The trouble with clichés is that they often remain valid long after people dismiss them as being ‘old hat’. Take the claim that teachers must be life-long learners. Regardless of how we might classify this claim, it remains highly relevant.

Today’s teachers differ from the cohort with whom I entered the profession over 40 years ago. Likewise, our students are different to those I met on entering my first classroom. It is especially this latter change that requires us as teachers to engage in on-going education – otherwise we cannot meet our students’ changed needs.

While the differences between the students of the 1960s and those of today are numerous and well documented, there are three I want to capture here. Expressed rather formally, the first difference relates to technology, the second to sociology and the third to psychology. Let’s see if we can break down those labels and discover just why we, as a profession, must stay abreast of current learning.
The differences in technology are simple to identify. When Rupert Murdoch used the phrase ‘digital natives’ to describe those young people who have grown up surrounded by the marvels of computer technology, he was also telling us that some of us are digital migrants – we are visitors to a country that is foreign to us. We might master the intricacies of ICT, just as a newcomer to our country might master our language and culture, but we are never really at home in this new world.

Two alternatives face us: retreat from technology, expecting our children to handle it for us – a common response – or embrace it, recognising its inherent value. This choice actually exists only for people who do not spend their day surrounded by technology in the workplace; as teachers we have no choice at all. To enrich our students, we must master technology.

Though it may be scary at times, we cannot ignore it – it simply won’t go away. Refusal to embrace it is akin to a doctor refusing to consider the benefits of ultrasound technology or a lawyer refusing to study laws passed in the last decade.

The second feature – sociology – is more complex and more debatable. I am referring to what is often called the X-Y Generational Gap. It is possible to be in denial about this matter but this is hardly an acceptable solution. If we continue to act as though today’s students are cut from the same cloth as their parents, we are in for a rocky ride. The sociologists who have painted the stark differences cannot all be wrong. As for those of us who are Baby Boomers, there are huge gaps between us and the Gen Y students we face daily – and that doesn’t take into account the next generation – some of whom have already started school. It seems to me that if we refuse to examine these generational changes, pretending human nature doesn’t really change, we are like those who deny the reality of post-modernism just because some supporters have made silly claims about its impact.

We don’t have to accept everything the ad agencies tell us about modern society, but as professionals, we should at least study the topics to see if there is any truth in them. This means listening to the sociologists and social commentators who have reported on modern society, so that we can more thoroughly understand where our students are coming from. Our students deserve nothing less.

The third element in my list is psychology. Again, the umpire might be out on this topic, with some people saying that the claims made about the changing psyche of today’s youth are extreme. Of course, to accept all of these claims as true is as silly as to reject them all – but we cannot deny that young people today function on a different wavelength to their parents. Without listing all the changes that appear in today’s classrooms, two linked features merit special attention: a reduced risk-taking level and an increased insecurity.

The reduction in risk-taking is understandable when you see how parents today cosset their children, protecting them from threats, real or imagined, in a way that my parents would have found unthinkable. The world today is arguably more threatening and more violent than the one in which I grew up, but I doubt that the answer is to wrap up our children in cotton wool. A sad consequence of this protective attitude is that many children are now reluctant to take the risks one normally associates with childhood and youth.

This is linked to a feeling of insecurity that is palpable. When Osama Bin Laden sent his planes into the central business district of New York, he unleashed a sense of fear that has been consistently amplified by politicians and the media ever since. Small wonder our children are scared. To be effective as teachers, we need to learn new strategies to empower students in ways previously unnecessary. This means we must revise our views on traditional psychology and listen to what modern theorists are telling us about self-esteem and risk-taking.

Given these three differences – technological, sociological and psychological – we cannot deny that the world for which may of us were trained no longer exists. We must keep up with these changes and modify our teaching to reflect them. Anything less is a dereliction of our professional duty.