Z-enders Game

It’s a great time to be a K12 teacher because someone is teaching the kid who will change the world. That’s right. In some classroom sits a world changer. This student is a combination of John Connor, Ender Wiggin, and  Katniss Everdeen. The conditions for this to take place are perfect. We have the exact right amount of dystopia colliding with the Moore’s Law upswing in technology and innovation. Order is taking shape in the chaos.

Here’s the backstory . . . .

The adults running the place have sufficiently sabotaged things on the planet. Here’s a short list of those things:

1. Everything.

The youngest generation, Generation Z, sees this play out in their daily media bombardment. They don’t just see it in their multi-media and social media outlets. They see it firsthand, too. They see foreclosed homes in their neighborhoods. They know someone with a parent who can’t find a job. They’ve seen polarized political parties and Wall Street recklessly take our nation close to the brink of financial collapse.

The media is filled with stories of terrorism and school violence. Gen Zs know someone who’s been to war. They’ve never known a time when they have not had to take off their shoes before boarding an airplane. School violence does not get lost in the news cycle for them. It’s frighteningly real. In a sad commentary, Gen Zs ranked the top events that have had the most impact in their lifetimes. Here’s a reverse order look at the top three:

3. The first Black President was elected

2. The emergence of social networking

1. School violence

Do you know how much of an impact something has to have to unseat Twitter, Vine, Instagram, and Facebook from the number one spot?

Here are the key words from my local news today:  rejected, victims, hit, killed, shot, fire, arrested, hit-and-run, seized, shootings, Monday.

In addition to all of this, Gen Zs face the soaring cost of higher education. It’s as if we’re daring them to solve these problems. It’s hard to tell if we’re the adults in the room or the amalgamation of all the Bond villains.  “We will let them into college, but they will have to mortgage their DNA. HAHAHAhahahahah.”

Resilient Z

Gen Zs are resilient, though. Digital content and constant gaming have not only rewired their minds, it’s also led them to disregard “no-win scenarios.” This is the generation that cheats on the Kobayashi Maru test.

From Emily Anatole’s Generation Z: Rebels With A Cause

Gen Z is smaller in numbers (than Gen Ys), but there is evidence to suggest that their influence, fueled by an innate and constant connection to the world around them, will outstrip their size.

Whereas Gen Ys (ages 18-34) are optimistic, Gen Zs are realistic. They understand how scary the world can be, having grown up post 9/11, in the wake of the Great Recession and amid countless reports of school violence. They’ve seen the effects of the economy firsthand and are more aware of troubling times. These dark events will undoubtedly make them more cautious and security-minded, but will also inspire them to improve the world.

The Gen Zs are proving to be more socially responsible, but don’t count on their blind loyalty. They’ve not shown brand loyalty in the marketplace, and they’ve witnessed the lack of corporate loyalty when their own parents and older siblings lost their jobs during the recession.

The internet is like “The Force” for the Gen Zs. Despite everything, we have Gen Zs who are doing things that their previous Generations couldn’t do, except for the youngest in the Gen Ys. The internet and digital apps are letting them become entrepreneurs and make exciting breakthroughs at an early age. If they need funding, they’re finding it on Kickstarter. Teens like Shree Bose, Christopher Tate, and Rachel Davis exemplify exactly what this crowd of young students can produce.

So the time is ripe for a Connor, Ender, or Katniss to appear. This is proving to be the formula:

Challenges + Incredible Tool Set + Models of Innovation = Awesome

Classroom Translation

What are our takeaways for the classroom? First and foremost, we have to make education relevant for them. They see way too much of the real world and are connected to it through social media in ways that we never were. Trying to sneak in siloed education that’s not applicable, understandable, or relevant outside the walls of academia is not acceptable any more. We’ve always known that relevance is essential in education. Now it’s imperative, or we will be replaced by students who “hack” together their education through a dozen vendors and OER opportunities.

We also need to make education engaging. We need to play on the strength of Gen Zs and appeal to their need for multi-media consumption and engage them in online communities.

Phil Parker writes in “Do you know how Generation Z pupils learn?”

They are kids with brains rewired by the internet – answers to questions come from Google and YouTube, but they lack the critical-thinking skills to evaluate sources. According to Stanford University, this is freeing up brain capacity to develop such skills far earlier than previous generations. Gen Z are fast becoming the most successful problem-solving generation.

Their brains have become wired to sophisticated, complex visual imagery. Audio and kinesthetic learning is out. So is talk – or lecturing as Gen Z sees it. They’re avid gamers, they’ll spend 30,000 hours gaming by the age of 20. They want learning to be the same: a sequence of challenges with instant feedback on progress, clear goals and rewards linked to them. Their gaming profile is shown at the end of the challenge which displays their overall accomplishments; e-Learning profiles are what they demand. You want to engage Gen Z? Turn lessons into video games!


  • Leverage technology to provide immediate feedback and use game-based learning.

  • Engage students in a variety of collaborative projects that use social media.

  • Make lessons visual.

  • Focus on critical thinking and problem-solving lessons.

  • Teach students how to validate online content.

  • Have students work on projects in depth and complexity.

  • Exercise!

For more information on the Generation Z crowd, check out this earlier blog post: Meet Generation Z.

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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1 Comment

Sally Eliot

Provocative thoughts, Adam. However, while I agree strongly with your points, I think that there is a missing element in your analysis, which the prominence of _Ender's Game_ makes unusually clear. To what extent are the solutions you describe Universal Design concepts that have a good chance of being used well by all students, as opposed to tools which are best exploited by the gifted? The generational analysis here is acute, but your fictional examples do bring into very sharp focus how seriously we as a society are under-educating our gifted spectrum kids. The Enderverse may be stomach-churning in its aims and methods, but at least it didn't condemn gifted students to mainstreaming.


Adam Renfro

Absolutely agree, Sally. Technology is a new gap in our classrooms with the "haves" and "have nots." The United Nations declared that internet access was a basic human right in 2011, yet we still don't even know which of our students have access at home and which ones do not. That's not data we collect. Seems pretty important if you're trying to flip your classroom. Also, when implementing 1:1 computer initiatives, BYOD programs, and CBE programs, the biggest complaint from teachers is that they don't have enough training or the proper training on how to use the new technology or how to use the advanced features of the technology and what the best practices are.
So a lot of gaps to close!

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