Five Generations in One Classroom

By Dr. Geri McArdle

I teach a public seminar for a global management organization.  A couple of months ago, in New York City, I walked into a class, opened with a welcome, and conducted a one-minute needs assessment with the group. 

During this introduction, I noticed a rather strange arrangement: one group of participants consisted of two Millennials and a Baby Boomer; another group consisted of five generation Xers, and the final group consisted of all Baby Boomers, and then there is me, a pre-Boomer for a total of five generations in one class. 

What immediately came to mind were the research findings reported by Patty Gaul in TD Magazine, “Millennials Need Training to Manage More Effectively” (March 2016). In the article, Gaul states that “… forty-seven percent of Millennials surveyed feel that they are the most capable generation to lead yet, only 14 percent of the respondents as a whole said so.”

Later in the same article, Gaul states that according  U.S. News and World Report  August 2014, “… a poll found that 45 percent of Generation X and Baby Boomer respondents believe that they lack pertinent experiences … [and that] could have a negative impact on a company’s culture.” 

 My first reaction to my New York situation was that any traditional training approach would likely be met with resistance.  The Baby Boomers might reminisce about chalkboards, rotary phones, and shops around the corner.  The millennials counter the Boomer view by taking online classes, accessing information on Google, researching topics on Wikipedia, and making friends around the globe using Facebook. 

How Millennials Operate

Millennials are the digital natives.  Their world is swift paced, constant change, and technology is their lifeline. They grew up with digital technology such as computers, used cellular phones to communicate with others, the pencil and paper approach is not sufficient or relevant.

How Millennials Learn Best

Today’s learners have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed clothes, language or music preference. Millennials think and process information fundamentally different than previous generations. And they have the innate ability to use technology which makes them comfortable multi-tasking using a diverse range of digital media and literally demanding interactivity as they construct knowledge. 

For Millennials, technology has become an entire strategy for how they live, survive and thrive today.  Because of technology, they approach their life and their daily activities differently.  Some ways in which they approach their lives differently, and have an impact on their learning preferences are:

1. Communicate differently – email, instant message, texting versus hand-written notes and letters.

 2. Buy and sell differently – eBay, versus, small and local retail stores.

3. Search for information differently – Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia versus library “ready-reference and encyclopedias.

4. Socialize differently – Facebook, eHarmony, versus hanging out in the neighborhood.

Millennials Learn Differently

As trainers, instructors, facilitators or coaches, we work with two major paradigms when we design and deliver content.  The first is the behaviorist.  The behaviorist’s teaching/learning process consists of the direct instruction of facts.  Instruction takes the role of teacher-centered, and information is a one-way communication process.

On the other hand in the constructivist. Their teaching/learning process consists of helping learners construct knowledge by building on individuals’ schemas or cognitive structures to represent their meaning of the world.

Today the shift is not from one paradigm to another.  As practitioners, we must have access to both.  Passive learning, the behaviorist’s strategy has its place; however, the Millennials preference in both learning and leading is learning toward a more constructivist process in which learning and leading is collaborative, interactive, global and project-based.  Knowledge is not memorized but is constructed through research and the application of what is learned. 

What Happened In My Five-Generational Class

Curiosity ruled.  The Millennials elected to future-pace the material, so they were assigned a task to analyze, synthesize and present a preview of learning to come to complete picture of the entire course content.  The Boomers were decidedly the problem solvers, and they developed problem-based learning case scenarios to demonstrate how to apply the class content back home, and the Generation Xer’s chose to “teach-back” lessons learned,  the “show me,” checking that the group understood what they previously learned in class.

Why Open-System Learning Made a Difference

Did these various events make a difference?  Did all walk away with a better understanding of how the various styles and orientations just might make a difference in today’s work environment – you bet.  

If you are faced with a similar situation, stop and think. It could be that learner-centered, problem-centered and an open-system learning can be more efficient, effective, engaging and fun.


The Millennial generation, also referred to as Generation Y, is the latest emerging group of employees.  These are people born between 1980 and 2000 are different from Generation X that preceded them.

Today, the generational issues have taken a different role in the learning. There are several ways this generation differs with other learning styles.   They embrace the latest technologies.  They are interconnected and are visible on social media channels since they spend plenty of their time online tweeting, texting, and posting.  Millennials are seldom alone, are networked, and can collaborate without fear of asking others for assistance.  

As learners and as employees, Millennials want to be heard and do not want their ideas to be ignored. They like being part of decisions.  Keep these factors in mind the next time you design and make a presentation.   They are the frontier of management.

Training Tip: How to Manage a Diverse Learning Population

The role of the trainer today is to provide information and processes that can be applied immediately to work situations.

The presentation focus should include ways to sharpen skills to organize resources, space, materials, money and time proficiently. Additionally, provide opportunities for learners to define and solve problems with solutions using higher order thinking skills, multiple intelligences and technologies.

Teaching/Learning Paradigms

20th Century Classroom (Behaviorist)

21st Century Classroom (Constructivist)

Lesson focus on the lower level of the learning acquisition process and include knowledge, comprehensive and application

Lesson emphasize upper level of the learning acquisition process and include synthesis, analysis, and evaluation



Passive learning

Active learning

Fragmented curriculum

Integrated and interdisciplinary curriculum

Print is the primary vehicle of learning and assessment.

Performances, projects and multiple forms of media are used for learning and assessment.

Finally, keep in mind the two paradigms, learning styles and program outcome during your presentation.  Are you providing the tools they need?  Are you using the appropriate teaching/learning paradigm? Learning is always a dialogue and a collaboration. 

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About the Author

Geri McArdle has been a practitioner in the human resource field for 25 years. She has published nine books on human productivity and numerous juried research articles in professional journals... a founding member of our Chapter, an international trainer and consultant, she now spends her time in Fort Myers. 

You can read more by Dr. McArdle in our monthly chapter newsletters.

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