Generations and Educational Change

The “net generation” (also known as “generation y,” “millenials” or “digital natives”) has been defined as those born in industrialized nations between 1977 and 1997, and thus exposed to innovations like personal computers, the Internet, and mobile phones at a very young age. Based on statistics about the increased use of these technologies in homes and schools, –as well as more anecdotal information– Don Tapscott (1999; 2008) and others have concluded that this generation is characterized by distinctive values and characteristics as workers, consumers and learners. This generation places significant value on personal freedom, individualization, collaboration and innovation (particularly as enabled by digital technologies), and such values, according to some, are clearly incompatible with existing educational models –based as they are on antiquated print and broadcast media. Because these are so distinctive, this generation has been portrayed as being “a force for social transformation,” which will “superimpose its culture on the rest of society” (1998, 2; 2009, 2). Schools and universities that receive this new generation are at therefore centre of this transformation, as the new generation imposes its culture on these institutions and their practices.

Before looking at evidence for and against these claims, it is useful to adopt a wider perspective on the issue and to look at what a “generation” is, and how generational identity is constituted. As a sociological category, a generation is only one of a number of ways in which a society is layered, stratified or differentiated. Other forms of differentiation include race, gender and class. Of these, generation as a category is generally considered as providing the weakest basis for differentiation. According to Karl Mannheim, the first to analyze generations sociologically, the term designates “a particular kind of identity of location, embracing related ‘age groups’ embedded in a historical-social process.” (1952, p. 367). It refers, in other words, to the coherence of a group that arises from its particular location in history or time (rather than from a shared skin colour, gender or socio-economic status). Studies have shown that the coherence of a generational group is typically defined in terms of “a collective response to a traumatic event or catastrophe” –like the 9/11 attacks (Edmunds & Turner, 2002, p. 12). By comparison, the adoption of new media technologies (occurring at different rates for different classes, genders and nationalities) is not characterized by the cultural force or distinctiveness of an event such as an attack or disaster. It is in this context that Tapscott’s and others’ claims concerning the current generation of students should be understood. These claims reflect the important point that as social changes develop, intergenerational change and conflict becomes a more urgent issue (a point also made by Mannheim). But their more far-reaching conclusions are not supported by systematic, international research. For example, a recent study of “new millennium learners” in some of the 30 OECD countries (Pedró, 2009) concluded that “students tend to be far more reluctant in [the use of emerging media in education] than the image of the new millennium learner would suggest.” The study also reports that the majority of the students surveyed “do not want technology to bring a radical transformation in teaching and learning, but would like to benefit more from their added convenience… in academic work.” These students, like at least some of their teachers, are inclined to see new media as a way of enhancing what occurs in classrooms or other in established educational settings, rather than as supplanting them. A recent article by Reeves and Oh (2008) that surveys a wide range of studies on generations, technology use and learning styles concludes that

Generational differences are weak as a researchable variable in a manner similar to learning styles… The bottom line on generational differences is that educational technology researchers should treat this variable as failing to meet the rigor of definition and measurement required for robust individual differences variables. The gross generalizations based on weak survey research and the speculations of profit-oriented consultants should be treated with extreme caution in a research and development context. (p. 303)

Reeves and Oh’s conclusions about “gross generalizations” and the exercise of “extreme caution” are echoed by other researchers that have looked at this same issue. David Buckingham, a leading researcher in media and literacy, speaks specifically of Tapscott in making the following point about the quality of internet use by net generation users:

Tapscott’s approach… ignore[s] what one can only call the banality of much new me¬dia use. Recent studies… suggest that most children’s everyday uses of the Internet are characterized not by spectacular forms of innovation and creativity, but by relatively mundane forms of information retrieval. (Buckingham, 2006, p. 10)

Substituting the exceptional uses of a very few for the banal uses of the many is one of the issues presented by Tapscott and similar writers. A second problem is a failure to carefully consider the results of rigorous research that suggest conclusions different from those of a book’s or article’s overarching thesis.

This takes us back to one particularly important qualification from Mannheim concerning the overall coherence of a generational group, the net generation included. As would be the case for any age group, the coherence of the net generation is undermined by the fact that it does not stand alone as a unified and unopposed social actor. It is entering institutions of higher education that are now dominated by members of the “baby boom” generation; and it will soon be coping, as a group, with members of a new, generation shaped by yet unknown events and technologies (i.e. their own children). As the term “stratification” implies, any one generation is, by definition, a layer “sandwiched” between a number of others, rather than a lone actor on a more-or-less empty stage. Mannheim explains, for example, that a new generation generally finds forerunners in the generation(s) that came before it; 60’s protest musicians had Pete Seeger, kids sharing files today have Lawrence Lessig and Richard Stallman:

it occurs very frequently that the nucleus of attitudes particular to a new generation is first evolved and practised by older people who are isolated in their own generation (forerunners), just as it is often the case that the forerunners in the development of a particular class ideology belong to a quite alien class.

Marx, as Mannheim points out, came from the bourgeoisie, but was a champion for the proletariat; white youth activists in the 60’s followed the lead of the black civil rights movement before it.

Still, if there is a place for inter-generational tension and conflict, it is indeed the school and university. After all, these are institutions that essentially mediate between generational cohorts, enabling a kind of “formal” transition from one generational cohort to the next. As such, they reflect very clearly reflect generational differences and tensions (as campus unrest in the 1960’s illustrates). As Mannheim wisely comments,

This tension appears incapable of solution except for one compensating factor: not only does the teacher educate his pupil, but the pupil educates his teacher too. Generations are in a state of constant interaction.

It would be worthwhile to consider the process of education and educational change in the light of intergenerational relations. Tapscott and others are right to identify the issue of generations as highly relevant to education, but they are wrong to focus only on one generation in isolation from others and from the sociology of generations generally.


Buckingham, D. (2006). Is there a digital generation? In D. Buckingham & R. Willett (Eds.). Digital generations: Children, young people and new media. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Edmunds, J. & Turner, B. (2002). Generations, Culture and Society. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Mannheim, K. (1953). The problem of generations. In Mannheim, K. (Ed.). Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge Kegan Paul.(see:

Pedró, F. (2009). New Millenium Learners in Higher Education: Evidence and Policy Implications. International conference on 21st century competencies s, 21-23 September, 2009. Brussels: OECD.…

Reeves, T. C., & Oh, E. J. (2008). Generation differences and educational technology research. In J. M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. J. G. van Merrienboer & M. P. Driscoll (Eds.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (3rd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Pp. 295-303.

Tapscott, D. (1999). Growing up digital: The rise of the net generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tapscott, D. (2009). Grown up digital: How the net generation is changing your world. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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