Dr. Eric C. Wilson,
PGA Master Professional, Executive Director of Golf Operations
Keiser University College of Golf & Sport Management
Teaching adults is more difficult when classes are comprised of students from different generations, as are most adult education classrooms in today’s educational environment. “The notion that every person learns differently is now generally accepted among educators, and there is abundant research to support the idea that every individual has a unique way of thinking and learning.” (Coates, n.d.b, para. 8) “Every generation in American history has separate personality traits…The world views of 60-something’s, 40-something’s and 20-something’s are in direct conflict because these generations bring different values, motivations and life experiences” to the classroom. (Alverson, 1999, para. 3) Additionally, the teacher will be a member of one of the generations in the classroom, adding another dilemma to his/her task of communicating effectively and providing quality instruction to every student. “It’s hard to motivate, coach and give assignments to someone you don’t or don’t think you understand.” (“How veterans”, n.d., para. 9) “Every generation in American history has separate personality traits…
they bring different values, motivations and life experiences” into the classroom. (Alverson, 1999, para. 3) “Life experiences shape the way people learn.” (Brown, 1997, para. 5) Instructors should be able to identify generational groupings and identify the values, motivations and life experiences their students bring into the classroom if they wish to provide effective instruction to all students.
In their comprehensive book Generations, Strauss and Howe “define a generation as a special cohort-group whose length approximately matches that of a basic phase of life, or about twenty-two years over the last three centuries.” (p. 34) “We cannot, of course, expect that the length of every generation must always be twenty-two years – or any other precise number. The world is far too complicated to follow our simple model like clockwork. The effective length of each phase of life is always shifting a bit from one era to the next.” (p. 61) They note that “The peer personality of a generation is essentially a caricature of its prototypical member.” (p. 63)
There are numerous divisionings of twentieth century American generations by birth dates and labels. For the sake of continuity, Strauss and Howe’s breakdown of generations by birth year, beginning in 1943, with corresponding cohort values for comparison, follows:
Baby Boomer Generation (1943- 1960)– Values include health and wellness; personal growth; involvement; optimism; personal gratification; and youthfulness. Also, “work for Boomers is the most closely held value.” (Coates, n.d.c)
Baby Boomers in the Classroom
As one of the largest cohort-groups, understanding Boomers will be critical for the instructor in the multi-generational classroom. Baby Boomers in the classroom: 1) are interactive and nonauthoritarian, 2) have good people skills and like to be free to form relationships with their co-learners, 3) respond well to a traditional classroom, as long as there is an opportunity for interaction, networking and teamwork, 4) like friendly, collegial instructors who share their own vulnerability through anecdotes and examples, 5) are winners, 6) can be motivated to learn if they believe the knowledge and skills they are acquiring will give them new ways to come out on top, 7) like interactive activities, 8) hate role-play, 9) like materials that are organized in a way that makes information easily accessible (like USA Today), 10) enjoy skill
building, practical activities, as long as they aren’t required to show their shortcomings in front of others, 11) should be coached, not directed. (Coates, 2001, p. 19)
Generation X (1961-1981) – Values include ambition; fearlessness; responsiveness; (Brown, 1997); humor; independence; the truth and nothing but the truth; diversity; flexibility; money as a means of survival; and people/ personal relationships. (Hicks, R. & K., 1999)
Generation Xers in the Classroom
As the other largest cohort-group, it will be equally important to understand Gen Xers and their impact in the multi-generational classroom. It is also extremely important to realize that Gen Xers tend to have the most conflict with Baby Boomers. (“How veterans,” n.d.) “It is fairly safe to say that if Boomers embrace an idea, Xers will reject it. The Generation Gap is deep and wide.” (Coates, n.d.a, para. 4) Gen Xers in the classroom: 1) are very self-directed, 2) have nontraditional orientation to time and space – it doesn’t matter when or where the job gets done, as long as it gets done, 3) do not like having to show up at the same place and same time every day, 4) do not care for ceremony – they respond best to instructors who get right to the heart of the content and who demonstrate their expertise, 5) want to have fun, 6) learn best when they have a chance to sample and learn by doing, 7) enjoy role-play, 8) are not as attracted to the traditional classroom as their predecessors, and 9) resent teachers who “pull rank” on them. (Coates, 2001)
Millennial Generation (1982-2003)– Values include personal relationships; process-orientation; diversity; enjoyment of people and life; change-embracing; character development; personal responsibility; control; endurance; spirituality; open expression; and technology. (Hicks, R. & K., 1999)
Millennials in the Classroom
