Generation Z. Whether we love them or hate them, they are our students today and the leaders of tomorrow. They were born into a fast-paced, technology-dependent world that’s rapidly changing before our eyes. So why are teachers still teaching the same way as 20, even 10 years ago? Part of this may stem from the mystery that surrounds the new generation: Who is Generation Z? What do they like and how do we speak their language?
This article lays down four common traits of Generation Z and possible ways to best capture their interests based on these. Of course, these are wide generalizations and not one-size-fits-all advice. I lay down the data that's available, pair it with my personal experiences teaching Gen Z students and give my thoughts on what I think works best. Warning: this article is not for the technophobe.
1. The real digital natives
Millennials (born approx. 1981-1995) are considered digital natives, but they grew up alongside the rise of technology. I’m a millennial; I was born into a world without Facebook or touch-screen iPhones. I remember even being blown away by the concept of DVDs (which are already almost as useless as VHS tapes). Gen Z (born approx. 1995 - 2010) on the other hand, has entered right into the midst of it, bombarded with touch screens, instant communication, and smartphones from the moment they were born. They don’t know a world without technology. A study by Millenial Branding and Randstad found that a vast majority (77%) of Gen Z 'likes to work with technology to help them accomplish their goals'. Most of this is self-directed research, like using search engines, YouTube, and online lessons to help them on assignments or to learn a new skill (Schawbel).
Meet them in the middle
Gen Z spends about 41% of their time outside school on computers and mobile devices. For millennials 10 years ago, that number was only 22% (What You Need...). We can try to fight it and give them assignments that attempt to pull them away from their screens - or, we can meet them where they are and make the most of it. If they’re spending 41% of their time online, why not make it productive? There are a multitude of apps to teach sight reading and/or theory, as well as websites that provide sheet music and educational games. Find some great videos on YouTube to get them inspired: hopefully they get hooked and discover some more great stuff they want to learn about while browsing!
Practicing while online
There is a way to combine online time with actual piano practice: backing tracks. YouTube, again, has backing tracks for pretty much anything I need. It helps tremendously in getting students to play in time without stopping and to be aware of listening. And if you can't find it on YouTube, there's an app for that. iRealPro is my go-to, with thousands of free chord charts available in the app that also produce backing tracks. You can create custom backing tracks here (in a variety of styles, too) and export them - easy! (I also have to throw in: if you play/teach jazz, you absolutely must check out the Erskine Jazz/Mintzer Big Band Essentials apps for backing tracks played by professional musicians). If you're a bit more savvy in the production side, you can always use your preferred software and make something beautiful. Is your student learning a classical piece? No problem! Get creative and make a backing track in a bossa style! Or a shuffle, walking bass... Anything goes. One thing I know for certain is that kids love having different styles to work from. They get a big smile on their face and some even stand up and start dancing as they play. Isn't seeing this kind of joy what teaching is all about?
2. Masters of split-tasking
Gen Z multitasks across at least 5 screens daily. And with multitasking comes split-tasking. In today’s world of syncing, sharing, and iClouds, doing work on-the-go has never been easier. Anything you can do on your computer, you can now do on your phone, tablet, and laptop... So, pretty much anywhere. Ryan Jenkins, an internationally recognized millennial speaker, says this workflow will soon redefine the workplace: "Generation Z creates a document on their laptop, reopens it on their smartphone while on the bus, and revisits again at home while watching TV. They shift from work and play, real and virtual in short intense spurts." I believe this type of workflow could redefine not only the workplace but also the classroom, in how people both teach and learn.
Having online assignments allows students to do their work virtually anywhere. With books/paper, one often forgets to bring or loses the assignment, which immediately eliminates any chance that the assignment will get done in that time period. If your assignment is online, students can do it while they’re waiting for their mom to pick them up, in the car on the way to lessons, on the toilet... If they remember they have an assignment and they’ve got internet, they can do it. Another plus of online assignments is that they're eco-friendly! Making the move to a paperless classroom can save you thousands of dollars on printing (Giebelhausen) and the clutter of dealing with masses of printed assignments. Instead of printing a hundred assignments that will be tossed as quickly as they are finished, why not have students do the same work online? Google provides a variety of free services to help you with quizzes/assignments (Google Forms is a popular one), while sheet music readers and practice apps like Better Practice can help you be organized, mobile, and paperless in lessons.
Do you want your student to learn a new piece but he hates reading music? Or maybe you have a student going on vacation who won’t be near her instrument for a couple days. It’s not split-tasking, but another example of assignments that can be taken on-the-go: listening. Of course, to learn music, you have to listen! My professors would share Spotify playlists of the songs we were learning, which was a great way to get us acquainted with the songs without having to purchase them. I had a teacher who would make me a CD of tunes in the style I was learning to play. These, I could keep in my car and learn from every time I went out! Or, I could just import the CD into iTunes and have it easily accessible on all of my devices (mostly to have on my iPhone when I would go jogging). Another professor would tell me to find my favorite version of the tune and bring it in. This I would often do while I was waiting to pick up my friends or before I went to sleep. These assignments were enjoyable to do because they were so accessible and something I already liked doing (listening to and exploring music).
