Secret Lecturer: Coping with the snowflake generation
There’s been a welcome lull in BTec activity at my college this end of a long-term - students who wanted to change courses or do something completely different did so in the first few weeks, assignments are in and marked and a two-week break beckons. But it would not be FE without the odd surprise - even now, almost halfway through their first year, there are always those who think grass is greener elsewhere in the college.
One lad last week said he was thinking of switching courses, he thought my course was ‘too difficult’ and other BTec courses would be ‘easier’. I felt he’d been keeping up and yet wanted a less taxing option. I told him all our courses are up to the same level 3 standard and thus equally ‘difficult’. Why waste the time he’d put in already and start all over again?
‘More prone to taking offence than previous generations’
It got me thinking about student attitudes generally and whether they warranted the current term ‘snowflake generation’, one of Collins Dictionary’s 2016 words of the year (which also included ‘Brexit’ - sorry, I had to include it). It’s defined as ‘the generation of people who became adults in the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations’.
Sure, some 16- to 18-year-olds naturally take to certain subjects better than others and for them a change is good, but many pick a course more on a whim than anything else. A media studies colleague told me when she asked her students why they had picked journalism they said they “liked writing”. Yes, but did they know anything about what was going on today? “Errrm . . . I look at the news . . . sometimes.” The current affairs element had apparently passed them by.
“When I started I was bawled out by my editor and just took it,” my colleague said. “It wasn’t pleasant at the time but part of the learning process.” But if she thought about reprimanding her students now for poor work when she knew they were capable of doing much better, she had to think twice. “They can end up crying,” she said.
Who’s to blame?
Most lecturers agree: students just don’t seem to take well to pressure. The other day I called up a student at the end of a lesson. “I’ve been watching you - what work have you done during my lesson?” He hadn’t done a stroke and his only reaction was: “You’re always picking on me; you’ve all got it in for me!” It was his defence mechanism as soon as he realised I’d cottoned on to him.
Who and what is to blame? At home - and as parents or guardians we are all guilty of this - we are highly protective of our children and mollycoddle them ad infinitum. Meanwhile, schools are under extreme pressure to get their students through GCSEs so they are force-fed information in the hope they retain it. Then they come to college and the ‘shock, horror’ of independent learning. I give them a subject to find out about.
“How do I do that?”
“Just go and do some research.”
“Where do I look?”
“Check-out the internet and type in some search terms.”
“What do I type in?”
My media colleague says it’s a real challenge when she asks students to follow up a press release and find a news story. They don’t like using the phone as it meant talking to people; they don’t like talking to strangers, and they can’t think of anything to do without it being written down for them.
Hardly a spoken word among them
That brings me to the subject dreaded by most FE teachers - mobile phones, umbilically attached to students everywhere, in and outside lessons. Why did students baulk at phoning people for information? Because now you just text, not talk. Walk down any corridor in my college and you’ll see lines of students sitting or standing and glued to their phones, texting. Hardly a spoken word among them.
It’s a curse in lessons. Most colleges ban phones in class. We insist students place their phones in bags that are then stored at the front of the class, but after a few weeks phones will often get sneaked into pockets and the bags go forward phoneless. Of course, lecturers know what’s happening. We can see the students’ eyelines drop. “Why are you looking down at your desk? Spilled something on your trousers?”
Phone addiction is a recognised condition
It’s frustrating because you realise you are fighting an addiction - researchers have actually found an imbalance in the brain chemistry of young people addicted to smartphones. They don’t seem to be able to live without their phones. Whatever you say makes no difference; you can’t ween students off them. Students will often ask if they can listen to music during written work. But you know that much of the time they’ll be using this as cover for a fresh flurry of texting often some of the most banal of messages. “Are you alright?” “Yeah, are you alright?” “Yeah, what you doing?” “Nothing, what you doing?” “Nothing.” You get the picture.
What’s even less forgivable is parents ringing students up in lesson time asking what they want for tea or even if they are ‘alright’?
Much of the time a good number of students are only half concentrating on what the lecturer is saying; looking at their phone takes another 25%, leaving lecturers with the rest.
Hold on to what makes teaching worth it
But hang on a minute. It is Christmas and New Year, the key positive time in the year and one for new resolutions. Let’s hold on to the fact that we all have students who really are focused and want to get on. They are the young people that make teaching so worthwhile and get us up each day. Long may they stay that way for 2019.