Transforming Our World Through the Lens of Gen Z

Suman Mulumudi was a freshman at Lakeside School (and had just graduated from The Evergreen School), when he began thinking about the importance of data to the practice of medicine. Observing his doctor parents, he began imagining potential benefits if one combined a stethoscope with an iPhone to capture and visualize heart data. Working with his father, Mulmudi created a prototype that will soon be available to the medical community.

While a graduate student at Stanford, Ashley Moulton conceived a master’s project about teaching kids how to eat healthier. Called Nomster Chef, this digital library of illustrated step-by-step recipes helps kids to cook with grown-ups. Thanks to Kickstarter, she is on the brink of making her dream a reality. With 29 days left to reach her goal, she has raised 90 percent of the funds she needs for launch.
Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. When only 11 years old, she used the power of social media to call attention to the plight of girls under Taliban rule. To spread her work, she co-founded the Malala Fund with her father, hoping to empower girls to achieve their potential and become confident, strong leaders in their own countries.

These three stories demonstrate the power of Generation Z and those who embrace Gen Z thinking.

What is Gen Z? According to Wikipedia, “Generation Z, also known as the iGeneration or Post-Millennials, is the demographic cohort after the Millennials. Demographers and researchers typically use the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s as starting birth years for this group, and, as of yet there is little consensus regarding ending birth years. A significant aspect of this generation is the widespread usage of the Internet from a young age; members of Generation Z are typically thought of as being comfortable with technology, and interacting on social media for a significant portion of their socializing.”

Like the Millennials before them, there is much speculation about this generation and the changes they will bring to the world. I have read widely about Gen Z to better understand their impact on education. One book that really captured my interest is The Gen Z Effect: The Six Forces Shaping the Future of Business by Thomas Koulopoulos and Dan Keldsen. The authors argue that a series of forces will bring about a post-generational world in which what unites us will be stronger than what divides us, and that people of all generations will begin to adopt the practices of Gen Z.

Six Forces Shaping Society

The six forces outlined in the book present many opportunities for independent schools. Below, I summarize the forces and pose generative questions for school leadership teams to explore so that they may leverage the power of this emerging generation. I believe these forces provide hope for us all.

1. Breaking Generations. Due primarily to advances in technology and a near equivalent number of people in all age bands, age will no longer be a major shaper of attitudes and behaviors. Rather, people will be defined by their connections in communities. In addition, as people embrace lifelong learning, education will not be seen as occurring only at specific times in a person’s life. 

Strategic Questions for Schools
  • What opportunity does a world of intergenerational learners present for schools?
  • How can students of all ages partake of our services at different stages of their lives?
  • How can we enrich the learning environment by thinking about grouping learners differently?
2. Hyperconnecting. The internet has vastly increased our ability to connect, but the Internet of Things has pushed that even further by creating a world in which machine to machine connections are now possible. As devices that were never meant to work together do, they open the road to new possibilities, as exemplified by Suman Mulumudi’s efforts to create a smarter device by pairing a stethoscope with an iPhone. In addition, the lines between online and offline are blurring, changing the ways we live, work, and play.  

Navigating this new hyperconnected world can be daunting, particularly for those who were not born digital. This has given rise to a new form of mentoring — reverse mentoring — in which a digital native can guide learning and using new technologies.
Strategic Questions for Schools
  • Could launching both mentoring and reverse mentoring programs in schools promote creativity and teamwork among five generations learning and working together?
  • Are there opportunities to connect two different offerings or ways of doing something that, when paired together, create a breakthrough?
  • How can we use the principles of hyperconnecting to enhance learning?
3. Slingshotting. Luddite is a term that is often used to refer to people who refuse to adapt to changing technologies. But have we misperceived their behavior? Have some people turned away from emerging technologies because they were too hard to use or did not improve their ability to do something? Slingshotting refers to tech users, who had been left behind previously, slingshotting forward, skipping multiple generations of technology and arriving at the same place as those who suffered through technology’s evolution. As more members of the Silent Generation adopt technology, forecasters predict that there will be full internet penetration between 2020 and 2025. 

Strategic Questions for Schools
  • What opportunities are there for using technology to increase effectiveness and efficiency across the workforce, now that user-friendly technologies are further driving technology acceptance across generations?
  • How can we leverage this force with our parent communities as well as for fundraising and friend-raising purposes?
4. Shift from Affluence to Influence. One of the most profound changes in the marketplace today is the effect that social media has on influencing behavior. Just think of how the music world has changed through the explosion of social technologies. No longer is capital needed to launch a musician — communities of influence can drive fame and fortune. Social networks can also drive movements, as evidenced by Malala Yousafzai opening up educational opportunities for women worldwide through her blogs.  

