective), assimilators (abstract, reflective), converters (abstract, active), and accommodators (concrete, active)’. On a more popular level, the web site, learning-styles-online.com, lists seven different styles; visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social, and solitary and argues, ‘Your preferred styles guide the way you learn. They also change the way you internally represent experiences, the way you recall information, and even the words you choose.’

Recognising that people will express a preference as to how they assimilate new information, much emphasis has been laid upon the importance of tailoring instruction to meet the learner’s individual preferred style of learning. Thus, if someone is a kinaesthetic (physical or tactile) learner, then they should be presented with information in a physical way. Pashler et al, ‘refer to this specific instance of the learning-styles hypothesis as the meshing hypothesis—the claim that presentation should mesh with the learner’s own proclivities’. They go on to argue, following a review of the literature, that there is no evidence to support this particular hypothesis, indeed they conclude that the results of several studies ‘contradict the most widely held version of the … meshing hypothesis.’ They go even further in their dismissal of this hypothesis, ‘The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing.”

While the evidence for tailoring teaching to each individual’s needs in order to ensure optimum learning, appears to be somewhat lacking (though some of my teacher colleagues reading this may dispute that). Our own experience tells us that there is clearly something happening in the expectations that people have of how teaching and learning will take place. This is clear whether we are parents of children at school, or lecturers in a Bible College where the median age of our student intake, places them firmly in the Millennial generation. This change in expectations is summarised in the table below.

Style Content Delivery
Boomers Make me think, give me something new, convince me. Don’t make me take part in role plays Has to be convincing and intelligent Has to be delivered by an authority on the subject. Lecture style is fine.
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Gen X

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Make it relevant and practical. Give me team exercises, in-tray exercises and role play Has to be rigorous and relevant Has to be delivered by an expert. Involve me, make it interactive.
Millennials Make it relevant, practical and fun. Exercises are important, but make sure they are interesting. Has to be applicable to my immediate needs. Has to be engaging and two-way; take me on a journey.

Documentaries as Examples

If we return to the two documentaries with which we started, we can see how they fit within this framework, and how they express the varying expectations of the different generations.

Kenneth Clark was a ‘Builder,’ putting a documentary together for fellow Builders and Boomers. So, despite its large budget and multiple locations, “Civilisation” might be described as an hour-long lecture delivered on the subject by a recognised authority. For example, when discussing the change in thought that took place in the 17th century, Clark stands, almost unmoving, in front of a house (the relevance of which is never explained) for more than two minutes.

Alice Roberts, on the other hand, is late Generation X. Like Kenneth Clark she is a university lecturer by profession, but her students are Millennials, so the programme seems aimed at that generation. Thus, instead of a televised lecture, she takes the viewer on a journey where we are invited to go with her on an exploration of ideas and, thus, see the discoveries as somehow ours and not hers alone. So, in order to understand the effect of heat on the human body, Roberts accompanies some African hunters for the day, taking measurements and comparing her physical reactions to those of her companions. The camera follows her, travelling through the savanna as we are ‘immersed’ in the environment.

There is another striking difference. In episode eight of “Civilisation”, the opening shot, a pan across Dutch countryside, lasts 42 seconds. It is 1 minute 16 seconds before Clark speaks, and there have been seven separate shots. In episode one of “The Incredible Human Journey”, Roberts speaks after only 8 secs., and in the first 1 minute 15 seconds there are 50 separate shots. This visual speed, the multiple images, helps in understanding why Clark’s documentary now seems slow and ponderous. It also illustrates an aspect of the Millennials and their learning which we will touch on later.

Aspects of Learning

The table above from Sally Bibbs shows that there are some important differences in the expectations and preferences Millennials may have to learning from those of earlier generations. I want to explore four of these differences as a way to understanding how Millennials learn.

