More problems with generation

I meant to post a response to Norm Friesen’s latest blog post but the site required registration, and being of the rather impatient sort my response will have to sit here.

I was excited to read Friesen’s thoughts on the Generation debate, since I feel he often brings well needed perspectives to the ed tech field. His latest book, and his presentation at the Open Ed conference in Vancouver are must read/views.  Nonetheless, while he does a does a good job of pointing to research such as Reeves and Oh (2008), who challenge the concept of generation as a researchable variable, he arrives at a questionable conclusion that there is value in the idea of generations in informing educational change.

Explaining social or educational phenomena and change in terms of generation is so appealing, yet so problematic.  In my previous life as a language education researcher, we often used the label ESL (English as Second Language) in the same way that generation is used in the educational technology world. From an educational institution perspective, it can be very useful to categorize students by their language “nativeness” as measured by the ubiquitous TOEFL gatekeeper.   However the continuum of ESL is so broad that it is almost meaningless, and rather than shed light on student needs in relation to the education system, it fails to account for the range of experiences, abilities and challenges  that students bring to the institution.  For example,  is a student who comes to Canada from China at the age of 10 and graduates from a Canadian high school more or less ESL than a Mexican student who comes to the University having spent the majority of their K-12 in a bi-lingual private school system from the age of 5?  If these two students are from the same generation (defined by age cohort), how much of their experiences will align with someone of their same age who has grown up in small town Canada?  Regardless of whether these students are baby-boomers, Gen X’ers, or Millennials, how useful is this generational label to educators?

I like to think that what matters is having a pulse on who your students are and what they bring to and expect from the educational experience.  For this reason I disagree with Friesen’s assertion that educational change can be better understood by examining inter-generational tensions which are inevitably occurring in our institutions, which are characterized by “generational cohorts”.

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.

I think the idea that institutions mediate between generational cohorts is problematic, in that it suggests that these institutions are sites of a sort of  inter-generational apprenticeship, and that all institutions are created equally, so to speak. Certainly in institutions of applied education (where I work) which are characterized by a broad demographic of students served by a broad range of programs and pedagogical models that define those programs, operationalising “generation”, or even “inter-generation” is problematic from a research perspective.  If generation isn’t a researchable construct or variable, then it is unlikely that inter-generational tension and conflict is researchable.

Identity labels like “generation”, “ESL”, “Canadian”, etc., don’t exist in a static vaccuum–they are constantly being redefined, negotiated, and resisted by individuals and groups who assign and who are assigned those labels.  Understanding our institutions as sites of intergenerational tension and conflict suggests that this is really all the educational transaction is about. If understanding educational change is the goal, then shouldn’t we widen our lens to  examine the social context in which our communities, institutions, and workplaces are situated, since these drive and ultimately influence our educational systems?

One Comment

  • Stian Haklev

    Your points about language proficiency struck home with me. I’m quite fluent in Mandarin, on my blog you can see links to several academic presentations I have given in Chinese, and although I am sure my pronunciation is not perfect, I believe I am a confident and convincing presenter. If you had a conversation with me, you would assume that I am completely “fluent” in Chinese.

    Yet, I am extremely slow at reading academic material. The same book that I would have taken home and “flipped through” in English, is a two-week project in Chinese. Even if there are no new words, even if I understand everything.

    Having had this experience myself, has been very helpful to think that this is probably similar to what a lot of ESL learners go through. The teacher might have a lively conversation with them, and assume they are “fluent” – no need to worry about that aspect of their development. But in fact, their reading, or writing, might be very far behind. (Of course, not only reading, but also specific kinds of reading – certain kinds of fiction, even stuff that is quite easy for Chinese kids, is much harder than academic texts for me, because of the profusion of characters I am unfamiliar with).


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