A digitally distracted generation in the classroom

One of the employment opportunities available to expats with certain qualifications is teaching English. Before I left the US in 2009, the prospect of finding full-time work as a teacher, or even as a temp, seemed an impossibility, despite my Master’s degree.

I consider myself extremely lucky to teach in France; it’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever had. Nevertheless, there are challenges.

When I started teaching at a private post-secondary school in the area, I believed that the college-aged students would be a walk in the park as far as classroom behaviour goes, and that I would spend a great deal of time and effort trying to corral the youthful exuberance of my teenaged students. Six years later, I am still shocked at the conduct of my “mature” students.

If phones and computers were the only problem, I could deal with it but these are just a few of the behavioural issues I encounter each class. Many students will break off into conversation mid-lecture at a volume that would seem to indicate they are at a café instead of a classroom. Many seem to have chronic bladder issues necessitating several bathroom breaks during a 90-minute class. Students who have failed have hounded me on my mobile and private email address (even though I never give out these details and only contact my students via the school’s email service), demanding to know why they have not passed the course.

Students texting in classA recent survey in the US claims the average college student checks their phone 11 times a day while in class, and 86% say it’s for texting. Photo: Alice Brousse

I know I’m getting older, there’s a generational gap; but still, almost weekly, I’m stunned by their actions. Initially, I thought this might be limited to French students. Yet both French students and teachers have told me not to take it personally if people talk during my lecture; it’s common culture to ignore a speaker and have their own tête-à-tête.

I had my doubts.

Over the past few months I’ve been doing online research to see if this type of demeanour is cultural or generational. It’s the latter and the more I look into the subject, the harder my jaw hits the floor.

I’ve also had a number of discussions with my college-aged nieces and nephews about how students act at universities in the US and Canada and 100% confirm that talking, texting, and lateness are all common, especially in large auditorium-style lectures.

A couple of YouTube searches have also brought up some great clips of professors freaking out on students. My favourite is the “Cornell prof and the loud yawner”. Twenty years ago I would have thought the teacher’s behaviour over the top; now I recognise how at least once a week, I am on the verge of a similar classroom outburst.

An article from the Journal of Effective Teaching from 2012 also shows that there is a generational difference in the behaviour of college students, not just here but in America. The journal refers to this as “inappropriate behaviour” and refers to actions such as: grade grubbing, texting, talking and arriving late and leaving early.

According to page 440 of the study written by Kristen Knepp, the reasons for this student behaviour as such are as follows, “the Millennial Generation” – those who graduated from high school in 2000 or later – present unique challenges to university instructors, in part due to “permissive parents, overly lenient school environments, and a regular diet of instant gratification entertainment”. Professors of the Millennial Generation often bemoan this cohort’s short attention spans and affinity for multitasking, which makes engaging students throughout a 75-minute lecture a “formidable task”.

I assume that when my students go on to enter the work place, they’ll grow up and learn more acceptable social behaviour. Wrong again. A friend visiting from Toronto, who spent her entire career in upper management of a large insurance company, said one of the reasons that she took early retirement was due to the differences in work culture between older and younger generations. For example, she had to attend a Human Resources seminar on how to deal with parents who phone on behalf of their children because their kid’s raise wasn’t enough. The accepted protocol should be: laugh heartily, slam down the phone on said parent, followed immediately by ridicule of the employee. But no, that is considered unacceptable.

According to an article entitled “Helicopter Parenting in the Workplace” by Howe and Strauss, “Parents who get involved most often gather information about prospective employers: Fully 40% of employers have had parents gather employment information for their children. Nearly one-third of employers have seen parents submit a resumé on their child’s behalf. Over one quarter of employers have had parents promote their children for a position, and 15% have had parents call to complain if the company does not hire their son or daughter.”

A little good news, only 4% report having parents sit in on a job interview (presumably because they are still being breastfed).

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