Throw out the chalk and talk

To engage millennials, teachers must change the way they teach

Having taught at university level for over a quarter of a century, it seems to me that the present generation of students is different and may require some teachers to change the way they teach.

In wired societies like Singapore, the millennials who are our students today are always logged in and on social media on the go, which defines how they live.

It is not that they are distracted in class or unable to get their eyes off their smartphones. They may be smart and attentive, yet want to be able to use their smartphones in class. It is not that they can't watch and listen as you speak either.


It is just that for teachers, there need to be better ways than that old script.

The truth about university educators is that they are experts in their fields but few are trained to teach. So students have long endured the luck of the draw, more often encountering experts who are poor teachers than the rare ones who are both experts and good teachers.

But my hope is that teachers, good and not so good, if they have not already done so, will relook the way they teach.

The professor might ask if it is really too much, as an expert in her field, to expect her students to give their gizmos a rest long enough to listen to something great they won't get elsewhere.

Well, no, if you believe your field has a fixed body of knowledge that you can pass on that will serve your students well in life, if only they sit still in your class to absorb all of it.

But if knowledge is ever growing and what is received wisdom today may soon be debunked, it might be more important to find ways to train students to access relevant information and knowledge in an optimal manner.

Then the chalk-and-talk method (with PowerPoint, of course) may not work any longer, especially for millennials who expect teaching and learning to fit with the ethos of their Internet- suffused lives.

If you resist all this and feel that repurposing your teaching methods and materials for millennials is merely pandering to them, or that experts should not have to turn cartwheels to teach, you may well be letting pride get in the way of becoming a more effective teacher.

A teacher should want to teach effectively, so she would not regard innovating as pandering. Instead, she should be willing to tailor her teaching approach to suit her audience. To do that for the current generation, she needs to ask what matters most to millennials.

Studies have shown that they value freedom, speed, customisation, collaboration, innovation and integrity. They want to be free to choose what new things to work on - where and when they want to. They want instantaneous responsiveness and feedback from teachers, like being on WhatsApp or Twitter.

But like their personalised wallpapers or ringtones or Facebook timelines, they also want non-generic, customised responses from their teachers.

This generation valorises relationships, participation and collaboration. They want to offer their opinions and suggestions, being so used to posting them on social media all the time. Valuing innovation means they constantly want new and creative user experiences.

Finally, they care a lot about transparency, honesty and integrity, so they tend to be sceptical of and are likely to scrutinise what people in authority - and that includes experts - may have to say.

For such learners, the classroom learning environment must be redesigned not only to match their expectations, but also because the kind of knowledge work they will do after graduation requires a different kind of approach to knowledge acquisition.

The amount of information on the Internet is infinite in quantity and accessible on demand, any time. In such a world, our young people should not be taught content to be regurgitated as if that delivered content were the whole settled truth on the matter.

I see the educationist's more urgent task as teaching millennials how to make sense of this deluge of information of varying degrees of validity and trustworthiness.

Separating good from bad information is a complex task. The point of education should be to train young people to become experts at handling each piece of information, to assess it for relevance, reliability and validity.

I recently taught a course on the greening of business. With no suitable textbook to rely on, I had to design it and took the opportunity to do so in a way I hoped would promote collaborative learning.

I wanted students to learn how to locate, assess, share and create content from information available on the Internet, including from restricted academic databases.

I designed my course, called Business Gone Green, as a "flipped class" in which students viewed short videos or PowerPoint presentations and looked further for relevant content online before coming to class. They had to work in teams to share knowledge acquired from the information they gathered.

Students had to collect information, then work together to separate the wheat from the chaff. They had to critique the content: Is it accurate: are the sources cited reliable? Is the author credible: what are her qualifications and is her organisation a legitimate one? Is it objective or does it try to sway me? Is the site current and updated? Is its coverage substantive or superficial? And so on.

Together, the teams developed a shared understanding of the information before them.

We used class time for discussions, presentations or role plays.

All this is not as easy as it sounds, because students had to offer the viewpoints of different stakeholders, ferret out their own unstated assumptions and contextual influences and develop a common understanding of an issue with their team members.

In contrast to the old notion that teaching is mainly content delivery and learning just content acquisition, this sort of active engagement motivates students to engage their minds in dealing with the content that they locate.

This mindfulness makes the student feel empowered and a part of the learning process, so she can take pride in and ownership of the content acquired on her own or with her team, which she then puts together in a format unique to her.

This sort of training captures the nature of the knowledge work that these young people will do when they enter the workforce.

Actually, these processes mirror those that professors go through as a matter of course in writing research papers. What they need to do more of then is to transform that process so familiar to them with some imagination and contextualise it for their students to prepare them for the workforce better than the best prepared lectures they can ever deliver as a sage on stage.

It's time for some of us who teach to revisit how we do so because the old ways may not quite work with this new generation.

The writer is a business professor at Nanyang Technological University. The opinions expressed in this article are her own.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2015, with the headline 'Throw out the chalk and talk'. Subscribe