Saturday, March 13, 2010

Is Generation Really Relevant?

Norm Friesen has weighed in on the question of generation and education with his blog posting, Generations and Educational Change. In it he argues that the generation is not a very useful construct, at least in the way that is used in the popular discourse around the net generation. Drawing the work of Karl Mannheim, Friesen says, "as a sociological category, a generation is only one of a number of ways in which a society is layered, stratified or differentiated. Other forms of differentiation include race, gender and class. Of these, generation as a category is generally considered as providing the weakest basis for differentiation." He also quotes Reeves & Oh who conclude: "Generational differences are weak as a researchable variable in a manner similar to learning styles.." (p.303)

Friesen goes further in undermining the value of generation by pointing out that the coherence of generation is usually defined in terms of “a collective response to a traumatic event or catastrophe --like the 9/11 attacks" (Edmunds & Turner, 2002, p. 12). As Friesen say, "by comparison, the adoption of new media technologies (occurring at different rates for different classes, genders and nationalities) is not characterized by the cultural force or distinctiveness of an event such as an attack or disaster."

So I was surprised that, after dismissing generation as useful construct, Friesen concludes, "Tapscott and others are right to identify the issue of generations as highly relevant to education, but they are wrong to focus only on one generation in isolation from others and from the sociology of generations generally."

There is a growing body of excellent research that suggest quite clearly that generation is not the issue. Friesen refers to some of this in his blog posting but there is much more. As Reeves & Oh conclude:

"The bottom line on generational differences is that educational technology researchers should treat this variable as failing to meet the rigor of definition and measurement required for robust individual differences variables. The gross generalizations based on weak survey research and the speculations of profit-oriented consultants should be treated with extreme caution in a research and development context. (p. 303)

Edmunds, J. & Turner, B. (2002). Generations, Culture and Society. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Mannheim, K. (1953). The problem of generations. In Mannheim, K. (Ed.). Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge Kegan Paul.(see:

Reeves, T. C., & Oh, E. J. (2008). Generation differences and educational technology research. In J. M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. J. G. van Merrienboer & M. P. Driscoll (Eds.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (3rd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Pp. 295-303.


mollybob said...

this is a topic close to my heart. as someone who is sometimes considered a Gen Y (slightly old), it seems to be assumed that I will have 500 different character traits and be a total computer genius (I wish!). There seems to be a growing body of evidence which clearly suggests that the generational divide is far less useful and defining than our stereotypes suggest.

Mark Bullen said...

Thanks for your comment mollybob. Yes, there is a growing body of evidence. It is distressing, however, to see how prevalent the generational myths have become and how easily people accept them.