Gen Z: How to Teach the Tech Whizz Kids

Their brains are different.
Gen Z
Visual over auditory.

By now, you’ve probably heard of Gen Z, the generation of people born after 1995 who have never known a world without technology or a 24/7 new cycle. They are global citizens, have a high BS radar, and care about social causes and authenticity.

As things stand, the education landscape has been slow to adapt to the needs of this generation, particularly this is because this generation is far more technologically savvy than many of those that teach them. This poses an unusual imbalance in the classroom, where students are often left teaching the adults how to use technology.

Here are four things educators need to know about this generation and their relationship with the technology they consume, curate and create.

Video, Video, Video
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Cisco predicted that 82% of all created content would be video. Since the pandemic began in 2020, video consumption, in particular video streaming and short-form video content, has risen significantly.

Social media platforms TikTok and YouTube dominate the short-form video content space and video has become a widely used tool in educational settings, both remote and in-person. These changing consumption patterns together with the steadily increasing use of video for educational purposes have been the focus of a growing body of research focused on measuring video’s effectiveness as a learning aid.

Instagram’s highly publicised shift to video is part of a wider growth around the consumption of video content, and no generation has absorbed this trend more readily than Gen Z. Not only is it widely used in educational settings, more and more students are expecting it as part of their learning experience.

Beyond the consumption of media, it’s increasingly important that students create video too. In fact, video production as an instructional strategy has been shown to lead to positive learning content outcomes, facilitate connections to the content, and increased students' motivation and engagement in their learning.

Moreover, video creation has been shown to be an effective instructional strategy in teaching students with emotional behavioural disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiance disorder, social skills (Cumming  et al., 2008; Alexrod et al., 2014).

Get creative: consider getting students to create TikToks or Snapchats or use tools like FlipGrid and Padlet for students to upload videos in a ‘safe’ online space to comment and share with others. Getting students to create and learn together will help them develop key media literacy and digital skills, as well as collaboration and communication skills.

Visual Over Auditory Learning
Research from 2019 suggests that Gen Z’s brains may be different to those of previous generations, particularly when it comes to ways of learning. The research found auditory learning (lecture and discussion) is very strongly disliked by this age group, as are textbooks.

A study of middle school students in Canada found that using video to teach mathematical concepts was an effective way to teach maths even though nearly half found the video itself boring. When asked if they preferred this form of instruction over a textbook, 86% said yes. (Kay & Edwards, 2012).

Understanding what a good educational video looks like means it’s probably time to brush up on cognitive load theory or more importantly its sister, cognitive load theory of multimedia learning. Pay careful consideration to the purpose of the video you’re using and communicate the purpose to your students with clarity. That means if you’re looking to hook them into the classroom topic straight away, showing them a 20-minute instructional video might not hit the mark. Consider using a portion of that video, or a clip from a movie, music video or even an advertisement to get them talking about the lessons' wider themes and ideas before hitting them with the hard stuff.

Mega Multitasking
Gen Z can seriously multi-task. One estimation is Gen Z can juggle five screens at once and know and understand what is going on. That means they could be snapping photos on Snapchat, liking content on Instagram, texting a group of friends, reading something on one of their news feeds and playing a video game all at the same time.

You might have heard it said that our attention spans have changed? But what this constant multitasking and seemingly low attention span demonstrate, according to educational neuroscientist Jared Cooney-Horvath, is that young people have simply set their attention filter to match the tool they’re using. So if they’re watching a lot of TikToks they’ll set their attention filter to that medium.

Understand the tool’s limitations and how far it can realistically be used to support your instruction. For example, if you’re using video as a tool to replace explicit instruction and help your students understand key ideas and concepts, how will you scaffold the learning? How will you prepare them for learning before they watch the video? What will they be doing whilst watching? And finally, how will you consolidate what they’ve learned afterwards? It’s not rocket science, it’s just good teaching practice. Something we all know how to do.

Tara Walsh is a qualified teacher and human resources professional. She has an extensive career as a teacher and leader in K-12, learning and development and in providing education, curriculum and learning and development advice to schools, private organisations, and education technology providers.

Alexrod, M.; Bellini, S.; Markoff, K. (2014) Video self-modelling: A promising strategy for noncompliant children. Behaviour Modification, 38, 567–586.

Cumming, T.; Higgins, K.; Pierce, T.; Miller, S.; Boone, R.; Tandy, R. (2008) Social skills instruction for adolescents with emotional disabilities: A technology-based intervention. Journal of Special Education Technology, 23, 19–33.

Kay, R. H., & Edwards, J. (2012). Examining the use of worked example video podcasts in middle school mathematics classrooms: a formative analysis/Étude sur l'utilisation de podcasts d’exemples pratiques dans des classes de mathématiques à l'école secondaire de premier cycle. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology/La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie, 38(3).