21st Century High School Graduates


The Class of 2013 represents the first totally 21st-century educated young people in America. So what you may ask. The “so what” is that they are different than previous generations.

They grew up with Internet service at home, not just at school. By eighth grade, most carried a touchscreen smartphone with wireless Internet access. By the time they reached high school, their phones could not only access the Internet faster, but could also store an entire library of photographs and digital music files. They have literally been on the crest of the technology tidal wave.

As most of them now prepare to go off to college, many of the fields of study they will enter have been revolutionized by the same changes in technology and society that have shaped that generation. For example, math has changed in that there used to be just one way to solve problems, where now there might be four different strategies – a revolutionized education system. What is different about this generation is that information is no longer difficult to ferret out, so there is no longer the same requirement for students to retain information. The old-fashioned rote memorization style of education was based on a world where having data on instant recall was a valuable skill.

Today instant recall is not only unnecessary, it’s downright frowned upon. Why clutter one’s mind with useless facts when it can better be used to play thanks to Google, Bing and Yahoo search engines? These high school graduates retain less information because they don’t have to recall it – they can find it – but reportedly that doesn’t make them any less intelligent. Education is even shifting its focus away from the retention of information and toward the use of information, because electronically, information is retained for us.

But technology isn’t the only thing that has shaped the lives of this year’s graduates. None of them have any clear memory of a time when the United States wasn’t engaged in a war in Afghanistan — a war that began in 2002 when they were in first grade. It was always on the news, when as adolescents they would see the list of the people that died that day. Despite growing up in a time of turmoil throughout world, they seem to have developed a culture a greater tolerance and diversity than in previous generations. For example, interracial dating, which in earlier times would have ignited controversy and actually was illegal in some states, is something they hardly even notice.

Part of that is a reflection of the rapidly changing demographics of the nation. From 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people identifying themselves as being of mixed race grew 32 percent. Reportedly there is a lot less cliquishness and separatist subgroups that don’t interact with each other in high school.

They also were educated under the No Child Left Behind mandates for education, which meant standardized tests, beginning in third grade, that meant more to teachers and schools than they meant to the students. Students were pressured to do well, and given big incentive rewards for doing well. Some have referred to the effect as Lake Woebegone where all kids are above average, but the intent was to ensure that all were at least proficient in all subjects.

Time will tell what the generational impact of their times will be, what they will accomplish, and what they will contribute to society, just as every preceding generation has been judged. The one undeniable characteristic of this Class of 2013 that is totally dependent on technology is that they will not be attracted to any library that does not appeal to their technology-based life style.

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2 responses to “21st Century High School Graduates

  1. While it is true that a member of the class of 2013 is probably more technology savvy and inclined than previous classes, I disagree that instant recall abilities have become obsolete. This is particularly the case when sitting through freshman math or chemistry classes, where remembering what formulae apply to what is on the test being given.

    In the work world, many employers are still of the mindset that being able to accurately and quickly remember statistics and other figures is the mark of a good employee. I do agree that the 21st century employee needs to be able to know where to look for information to follow up on whether it is through a general search engine as Google, or a particular website or database (free or paid subscription).

    One thing that I often see as, a public librarian, is that many students are quick to turn to the Internet when looking for information, particularly the specific answer to the general question that they vaguely understand. This is mainly seen when a project or term paper is being written. While this is not at all new or different from previous generations (mine included), what appears to be lacking is the emphasis on application of critical thinking at the high school level – how to analyze and approach the problem before trying to solve it.

    Yes, I do understand that this is an age old problem that parents and teachers still confront. My point is that it appears that many are letting (or hoping) that technology will be the way that trains young minds to acquire and process information. Believe me, this is not something that any educator or employer is willing to accept, not now or in the future.

    • I’ll admit that recall abilities are still important – in school. At least until schools begin allowing use of the Internet like they did the calculator. But, beyond the classroom this generation doesn’t want to and doesn’t plan to. Who remembers math or chemistry after school?
      I also agree that employers would certainly prefer critical thinkers and to have employees with a capability to apply lots of recalled information, but we have seen that employers adjust more than they prefer to the capabilities of their workforce. Jason Dorsey’s best seller “Y-Size Your Business” is a good and recent example of that.
      My point was that these library customers will not be attracted to use any library that is not catering to their digital life style. We had better get our minds wrapped around that reality.

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