In the first in our series of reader contributions to the CoBS Community blog, Alan Oakman, Canadian online STEM tutor, explores how classrooms and teaching methods can and should transform to meet the aspirations of a new, active generation of students.
The post-millennial generation (typically, those born after 1995) is often described as a highly networking, lethargic, and screen-addicted generation being derailed by smartphones. However, contrary to this understanding, and much to older generations’ surprise, and sometimes disapproval, these young adults are now challenging such single-faceted notions about them.
Charlie Abrams and Jeremy Clark, two young climate activists who have advocated for sustainability since the fifth grade, have coined the term ‘The Affected Generation’. This refers to the current generation that is at the receiving end of the consequences of their predecessors’ actions. They are now encumbered with the task of speaking through their activism to create a better world for themselves and the future.
The Affected Generation is represented by brave students like the Parkland shooting survivors, who confronted NRA leaders and lawmakers, and Greta Thunberg, a student climate activist who was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. This generation is definitely equipped with voice and agency that goes beyond their devices. The question faced by teachers in this context would be – how can I strengthen their voices, encourage critical thinking, and guide processes of identity formation?
Is our education system enabling the young to think for themselves and voice their concerns openly? Or, is our education system, as Millie Davis’ article ‘Knowledge Burning’ suggests, more concerned with policing the content in our textbooks? Are students merely churning out argumentative essays without genuine curiosity or appreciation for a given topic? Are debate clubs preparing young minds to critically approach a subject or merely encouraging them to compete for victory? Can we find ways within the available frameworks of education to ignite the critical sensibilities of students? The frameworks, after all, are potential tools of empowerment for the Affected Generation.
The Parkland Shooting Survivors
The confrontation between survivors of the Parkland shooting and NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch and Senator Marco Rubio was a stellar example of speaking truth to power. It was also an exercise in expressing students’ needs and expectations in clear terms, even if their voice shook. It was an episode of inevitable bravery.
An average school debate on gun control might touch upon the points presented by the survivors during the confrontation. The eloquence in this case came from the tragedy of the moment. A debate in a classroom setup should also be able to make space for these meaningful conversations. While debates should ideally equip students with the ability to see both sides of an argument, an educator should be flexible enough to go beyond norms and understand the applications of a lesson.
“Over the years, I ran out of arguments,” says Greta’s father. “She kept showing us documentaries, and we read books together. Before that, I really didn’t have a clue. I thought we had the climate issue sorted,” notes this article in The Guardian. Now ‘School Strike for Climate’, a result of Greta’s perseverant activism, spans over 700 institutions and 71 countries.
This is quite different from typical student debates and protests over global warming (which has incidentally become a tokenistic and staple essay topic). Greta’s activism displays a deeper, more critical understanding of the issue. Enabling careful consideration of the topic at hand is a result of an approach to teaching that aims to instill empathy and urgency in students.
All Activists Were Students Once
The article titled Kafka Started It and the Maine Legislation Finished It—for Now describes the situational halt on legislations that challenge the presence of routinely prescribed classroom texts on the grounds of obscenity. The issue is, can untrusting educators convey the essence of a text? At the same time, teachers can guide students to think critically only when they (teachers) are trusted with the responsibility of teaching. In this context, introducing students to figures like Greta Thunberg and the Parkland survivors will be a very useful strategy. This might well empower students: in effect, it will show them that their relative lack of political experience does not have to limit their voice and agency.
In conclusion, while on-ground activism is a significant lens from which to understand the Affected Generation, it is important to remember that classrooms are sites of exposure, too. If one wants a world that has the capacity to think and act responsibly, then classrooms and teaching methodologies have to reflect this need. Thinking beyond norms should not be misjudged as rebellious. To do so is to do the Affected Generation a disservice.
About Alan Oakman
Alan Oakman is an online STEM tutor, teaching K-12 students after having had a corporate stint for a decade. His love for Physics has prompted him to start blogging. Apart from being an interdisciplinary learning geek, Alan loves jazz music and occasionally plays the guitar.
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