Students of “Now” versus “Before”

Are students really all that different “Now” than they were “Before”? It is a very common proclamation that young people now have no respect, no motivation, and no problem solving ability. But really, I heard this for a while now, including when I was in school. And I still hear it now. Is each generation getting worse and worse, or do we just have that perception, that our generation was better somehow, and the generation before us, even more?

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion on this topic with one of my friends: we went to High School together, but now she’s a T.A. at McGill University in the Engineering Department, so she gets to see and teach many engineering students. To my surprise, she was convinced that students “now-a-days” are terribly prepared, and lack any ability to problem solve. She said that “compared to when we were in high school” the students are very different, incompetent. This is a common perception with people today, non teachers and teachers alike. I cannot support this view.

Of course, each generation is different; technology forces us to think differently, use different tools. For example, when my mother went to university, and had to write a paper, using a typewriter, she needed to be precise, not make mistakes, typos or spelling. A few errors and she would have to start again. Thus, she learned to concentrate, to go slow and sure not to make mistakes. Her organization had to be linear, everything in order, one after the other, because there was no way of returning to a previous thought. When I went to university, I used a computer to write my papers. I could change my format 100 times, and it wouldn’t make any difference. I could make spelling mistakes, because spell-check would catch them. I did not learn to be careful; I learned instead to think fast, chaotic, because that’s what my tools let me do. We have such a different way at looking at things now, but if we were to get the same math problem (she’s also a math teacher), neither of us would give up, or have trouble solving it. We would probably attempt the problem very differently, that’s all.

The same goes for students of NOW. They have so much technology behind them that not everything we teach necessarily registers as useful to them. We see the world in one way, because we were brought up with tools that made us think that way, but for the kids of today, this might not be the right way – they have new tools, new ways of handling information.

When discussing kids toys, one lady I talked to said that we are bringing up a generation of “button-pushers” and of “instant gratification”. Well of course we are… this is what technology calls for. But is this so wrong? Why do we think this is the wrong way to go?

I look at my students and think how wrong my engineering friend is. My students are smart, they want to accomplish something, they have dreams (like I did when I was their age), they are problem solvers, and they don’t give up. I think our next generation is a motivated, smart, and a problem solving generation. I have no doubts that our world will grow and prosper, that one of our students will find the cure for cancer, that one of our students will construct the solar powered car. The only thing I hope is that I can make some small difference in one of these student’s lives such that it is easier for them to accomplish these marvels… this is why I’m a teacher.