Can Generation M Learn Its ABCs?


From resistance to acceptance to integration: the ultimate education struggle for the21st century, played out in one teacher’s grudging embrace of new technologies.

ONE PURPOSE OF the Kaiser Family Foundation March 2005 report “Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds” ( was to help spur a national dialog on the role that media play in the lives of our children.

Consider me spurred. It took about three sentences of this report to make my head start to spin. As the report so clearly demonstrates, today’s students live in a world unlike any that preceded it. What effect on the education process does this have? A profound one.

Consider this description of our kids’ world from the Kaiser study: “New homes come complete with special nooks for oversized TV screens and home entertainment centers, while new cars come with personal TV screens in the back of each seat. The amount of media a person used to consume in a month can be downloaded in minutes and carried in a device the size of a lipstick tube. Today we get movies on cell phones, TVs in cars, and radio through the Internet. Media technologies themselves are morphing and merging, forming an everexpanding presence throughout our daily environment. Cell phones alone have grown to include video game platforms, email devices, digital cameras and Internet connections.”

What’s the result of having so much technology to do our bidding? Simply this: Our kids are spending 6 1/2 hours a day using some form of media. That’s 44 hours a week plugged in. That, as the report points out, is the equivalent of a full-time job plus a little overtime. And don’t forget to factor in the overlap: About 25 percent of that time is spent using more than one form of media at the same time. TV takes up most of kids’ attention, occupying almost four hours of their day; music almost two hours. They spend a little over an hour a day listening to radio, CDs, or MP3 players. Time spent on the computer unrelated to schoolwork nets a little less than an hour a day, which is the same amount spent playing video games. Now picture the average classroom. Thirty kids. Desks. Books. How does the typical teacher engage, motivate, communicate with, entertain, and instruct a generation of children raised on 40-plus hours a week of media recreation? How can teachers develop the ability of students to think critically and thoroughly, to speak with clarity and organization, to write with depth and reason, to simply participate in the intellectual process at all when these kids essentially have turned the act of being electronically stimulated into a full-time job?

A good teacher will design lessons that include three or four different activities, instead of lecturing all period or giving the kids handouts to complete. But how can that compete with a world in which students have their attention shifted every three seconds by the change of a camera angle or the swerving action of a video game, accompanied by jagged swings in plot, color, and music?

“How does the typical teacher engage, entertain,and instruct a generation of children raised on40-plus hours a week of media recreation?”

A New World

Whatever we may think about it, I know that we have to make accommodations for this new world, for these new students. In my teaching I have started designing lessons in roughly 10-minute chunks. I am lucky enough to have a projector that allows me to put on a screen anything I can put on my computer, and I am using that more and more. I am also going to take a 12-day course my district is offering so I can learn how to integrate technology into my teaching more effectively.

Still, the whole thing unnerves me. I know part of this is age—my age. I am getting older. But I just want to scoop up these little media heads and take them for a hike. I want to let them crawl around on some rocks, listen to some birds, and spend a little wilderness time simply letting their brains operate without media noise.

Can’t you just hear the laughter from our parents and grandparents? Mine complained when I was blasting Led Zeppelin and watching Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. I don’t think I spent 44 hours a week at it, but I do think it’s an old take on the same problem. The generation of kids we are trying to teach lives in a different world from ours. They communicate using different media—and they do it all day long.

I guess the bottom line for me, spinning head and all, is that I need to get with the program. Instead of worrying about the amount of time kids spend using media, I need to accept that reality and change the way I teach. Computers, videos, MP3 players, cell phones, and all the other electronic technology define how our children think and communicate. If we want to participate in any meaningful way in a dialog with them, we need to use, understand, and master that technology. We need to integrate that world into our classrooms. We can still teach them to think and read and write and participate in the human struggle in meaningful ways. We just don’t get to do it the way we used to.

Then, when school is out, we can all go for a nice, quiet walk in the woods and listen to the birds singing.


Steven W. Simpson teaches special education at Pacific Cascade Freshman Campus in the Issaquah School District (WA). He writes a weekly education column for the online newsletter Ed.Net, at

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.