“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities” ― Stephen R. Covey
The modern classroom is a complex, complicated (1), dynamic environment that requires an
intentional, conscientious, and skilled touch to navigate. One of the many factors that all instructors
must account for is the generational bandwidth of their student body.
Taking the Conversation Deeper
When asked about the generational gap, most instructors respond with a pithy colloquialism,
something along the lines of “millennials are entitled, older generations are bad with computers”.
These vague generalizations are harmful to the conversation and don’t capture the complex nature of
the challenges faced in the multi-generational classroom.
While it’s important to understand all generational learning tendencies, the focus of this conversation
is the most common situation and class makeup that instructors are experiencing presently, which is a
generation X or early generation Y instructor teaching a mixed student body.
In both workforces and classrooms, millennials do and will increasingly dominate the field,
necessitating that the fire service quickly adapts to a different kind of recruit. While there are many
outliers and pockets of exception, and the numbers are widely variable in a rapidly changing
landscape, the general trend is that workforces (and therefore classrooms) are made up of about 40%
generation Y and beyond, 40% generation X, 19% baby boomer, and 1% traditionalist. As we move
forward, we can expect generations Y and Z to be the increasing majority of our recruits and students
As the gen x/gen y/gen z tension is the most pressing challenge in the present-day classroom, we’ll
focus on those interactions in this article.
Why bother? Two reasons:
- Survival; organizations that wish to survive must maintain a high degree of diversity and
adaptation (3). Failure to expand cultural intelligence (4) and embrace diverse perspective is a
well proven death sentence to organizations and industries (5).
- Efficacy; well leveraged diversity is remarkably effective, both instructionally and in
management. Instructors that tap into generational learning needs typically experience tremendous
Instructing Mixed Generations
Volume 2, Number 5 AUGUST 2019 KEY: INSTRUCTIONAL DEVELOPMENT; GENERATIONS
success with their students. Seth Godin said “Yes, it’s true that your hammer has a wooden handle.
But throwing it in the fireplace to get a few BTUs out of it is a huge waste…”
First, let’s create a general understanding of generational boundaries with Figure 1 (6). Remember,
don’t get stuck on specific dates and statistics, instead use this information to establish a context for
Next, it’s important to recognize that the fundamental values differences inherent in each generation
are the primary driving forces behind their behaviors. This vital paradigm shift transforms perceptions
of annoying behaviors into understanding across what are truly different cultures. Recognizing that
differing values doesn’t make a student less capable allows an instructor to tap into students’
A major rift commonly found between generation X and generation Y/Z is due to a transition of
values. Gen X commonly values loyalty and justice, where gen Y/Z often values equality and
personal freedom. Studying Figure 2 (7), you can imagine how friction can develop as these values
While the generational gap conversation often degrades into a debate about who is better or worse,
instructors need to actively transform the conversation into one about how integrating diverse
generational values creates a powerfully versatile classroom. Below is a primer on the needs of the
two generations we see the most:
- Common Pitfalls:
o Drowning in the details; there are many schools of thought and timelines to define
generational boundaries. Focus on the generalities and tools to help bridge the gap rather
than debating whether the millennial label starts in the middle or early eighties.
o Insisting on stereotype compliance; there will be outliers in every generation. Context
and style of upbringing, experiences, and personality all impact individuals, and not all
people within a generation will display all the traits associated with that generation.
o Using generational labels as a weapon; for some, learning more about the generational
gap simply provides ammunition for generational warfare within the fire station and
classroom. Instead, use this expanded knowledge to drive connection and understanding.
o Applying anecdotal data; some people of every generation are unpleasant to be around.
Stop generalizing an entire generation of people because the kid at Starbucks seems
entitled. He probably is. That has nothing to do with your firefighter. Stop using your
own narrow experience to define a generation.
It’s worth saying that this is an expansive topic and a broad conversation, and this is just a primer. As
an instructor, it’s very much worth your time to explore the references below and learn more about
ways to account for generational learning tendencies in your curricula.