Millennials have burst into the multi-generational adult education classrooms in large numbers. Instructors have been able to welcome them with open arms. if they prepared in advance for their arrival. Millennials in the classroom: 1) need more structure and attention from the authority figure in the classroom, 2) are motivated to learn in order to reduce stress and increase their marketability, 3) place high value on developing good interpersonal skills and in “getting along,” 4) are polite, believe in manners, adhere to a strict moral code, and believe in civic action, 5) place a high value on making money – more than any previous generation, and they see education as a means to this goal, 6) like learning to be fun and entertaining, 7) get bored quickly in a learning environment that is not highly active and interactive, 8) greatly dislike standup talking, 9) are avid readers – written information works well for them. (Coates, 2001) “Millennials are the first generation since World War II to be confronted with higher academic standards than those of the last generation – and to show early signs of meeting those
standards.” (Howe, N. & Strauss, W., 2000, p. 18)
Generation Z (2004-Present) – While Generation Z has yet to enter the adult education classroom (based on Strauss and Howe’s birth years define transitional grouping that will impact the classroom in the coming years. Values include the fact that they want to change the world (25% are involved in volunteering); advanced college degrees are less important to them; they are entrepreneurial; they are digitally over-connected; they worry about the economy more than anything else; they are less active; they are close with their families; they communicate with speed and often use emoticons and emojis instead of words. (Peterson, 2014) These values will dictate how teachers should approach and educate Generation Zers in the future.
How teachers can provide more effective instruction in the multi-generational classroom
“Teachers must be alert to the need for continual updating of their teaching skills and practices. Wagschal (1997) reports: ‘I’m not sure when it happened. I was no longer a contemporary of my students. The adults kept coming. Their ages stayed about the same, but I kept getting older…. Who would have dreamed that it was no longer appropriate to ask a 30-year-old adult learner what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated?’” (Brown, 1997, para. 5)
Assuming the need for teachers to continually update their teaching skills and practices, there should be a way to accomplish this. Numerous publications speak to adult education, lumping all “adults” into one group, irrespective of their birth year or generational grouping. However, with all the information available about differences/similarities among generations, a concise, concrete method by which teachers can improve their skills and practices in multi-generational adult education classrooms has yet to be found. Therefore, having used the rational model of decision making/ problem solving set forth by Stoner and Freeman on pages 254-259 in their book Management, the following Instruction Methodology for Multi-Generational Classrooms is proposed:
1) Identify the generational mix in the classroom via data collection, questioning and observation.
2) Identify students’ values and classroom preferences.
3) Identify your personal values through research, personal insight, and reflection.
4) Identify conflicts in values and classroom preferences among students.
5) Identify conflicts in values between you and your students.
6) Develop instruction methodology (both process and content) which best encompasses student values/ classroom preferences and most effectively avoids or defuses value/ classroom conflicts among students and between instructor and students.
7) Deliver instruction.
8) Request feedback from students.
9) Refine instruction methodology.
Teaching in a multi-generational classroom is not an easy task. As Brown succinctly stated: “Effective instruction requires the teacher to step outside the realm of personal experiences into the world of the learner. It is the learner who must be engaged for learning to occur, the learner who must make the commitment to learn.” (1997, para. 6) The nine step approach outlined provides teachers a methodology for planning the delivery of instruction in multi-generational classrooms, and gives teachers a way to target each learner uniquely and all learners as a group.
Brown, B. (1997). New learning strategies for generation x. Retrieved March 3, 2002 from
Coates, J. (2001). Generational learning styles. (Available from Learning Resources Network,
P.O. Box 9, River Falls, WI 54022).
Coates, J. (n.d.a). Day three – Understanding generation x. Retrieved May 17, 2002 from
Coates, J. (n.d.b). Day one – What are learning styles? Retrieved May 17, 2002 from
Coates, J. (n.d.c). Day two – Older adults in the classroom. Retrieved May 17, 2002 from
Hicks, R. & K. (1999). Boomers, xers, and other strangers. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House
How veterans, baby boomers, generation xers and generation nexters can all get along in the
workplace. (n.d.). Retrieved March 9, 2002 from
Peterson, H. (2014). Millennials are old news – here’s everything you should know about
Generation Z. Retrieved November 24, 2014 from www.huffingtonpost.com/
Stoner, J. & Freeman, R. (1992). Management (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey:
Strauss, W. & Howe, N. (1991). Generations: The history of America’s future