First, they are used to being bombarded with huge amounts of information simultaneously. Information is ubiquitous and immediate, and  Millennials expect it to answer their questions and needs right now. They are surrounded by choice and ‘have become incredibly good at processing large amounts of information, very quickly’. However, as the Orr-Ewings go on to say, this processing of information is done “without paying any attention to its meaning’. This means that the processing of information is done selectively, only the sound bites get through the information storm. If we consider this in relation to Roberts’ documentary, no-one is expected to remember in any detail the 50 different camera shots in the first minute or so of the programme. What we are expected to take away is a sense of the breadth of information that will be coming our way, and the depth of the journey of discovery we are about to undertake.

Second, Millennials understand that learning is a lifetime experience, as Alice Roberts says, “I don’t think learning stops when you finish school, or university.” They expect to continue to learn and to retrain in their jobs and careers. They have ‘heard the mantra of lifelong learning all through school and they’ve come to accept it’.

Third, Millennials look for learning to be social, collaborative, and fun. This is the environment they have been raised in at school. So they are used to working together on tasks, but these tasks need to be immediately relevant—the ‘right now’ aspect of information we mentioned above. The tasks also have to be ‘fun’, in other words, learning needs to be engaging and entertaining. This may well be a result of the sense of entitlement that they have been brought up with.

Fourth, Millennials are seeking mentors; people who will advise, guide, and coach them.  They are used to parents who are continually involved in their lives, taxiing their children from one developmental opportunity to the other. As one writer has put it, ‘Millennials have grown accustomed to a very well-meaning, better-educated, more-influential person or two doing the thinking, planning, decision-making, and problem solving for them’. Linked to this is a desire for, and a welcoming of, feedback, which they ‘generally expect to be fairly instant’. This means that learning has to involve some emotional aspect, a sense of connection. ‘If they do not feel they are understood, that there is an essential authenticity in those who are teaching, they struggle to engage’.

Millennials and Learning in the Church

What are we to make of all this in terms of teaching Millennials in church? Perhaps most importantly, we should not feel that everyone has to be an expert in educational theory or sociology to be able to teach. This is important in the context of a local church, and important for us to realise lest we give in to the temptation to give up and leave it all to the professionals. In many ways, the church is an ideal environment for Millennials to learn. But we will need to work at some areas to make the possibilities for learning relevant to them.

Life-long learning has always been at the centre of the church’s life; we expect people, through Sunday teaching, House Groups, and in other ways, to continually learn and grow. We need to build on this, recognising that we may not be able to continue to do things exactly as they have been done, but also recognising that Millennials want to – expect to – learn. We should also be looking at ways in which we can encourage them into training; part time or full time, as a way of encouraging their desire for a continual experience of learning, and for retraining.

If we are truly living out Jesus’ command to ‘make disciples’ and truly living out a Christian life, then we can be the mentors Millennials are seeking. This is demanding, it means being available even at inconvenient times; it means allowing people into our lives and seeing us for who we really are.

We need also to create opportunities for learning as discovery. This may be difficult to do on a Sunday morning, but there are other ways to engage Millennials through mission teams or local social outreach. Part of their mindset is the desire to make a difference, and to see that difference right now. Short term mission teams do exactly that. It has been the tendency to see short term mission as something that is good for young people to do, but often older members of the congregation are not involved. However, if this is to be a rewarding learning experience, then one of the elders, or other older member of the congregation, needs to be part of that team, learning alongside as mentor and guide.

Conclusion

It is customary for every generation to think that there is something wrong with the younger generation. Our parents and grandparents thought the same about us. It is not that there is something wrong with Millennials, it is just that the churches have not always thought through how they can best operate to help them learn, to truly be disciples. If we are leaders and teachers in the church today, we have an obligation to get this as right as possible so that Millennial Christians can fulfil their potential as God’s people.

Credits

The picture from “Civilisation” is taken from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxsVroiUHik 

The picture from “The Incredible Human Journey” is taken from https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00kfqps/the-incredible-human-journey-1-out-of-africa 

Clark K, Civilisation, BBC, first broadcast on BBC2 1969, repeated on BBC4 2011. 

Roberts A, The Incredible Human Journey, BBC, first broadcast on BBC4 2009, repeated 2017

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