Social Work Education and Millennials

Today is my first day of class for the fall semester. It’s going to be a big one, with my first forays into “blended” (part-online, part-classroom) instruction, a commute between our two main campuses, and a lot of evaluation, on my part, about how to best engage students in the study of social policy within this new context.

My graduate students (which is what I’ll have this semester) are older and, for the most part, more diverse than our undergraduates, but, still, the majority of my students are in their 20s, which places them within the Millennial generation. My reading and thinking this summer about the power of this generation to transform the American political landscape has sparked some new insights about how this generation’s unique attributes may shape them as students, too, and how my teaching needs to reflect their styles of engagement and modes of inquiry. I certainly haven’t reached any definitive conclusions, but I’ll look to them, this semester and in the future, to help me sort through some of what I’m seeing in the classroom (and, increasingly, in our online discussion boards) and how to best navigate this ‘generation gap’ as an instructor.

Some thoughts:

  • Millennials are more religiously-motivated in their progressivism than any previous generation since the GI (“Greatest”) Generation. I’ve certainly seen this in my classroom, which means that I need to figure out how to help students sort through their faith, and how it brings them to our profession and towards social justice, and how to use it ethically and appropriately in working with diverse client groups.
  • Millennials are very relationship-focused. As I’ve discussed here before, the increasingly fluid relationships that I forge with students, especially through the use of social media, come with new ethical quandries that it is, obviously, my responsibility as instructor to navigate. My students have always wanted to know a lot about me personally, but these students seem particularly interested in reciprocity, bringing me into their networks as they find allies with whom to work on the issues they care about. This also means that they don’t want to work in silos; the idea of totally “independent” work product is fairly foreign to them, and they prefer instead to collaborate in ways that add to their learning. This means, for me, thinking creatively about group projects and how to foster processes, not just products, that promote knowledge and community at the same time.
  • There’s an inherent distrust of authority, but it comes from a concern that elites are trying to control their access to information, not from an automatic disdain for institution. My students want to see detailed citations, they want transparency, they want to be able to look at data for themselves. They question where conclusions are coming from not because they have a reflexive antipathy for all authority but because their ways of relating to each other, and to content, are more dynamic than organizational rules often allow. I think that the blended course format, with its layers of content, will feed into this, but I need to always be prepared for students’ challenging, rather than being defensive or dismissive.
  • There’s increasing consensus among Millennials about many social and economic issues, which, while it bodes well for public policy reform, can create a sort of ‘groupthink’ in class, that not only may cause older students to feel excluded (even more than they may naturally) but also deprive younger students of the opportunity to debate, hone, and defend their ideas with diverse audiences. I need to think about how I bring other perspectives into the classroom and how I give space to dissenting views.

    I’d love to hear from my current and former students, Millennials and not, about how generational differences impact your social work education, and about how you’d like to see instructors adapt to students’ experiences. Other instructors and instructional experts (and generational scholars) looking at these issues, I’d appreciate any resources you have on how to best grapple with the challenges and best build on the tremendous strengths of this latest generation in the classroom.

    To all, here’s to another wonderful semester of social policy study!

  • 4 responses to “Social Work Education and Millennials

    1. As a 25 year old, and yes a Millennial, I agree with a lot of what you have stated. I think I would like to add though that I see a yearning within my generation to not just learn and communicate with each other but also to have the power to do something. This can be hard, as you have stated, that there is an idea that there is an extreme elite in this country making decisions for us and everyone else. In the past generations these types of ideas may have been blown off as a conspiracy theory but today I feel that we can see there is a true elite power that has bought the media. SO, yes I do want to see citations, and I want to read the study, and I want to know what the other side says.
      Hopefully, (fingers crossed) that the voting trend among this generation continues througout the next and there is a shift in social policies.

      • I appreciate very much your perspective as part of this generation. There’s also a convergence between the technologies today and the way in which they make going around those concentrations of power possible–I was actually reading something last week about how ‘generational differences’ are more a result of the different contexts in which they come up, and this generation has been shaped not only by tragic failures of powers (Hurricane Katrina, for example) but also the ability to subvert them to build relationships and share their messages. The push for transparency that characterizes so much of the dialogue today can be linked, then, to the tools that newly make transparency really possible.

    2. Jessica Patterson

      I have recently become curious about the belief systems of Millennials and their geographic location. I can only speak for myself and my peers(most Millennials) who have grown up in the Midwest and I see a shift in political views, a desire to be more involved, and more outspoken about views towards same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, etc and wonder if Millennials that grew up in more traditionally liberal areas of the country are experiencing the same as us in the more traditional conservative states or if it is just status quo for them. I am also finding that we tend to be more aggressive in expressing our needs and goals, whether related to career or personal lives, and am curious if this is because of our increased access to technology. I am able to quickly sit at my computer, look up careers I find interesting, their salaries based on geographic location, and then set a plan to achieve that goal. Whereas, I feel those before us paved that way through years of experience and moving up the “ladder”. I truly enjoy the blended format of class as it fits in my 40hr/wk work schedule but often do miss the opportunities to debate and explore other points of view that are offered more in traditional class settings.

      • broadkawvalley

        Thanks, Jessica, for these comments. I see some of the same trends–even some of my relatives and students who identify as very conservative politically still have more egalitarian views about same-sex relationships than more ‘liberal’ members of older generations, and this portends a significant shift in the policies within these spheres, too, as these Millennials move into decision-making positions. I am very interested to see how the changes in approaches to employment do shift policies and practices in employers, including nonprofit/social work organizations. Your own experience suggests that this, too, may be on the horizon (not just in terms of salaries and advancement, as you reference, but also flexible schedules and telecommuting and other arrangements)!

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