3. Quick to digest, quick to move on
Another quite well-known one: Gen Z has shorter attention spans. They live in a never-ending flow of communication and updates. There is a silver lining to this fact, though: not only do they flit from thing to thing very quickly - they can digest information very quickly because of it (Jenkins). Snapchat is a form of social media where each of your messages disappear in 10 seconds or less. Nothing is saved (well, so they say). That would have been a weird, inconceivable idea even 10 years ago. But Gen Z loves it. I think this generation’s motto should be "On to the next one" (quote made famous by fellow musician Jay-Z). If a Snapchat bores you, tap! It disappears forever. If a channel is not interesting, tap! On to the next one. If piano practice is proving to be boring... On to the next activity. People might call Gen Z lazy. Not having grit. Unfocused. We could keep calling them names all day, but that doesn't do anything to help. Can you make a person growing up immersed in the young culture of the 2000s act like they were born in the 60's? As the world advances, the teachers of yesterday must also advance to best teach the leaders of tomorrow (our lazy, unfocused Gen Z students!).
What can we do?
So your students have short attention spans. That could be a new opportunity for learning. Instead of requiring one long period of practice a day, assign different activities in different areas. In all of my research about Gen Z, I didn't find one thing about them being lazier; they were just perceived that way by other generations (Schawbel). Maybe students these days don't seem as motivated because they're being taught in an outdated fashion: the things that held the attention of kids in the 80's won't hold the same attention now. Tie in modern examples when teaching concepts (pop songs!) and give quick-moving, engaging assignments. Give them online theory game assignments with workbook material. Require they finish a couple levels of that sight-reading app. Have them watch a recording of a piece on YouTube before they read through it. Provide fun backing tracks to spur their creativity. Megan provides a wonderful example of how she breaks up her 1-hour lesson into a variety of different activities and how it makes the hour go by so quickly her students are always surprised!
4. Globally connected
Millennials were the first to start going global, but for Gen Z, it's an expectation. Having social media accounts of some sort is now the norm; people can now connect with and learn about people they've never met before. Forums and online groups bring together people of similar interests from all around the world, changing the landscape of friendships and marketing. The average age to get your first smartphone is now 10 years old, and by the time these kids turn 11, 40% also have a social media account (Donovan). To Gen Z, communicating and connecting online is second nature.
Teach anyone, anywhere
With this technology and ability to easily connect overseas comes great advancements for music lessons. Skype lessons are making their way into the norm, where you can essentially take lessons from a teacher anywhere in the world! This is awesome news for both students and teachers who cannot make the travel to a studio for lessons, whether it’s due to a disability, time constraints, or anything else. I also mentioned before that a majority of Gen Z (52%) uses YouTube or social media for research, while 33% of them find online lessons to help them learn something (What You Need...). I've used plenty of YouTube videos to learn concepts (mostly on improvisation), whether it's by finding and listening to a recording of a professional performance, or finding a tutorial graciously put out by a fellow pianist. I see many well-watched YouTube lessons/tutorials also promote the artist who created them (like providing information about his/her upcoming shows or CDs). I’m not entirely sure if this works well, but with the amount of views they garner, I'm sure it must!
Make a great first impression
Having websites and social media accounts for your studio is now a must for marketing. People want to (Gen Z will expect to) be able to find information before they contact you. If they can't find your website, Facebook page, or Yelp page, they may just move on to another studio that has one. Sharing information about you and your studio can also get you more requests from students who are actually a good match for your teaching style. They will know what they'll be getting beforehand, so there won't be any surprises, dropped classes, or complaints on how you're teaching (no one likes that).
Now armed with this knowledge of Generation Z, I urge you to think about how you're engaging your students. Some questions to consider: Is my approach appropriate for this generation? Am I making an effort to speak in their language? When your students say, "I have my piano lesson today," are they most likely saying this as they sulk and pout, or are they jumping in excitement? I don't want music lessons to be a thing of the past - I want generations and generations into the future to still be hooked on the joy of learning a new instrument. Get creative and stay relevant! If you are hesitant to start or it all seems overwhelming, reach out to someone who is tech-savvy for tips and ideas (or comment below and I or other readers could possibly help you out). And remember, there's always YouTube.
The ability to reach Gen Z is not as daunting as you might imagine. Better Practice is a studio management and music practice app that doesn't change what you teach, but gives you the tools to reach your students the way they prefer. Modernize your music studio today.
Donovan, J. (2016, May 19). The average age for a child getting their first smartphone is now 10.3 years [Web log post]. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from https://techcrunch.com/2016/05/19/the-average-age-for-a-child-getting-their-first-smartphone-is-now-10-3-years/
Giebelhausen, R. (2016). The Paperless Music Classroom. General Music Today, 29(2), 45-49. doi:10.1177/1048371315608224
Jenkins, R. (2015, June 9). 15 Aspects That Highlight How Generation Z Is Different From Millennials [Web log post]. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://www.business2community.com/social-data/15-aspects-that-highlight-how-generation-z-is-different-from-millennials-01244940#LMCLK6lM6qvqPzwk.97
Schawbel, D. (2014, September 2). Gen Y and Gen Z Global Workplace Expectations Study [Web log post]. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://millennialbranding.com/2014/geny-genz-global-workplace-expectations-study/
What You Need To Know About Gen Z [Web log post]. (2016, May 26). Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://blog.accountingprincipals.com/need-know-generation-z/