Share and Share Alike: Teaching EFL to Millennials

Tick the correct answer (a, b or c).

Millennials (people born between 1980 and 2000) are … (a) narcissistic and unreliable (b) the next great generation of citizen-activists (c) just like any other misunderstood group of young people throughout history.

Narcissists or a Great Generation?

Narcissists or a Great Generation?

The last decade or so has seen much academic theorizing about the qualities of Millennials. They are oversharers; they have an inflated sense of entitlement (grade A for showing up, please!); they are born multi-taskers with the concentration span of a woodlouse; they aren’t interested in learning facts (why bother when there’s Wikipedia?); and they see no boundaries between consumer and creator (in a file-shared, cut-and-pasted, digitally-enhanced world, everything belongs to everybody).

If Socrates encouraged us to live examined lives, Millennials have got it dead right. Their lives are not only examined; they are tweeted, instagrammed, snapchatted, and youtubed. They are the subject of swathes of research, the vast majority of it proclaiming them to be vain and disengaged. Some researchers are even saying that the late teens to early twenties is a phase that is neurologically, developmentally and socially distinct – some hinterland between childhood and adulthood.

Socrates - an examined life

Socrates – an examined life

But surely there is a counter-narrative, another view that lauds their achievements, their chutzpah, their dazzling grasp of the here-and-now? Indeed, if your foot is in the other camp, Millennials are individual hubs of creativity: they conceive, star in, and upload terrific videos; they are amazing connectors and organizers; they are properly distrustful of authority; and they are tireless collaborators.

How does English Language Teaching reflect the preoccupations of Millennials? And has ELT methodology learned anything from them?

Let’s start with the Selfie Generation’s narcissism and the importance of personal representation.

For a couple of decades now, tasks for language learners have become more personalized, some would say more confessional. The student is asked to reveal her dreams, her ambitions, her hobbies, her heroes, her life story. Because ELT is topic-free and value-free (language in ELT is a system, not a subject like geography or history), students need something to talk about. For those using a ‘teaching unplugged’ approach, the topic is usually the students’ lives. Similarly, in recent coursebooks, the topics and tasks tend to be highly student-centric. Here are a few tasks from recent coursebooks:

Write a letter to your future self to be opened five years from now. (Speakout Upper Intermediate, Eales and Oakes, 2011)

Talk about things you couldn’t live without. (Cutting Edge Intermediate Third Edition, Cunningham, Moor, Bygrave, 2014)

Share a life-changing experience. (Summit 1 Second edition, Saslow and Ascher, 2012)

In fact, education in general is moving towards a more personalized experience for students, and away from archaic facts. In the U.S. there’s a spate of new general education courses designed to reach freshman Millennials. These courses, with titles such as ‘Concepts of the Self’, ‘The Good Life’, and ‘Making Life Count’, are ‘me-centric’ offerings. Their true subject is how to make a connection between Millennials’ self-obsession and issues in the wider world. Many of these programs use art, music, religion, literature and history to give Millennials a perspective that is broader than that found on facebook.

On one such course in Champlain College, students create and present a self-portrait. Some produce traditional figurative art; others bake cakes or devise video games; one made a dream catcher out of a hula hoop and string (her inspiration: a Chinese proverb that says all people are linked by an invisible thread). Variations of this activity are doing the rounds in ELT classes in different forms: creating personal webpages, online scrapbooks, and customized portfolios, all in English.

If we move on to how Millennials learn, it turns out they are rather keen on multimedia (surprise, surprise) and not so enamored of lectures. While juggling smartphones, laptops, ipods and ipads, many Millennials are actually learning. They favor video as a mode of transmission (see Khan Academy), and get bored easily with one style of delivery. In this, they may be no different from generations before them, but those earlier generations had less choice in a more conformist, less tech-rich world. And what are the biggest trends in ELT? Filmed content. Online, mobile and blended learning.

Akira Kurosawa, the last great auteur?

Akira Kurosawa, the last great auteur?













Two other trends concern creativity and group work. Millennials are inveterate sharers. They find collaboration entirely natural, and in workplaces where they proliferate, from Silicon Valley to Paris’s houses of couture, teams rule. In the world of arts, science and technology, the idea of the lone genius – da Vinci or Kurosawa or Einstein or Feynman – is becoming outdated. Film auteurs, with the exception of Woody Allen, are almost extinct as a Hollywood species. Teams now accomplish everything. Many of the big names in visual arts – say, Jeff Koons, Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst – use whole squads to assemble their works (these teams look more like laborers on a building site than the dainty apprentices of Rembrandt and Rubens).

He didn't make it himself.

He didn’t make it himself.








And what do we find in ELT coursebooks? Group work everywhere. The tasks in Cutting Edge, the ‘speakout’ sections of Speakout, face2face’s ‘Get ready … Get it Right!’ – all of these regularly involve students working in groups, and often to produce something original. In truth, collaborative tasks have a long history in ELT – from Herbolich’s box kite project in the 70s to Vicky Saumell’s students making animations of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. This trend looks set to continue as language education takes on a more task-oriented (and in some cases, community-based) hue.

So it seems that in task types, use of multimedia, creativity, and group work, much of mainstream ELT is catering to Millennials’ learning styles. The big publishers and ‘content providers’ recognize that to be successful, they have to adapt, and these shifts are undoubtedly a case of the dog following the bone.

There is, of course, a caveat to all of this. Stereotyping a whole generation is questionable. The world is a pretty diverse place, and millions upon millions of teenagers don’t use facebook, don’t take selfies, don’t collaborate well. With this in mind, here is an A-E of aspects to bear in mind when teaching Millennials:

A: applicability – teaching things that are relevant to students’ lives

B: brainstorming – students generating ideas for creative projects

C: collaboration – students thriving in teams

D: diversity – including multimedia, personalization, appreciation of difference

E: empathy – teachers connecting with students in non-authoritarian ways

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