Every class, every program, every pathway has a story. Whether we realize it or not, there is an unspoken narrative and expectation underlying the concepts and lessons we’re teaching. That narrative is what we communicate about the value and relevance of our subject, whether it’s a technical field or a traditional academic discipline. The narrative influences what students think about the subject, what benefit they see it providing to them, and what they expect after they complete the class or pathway. More often than not, the narrative students are hearing is highly influenced by how (or if) we connect the subject with the things that matter to them.
What matters to today’s young people?
The world can be an uncertain and intimidating place and behind all the funny memes about “adulting,” young people really are concerned about their ability to make it—to get and keep a real job, move out on their own, and manage all the responsibilities that come with adulthood. That’s why the narrative of gaining a serious competitive advantage is so compelling to these generations. Anything that can give them an edge in the face of big challenges (like launching into successful adulthood) is going to catch their eye, because that’s relevant to their real life. Your instructional narrative needs to drive to the competitive advantage they can get by putting in the effort now.
The competitive advantage for their future educational and career pathway then leads to the lifestyle that young people want to enjoy. I say it all the time: for young people today, experience is everything. They want to fill their lives with positive and exhilarating experiences—however they define those experiences according to their own unique interests and passions. Experience is everything means lifestyle is everything. So we have to connect the mastery of the academic or technical subject with the attainment of the lifestyle that will support their quest for new and enjoyable experiences.
To start crafting a powerful instructional narrative, ask these questions of your subject:
- Why does it matter? How does it make the world a better place?
- How will it help your students achieve the life they want to enjoy?
- How will mastering these concepts now serve them later?
- What makes today’s concept important?
Then, start asking these questions of your students:
- What do you want your life to look like?
- What experiences do you want to have?
- Do you want to travel, see concerts, and have a family?
- What kind of financial and career freedoms do you want to enjoy?
- Where do you want to live?
Finally, we have to ask ourselves if we are modeling the kind of interest and passion that will be contagious to students. Do you love your subject? Why did you decide to pursue this particular discipline? What are the rewards and satisfaction inherent to this field? It may be helpful to remember the reasons you chose this career, because your reasons might be just the thing your students need to hear to make the most of their time in your classroom.
The Why Generation
I call today’s young people the Why Generation because one of their most prominent traits is the desire to understand the reasons behind everything we ask them to do. It’s not insubordination; they want to know why because that lends weight and importance to their contribution. If we cannot provide a compelling answer to why they should put in the effort to learn, very few will find that answer on their own.
I believe we must be proactive and intentional about creating a powerful instructional narrative. This does not add another thing we have to cram into our lesson plans, but rather, this narrative should permeate everything we’re already doing. The instructional narrative that is going to resonate with the Why Generation answers the question “why should I do this?” proactively by reinforcing the value of your subject in every concept, every lesson, every day. And that’s a story worth telling!