Teaching Generation Alpha Students


Generation Alpha students are the children who have been born in the years after 2010. They are growing up surrounded by and often immersed in technology. They are about age twelve and younger, around grades one through six, and technology has often been a part of their lives since birth, unlike those of us who remember what it was like before we had “everything” at our fingertips. Their attitudes and experiences are being shaped by the technology they use, if they are allowed to use it.

Typically, we would expect these children to have shorter attention spans, be fairly intelligent, and have an appetite for entertainment. Images of the children and even toddlers that I see glued to their parents’ phones while riding in a shopping cart at the grocery store come to my mind. These childrens’ brains are developing much differently than all the generations before them, and it’s not necessarily good.

Compare these two children:

Child A and Child B are both eight years old and have recently finished third grade. They grew up in very different homes, however. Child A has had his own tablet from the age of three. He plays games, watches movies, and does all kinds of “educational” activities on it. If he’s not sleeping, he is often using his tablet, even while eating.

Child B is different. This child, although technically Generation Alpha according to his birth year, was raised in a very different type of environment. His parents use technology, but they are also discerning and seriously limit the amount of time they themselves spend using technology, and the time their child spends on a device, if they let him use one at all. Child B rides his bike and wades in the creek with his siblings. He feeds the farm animals while visiting his grandparents. He goes to museums and concerts with his family. He spends rainy days inside reading, working on a building project out in the garage with his dad, creating an art project, or playing with Legos. It is obvious how well-rounded and different this child is and will be when he grows up, not to mention how differently he will function in the classroom.

As teachers, we would probably rather teach Child B. He will typically pay more attention to us in the classroom, spend more time being careful with his handwriting and schoolwork, and be much more interested in learning the types of things we do in a school setting. He will typically be more eager to learn in a classroom setting because his brain isn’t on a high-speed setting, used to entertainment that requires him to do nothing but look at a screen while he rapidly mentally gobbles up information and pictures.

There is a huge difference in the ways these two children (and all the others in between) will function in a school setting. The ones who have grown up with technology and use it for hours a day are typically less attentive. (Five hours a day is currently the national average.) They have learned that they can be entertained almost constantly and do whatever they desire at rapid-fire speed by using technology.

I grew up in the 60s and remember riding bikes around the neighborhood. We roller skated, played games outside, walked to the nearest store to buy candy, and played board games inside each other’s houses. Just about everything was tactile and hands-on. Today, there is much less of that, and it is drastically affecting our students.

Handwriting is a great example. Consider these two children learning how to print letters. Compare a child who learns how to type and often uses a keypad or touchscreen at an early age to a child who does not regularly use a computer. There is something tactile about using a pencil on paper—or molding clay or painting—using one’s hands to create compared to just touching buttons or a screen. While Child B will have the ability to do both, Child B’s brain developed differently, and he is functioning on a slower but perhaps more deliberate course, carefully forming the letters while Child A’s brain is perhaps thinking, “I could just push a button and get this done much faster.” That makes a great difference in how a child will focus and function in the classroom, not to mention that an appetite for newer, faster, and entertaining content has probably already been well-established in Child A.

Compare hours of screen time to climbing trees, playing on a playground, or digging in the dirt. There is a vast difference. While the parents have the most direct effect on their children and their activities, there is much we teachers can and should do so that both Child A and Child B can flourish in our classrooms.

As teachers, we can do our best to present our lessons well and have high expectations for our students’ grades, penmanship, and attitudes. But what can we do, or undo, regarding their attention spans and past brain development? Many students, even Anabaptist ones, are being raised with lots of technology, and it is affecting their attention spans and thought patterns. It has been proven that the neurons in the brain make well-established pathways quickly, and that just a few hours using technology can change how one processes information. I believe that the most important effect we can have on our students is to present to them and engage them in hands-on, kinesthetic activities in as many different subjects, classes, and ways as we can. In our schools and classrooms, we should seek out creative ways to physically engage students in hands-on activities, and limit those activities that use technology.  While classes in music, art, and physical education are obvious places to start, there are ways to do this in our English, math, and science classes as well, especially in the younger grades.

Using math manipulatives, having students write in journals, drawing what they are learning, and performing science experiments are all ways to engage students beyond just sitting and reading the textbook or listening to a lecture, although I do believe these methods should be used as well. Students engaging in hands-on types of activities will not only learn and remember content well, but their developing brains will benefit from direct interaction with content, and not just pushing buttons or touching a screen to get a desired effect, or just passively sitting in a class listening to a teacher.

In history classes, students should see pictures of and hear about exciting events which happened throughout history. They should also have opportunities to experience history by participating in activities which people in different places and time periods have made and done.

We can also present interesting books to them. One of my favorite activities as an elementary school child was having the school librarian come into our classroom and present several books, showing us the titles, covers, and giving us just enough information about the book for me to think, I want to read that one! I’ve done this with a huge stack of books for my students when we come to book report season.

If you want to learn more about engaging students in activities rather than technology, there is a movement among the homeschool crowd in which parents are trying to get their children engaged in outside activities for as many hours as they are on technology. The goal is to spend 1,000 hours outside. It would be helpful to us teachers if more parents were aware of the factors which greatly affect a child’s learning inside our classrooms.

As teachers, we need to not only be knowledgeable about the current  situation with technology and children, but also be looking for methods in which we can engage each one of our students so that they can learn and function well in the classroom.

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