My son is 18. That means he’s finishing his senior year in a public high school, and preparing to head off to a college or university this fall.
I’ve played a close part in his education since his birth. As Owain approaches this major transition in his life, I wanted to share some observations about his experience of schooling. Consider this a snapshot of one American student in 2017, a micro-portrait of Generation Z, from the massively biased perspective of his father.
I’m going to try to be analytical here, and hold back oceanic waves of emotion.
He despises homework. Homework is a source of agony, even in this final year of high school. There is very little thrill in completion or in successfully overcoming an obstacle. He struggles mightily to complete assignments at school or elsewhere (public library, on the bus) so that the work doesn’t follow him home. He wants to preserve home time for himself. The flipped classroom isn’t a crazy experiment for him, but simply a good thing.
He’s skeptical about the possibility of going to a Vermont college or university. Not because of being too close or too far from us, his parents, but mostly because his experience of Vermont cell phone and internet connectivity is so awful that he dreads four more years of bad online experience. (Readers can get a sense of the state of affairs from these posts) . This is a big issue for him.
He doesn’t idolize his favorite teachers, at least not to us. A good teacher or class experience is something he’ll rarely mention. Some teachers describe Owain giving a great presentation or impressing his classmates, and that will be the first time we’ve heard of it. Instead, he describes bad experiences in epic detail, and remembers them for years. He’s a tough audience.
He has become deeply opposed to literature classes. On his own he reads constantly, and always has, but feels that academic lit is mostly about dwelling on depressing, frustrating, and upsetting readings.
When he struggles with homework he turns to us, his parents, for help. He always has. Recently it’s been bittersweet to see him advance past our respective academic abilities, especially in math or science or Python that we don’t recall.
Sometimes he struggles with technology issues, as when working on a digital video, trying to use some courseware, or fighting through Windows laptop issues. We do our best… and there we see the digital divide yawning wide. Ceredwyn and I can do a decent amount of tech support, because of our respective life experiences and professional work. We also own some technology (laptops, tablets, XBox…) so Owain has grown up with access to tools and toys. We’re not necessarily typical parents. How do young people fare when their parents lack these skills? When do they give up? Moreover, how do they do when the home lacks hardware and/or bandwidth? (These are rhetorical questions.) We have had to drive across the county to get him sufficient speeds for some assignments.
Owain expects teachers to communicate digitally, and is scathing when he feels they fail on that score. He’s not pleased when teachers and staff use email, Google Docs, etc.; he just assumes they will. If they don’t, or use the tech in an insufficient way, he mutters or rants about “technophobes” and “old people” and “Vermont.”
He communicates with classmates more online than in person, I think. Google Chat seems to be the preferred venue, although I don’t pry. He can’t text from home (see my earlier notes about Vermont), but happily texts when his phone gets signal.
Google Docs is his leading writing medium for class work, far more than desktop word processing. He’s fully accustomed to sharing docs with readers and working with their feedback therein.
The open web is his research space. I can’t think of a time when he’s used a commercial database, although he does like Amazon Kindle ebooks. He’s aware of the politics, and isn’t entirely confident in his search abilities.
Grades matter to him a great deal. He stresses deeply about exams, projects, and tests. He fears the results might not be accurate, especially if they overstate his actual abilities.
Libraries are sources of connectivity, computing, and also media (books, DVDs). They are familiar spaces for him. He prefers the public library to the school one.
Outside of class resources are important in Owain’s schooling. In high school he has spent significant time in “learning lab”, an after-class paracurricular center staffed by experts in the sciences and humanities.
He always listens to music or plays videos when working. He has a staggeringly vast YouTube playlist that he relies on, plus a bevy of favored video creators. He’ll play media on a tablet when working on a laptop.
I think he separates learning from school. He rarely describes learning in school. Instead, he views school as work, a set of tasks set by authorities usually without sufficient context. He fights to raise his passions (space, history, technology) in classes. He learns informally from books, YouTube, websites, and some games. That’s a different category than “school”.
I’m not sure how these behaviors and attitudes will change when he goes away to college.
If he does homework in his dorm room, will that space be less of a home for him? Or will he seek out other spaces for assignments? I can imagine him taking advantage of peer tutors and teaching and learning centers.
Will a professor rock his world and become a mentor? Will he rethink the university as a place of learning, rather than onerous work?
He might start using his phone for voice calls. He usually avoids speaking on phones, mobile or landline, but that could change if he lives in a campus with solid cell coverage and/or misses us.
After Owain leaves Ripton Ceredwyn and I are planning on moving. If we successfully land in a high-speed location, perhaps we’ll start using video or message services to stay in touch with our son. Maybe we’ll turn to texting each other.
As an educator and research I’ve tried not to rely heavily on my children as study subjects. I don’t want to speak of them too much, despite my urgent desire to do so every hour, because I’d prefer to stick to evidence where I’m not so biased. But I wanted to share this sketch now, partly as a memory aid for our family’s future, and also as a tiny view into education in 2017.