The shift from affluence to influence has also changed the way advertisers market. They’ve moved from paid media (ads, billboards, etc.) to owned media (creation of a community-owned, yet company-branded experience: think Apple stores) to earned media (influencers taking on your cause in social media).
Strategic Questions for Schools
  • How can schools make use of social communities to drive influence?
  • What if schools created owned spaces on campus for families and the surrounding community?
  • How can schools make use of influencers to create awareness of their unique value propositions? 
5. Adopting the World as My Classroom. Educators are already keenly aware of this force in education, with technology driving the concept of anytime, anywhere education. The adoption of competency-based education on the college level continues to grow, and some speculate that Gen Z may be the first generation that looks to alternative educational paths post high school. Gamification is also unlocking new ways to excite learners and challenge them. 

Strategic Questions for Schools
  • What would school look like if we considered educating people at any age?
  • What opportunities would this open up?
  • How might we think about school beyond the classroom?
  • How essential will a brick-and-mortar school be in the future? 
6. Lifehacking. Gen Z has a propensity to work around or “hack” systems. Today, three types of hacking are changing the marketplace: crowdfunding, 3D printing, and new attitudes about intellectual property. The essence of hacking is about breaking through barriers and connecting people, mobilizing communities, and driving outcomes that otherwise would not be possible.  

Strategic Questions for Schools
  • How can we use new processes and/or emerging technology to do things more efficiently and effectively?
  • How can we apply lean start-up principles to the school context?
  • How can we leverage this innate ability of Gen Zers to drive the learning process?

Keep the Conversation Going

I invite you to join the dialogue on how Gen Z can transform our society. Pose some of your own questions or suggest responses to the questions I have raised. As Peter Drucker said, “The entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.” Let’s seize the day.
Donna Orem
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.


Donna Orem
10/26/2017 10:41:07 AM
Hi Stuart and Melinda, thanks for the lively commentary. The concept of reverse mentoring is relatively new and organizations are just beginning to explore the notion. I have begun to experiment with it myself and have found the greatest value is in seeing the world through a lens that is so different than mine. While I only introduced it as a sound-bite in this blog, there is more to it than just a transfer of technological skill; it is also a transfer of knowledge about behavior as a result of the technology. Also, the relationships are often two-way. To quote from the book, The Gen Z Effect: The premise of reverse mentoring is that, while experienced mentors can pass on know-how to less experienced individuals, reverse mentors, usually younger individuals who have less life experience but more experience with new technologies and behaviors, can provide insight into the social behaviors and attitudes that these new technologies create. A recent article in Forbes outlined that the following principles need to be in play for these relationships to be beneficial:
Defined expectations: Each party needs to be very clear on their expectations.
Agreed upon rules: Each party must be fully committed to the mentoring relationship and agree upon the rules that will be followed.
Willingness to learn: In a reverse mentoring relationship, both parties act in the capacity of a mentor as well as a mentee; so they must both “genuinely want to learn from and share with the other.”
Trust: Reverse mentoring requires the trust of each party. The goal is to “push one another outside of their comfort zones and try new ways of thinking, working and being.”
Transparency: Both parties must be open with their feelings and with what they are thinking. They must be able to overcome differences in communication style (since different generations communicate differently) and be open to seeing situations from different angles.

Melinda Tsapatsaris
10/26/2017 9:50:27 AM
Stuart, I'm interested in your comments and I invite you to not set up your comparisons as "either/or's" but rather using a "both/and" framework. Technological skills can be a form of intelligence (but not in isolation), technical virtuosity can include glorious research and discovery, and youthful technological savvy and elderly wisdom are both imperative to a community's progress. In your post you use words like "suggest" and "presume" regarding Donna's piece--almost insinuating her thinking as reductive. I experience her writing as exploratory--she's researching new concepts and trying on interesting ideas--and sharing our her learnings to the broader NAIS community. I hope my response isn't too "Social-Media-y"!

Stuart Grauer
10/18/2017 11:52:36 AM
Donna, you write, “Navigating this new hyperconnected world can be daunting, particularly for those who were not born digital. This has given rise to a new form of mentoring — reverse mentoring — in which a digital native can guide learning and using new technologies.”
The millennial generation I work with errs greatly when they confuse “guiding the learning of new technologies” with “mentoring,” as I think you may be doing here. You suggest or presume here that technological skill is the same as intelligence, that technical virtuosity is the same as the process of discovery … and even that youthful technological savvy is the same as elder wisdom.
As a school head, I love learning technology from my millennial digital natives, they teach me plenty, and I even enjoy seeing them as tech-mentors sometimes-- but as soon as they begin to really believe that they are my mentors by virtue of their ability to show me how to make cool adjustments on my iPhone, or to hack systems, our relationship goes deeply into the risk zone. Am I holding the word “mentor” in too high esteem?

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