Blog by Kevin Wheeler, Future of Talent Institute, Beyond Words - Learning Gen Y Style

Gen Y Learns Differently – Informally and with Technology
Photo credit: DaveLawler / / CC BY-ND

This generation is the one that will redefine learning.  And because of them book-based learning, lectures, stand-up teaching, grades, honor rolls, and all the other paraphernalia of the 20th century will fade away faster than we imagine.

As I travel around the world I see cheap Internet access everywhere. Mobile data plans are getting more and more affordable and a data-enabled Sim card costs just a few dollars. Every young traveler has at a minimum a smart phone and often also has a laptop or tablet as well.  Being connected is as important to them as having electricity or running water.

But my four or five star business hotel still charges way too much for slow Internet access – mainly because people my age don’t demand it as these younger folks do.  I wrote this post in a fancy New Zealand hotel room where they still advertise typing and fax services available in the business center, but require a special phone call to activate the wired Internet service in the room.

Only Baby Boomers and Gen X would tolerate that. Gen Y does everything virtually and has no idea where to buy a postage stamp. They communicate in real time, send out instant messages to ask for help, learn from each other informally over the Internet and, in this behavior, they are defining what learning will look like.

Blog by Kevin Wheeler, Beyond Words - Learning Gen Y Style, illustration Imagined 21st Century French School House

Imagined 21st Century French School House
Photo credit: Jean Marc Cote (if 1901) or Villemard (if 1910) / / Public Domain Mark 1.0

I doubt learning will ultimately look at all like we think it will – as maybe something packaged and sold over the Internet, or as something still delivered in schools by teachers, and validated with grades and tests.

Today’s virtual learning is looking more like what you see at where anyone can teach and anyone can learn. Teachers are evaluated by the students, and students evaluate each other.

Classrooms are boxes – they close you in, contain you, limit and control. The idea of a structure, a formal design to learning is increasingly foreign.  Many young people ask me: “How does anyone know what I want or need to know or how I want to learn something?” They say, “Why should I follow your logic in acquiring this bit of knowledge?”  And, I really haven’t got a good answer for them.

What Gen Y is Hungry For

Sure young people need guides. They are actually hungry for general direction and ideas to pursue.  What I have learned is that if I provide them with a very top-level syllabus, for example, list a few potential books to read or other sources; they are off on their own. Sometimes they don’t even need that – all they need to know is what you want them to know and when you want them to know it. Generally, they explore, share, and investigate far more thoroughly than any teacher would require. Their peer evaluations are honest, real-time, and usually reflect careful thought. Peer pressure keeps personal barbs to a minimum.

Traditional Classroom Learning Will Be History photo for blog by Kevin Wheeler

Traditional Classroom Learning Will Be History
Photo credit: Thomas Hawk / / CC BY-NC

The idea of chronological progression through grades is foreign to them. The notion that you need to be a certain age to learn something is equally foreign.

I doubt future learning, at least the stuff that will be successful, will come in packages.

Learners will learn “on the fly” as other learners and software interprets and suggests alternatives.  And, the learning experiences will be much more social, video-based and game-associated than we can even imagine.  People will learn by experimenting and by being challenged to achieve levels of proficiency.  Peers will provide ideas and stimulate creative solutions. Feedback will be immediate.

The ability to perform will be the basis of further challenges and growth.  Games probably are right idea and teach more than we think.  Steven Johnson in his book “Everything Bad is Good For You” provides evidence that IQs have risen as a result of games and online activities and that even watching television today is more complex and multilayered than ever. This requires greater attention spans, better concentration and the ability to hold several plot elements in your mind at the same time.

The New Game Theory

If you have watched a teenager play a video game you will see this in an embryonic form. When they sit down to play for the first time they do not read the instruction booklet.  In fact, few games even have them.  Instead they start to play, interacting almost immediately with the characters and identifying with certain ones.  Enough standards already exist that knowing basic key clicks and mouse movements is second nature or a quick pop-up guide provides the necessary and only the essential moves.

Gaming as a Means of Learning for blog by Kevin Wheeler; Photo credit: Bibi / / CC BY-NC-SA

Gaming as a Means of Learning
Photo credit: Bibi / / CC BY-NC-SA

Most of these games require the player to master an increasingly difficult series of challenges.  They have to move with speed and agility and they have to be very clever.  Each level of mastery is more and more difficult and you cannot move on until you have completely mastered the lesser level.  There is no need for grades, scores, or teachers. Success is achieving your goals and your teachers are your peers and your own initiative.

This, to me, defines the way learning will move.  The learner is in the center of the action and is completely responsible for the outcomes, not a teacher or counselor. There are many branches that can be explored, and many of these games have multiple possible endings.  These also combine a challenge with fun.

Many games can be played against another player as well.  The network capabilities of games are just starting to be explored, but they will push the envelope and make location unimportant.  Players on different continents can play simultaneously and the video/action nature of these games make language irrelevant.

Firms such as Microsoft have invested in gaming and learning. Microsoft’s Games for Learning Institute is researching and developing games for math and sciences learning. NYU is offering a master’s degree in Games for Learning. A Silicon Valley startup, Bunchball, uses gaming principles to develop learning at work.  The number of commercial and academic players is growing exponentially.

Most of these games are not based on the written word and do not require reading.  Information is audio or visual – encoded into videos and music.   Learning is by immersion, doing, listening and watching.  This is almost 180 degrees different from how I learned, which was primarily through reading textbooks and articles and absorbing oral lectures – often unaccompanied with any visual material – and writing term papers and theses.

Books will become a minor partner in learning – may even disappear entirely from schools – as learning moves to tablets, phones and Internet-based devices.

We need to understand and accept more than we do now that the idea of book-based learning, lectures, stand-up teaching, grades, honor rolls, and all the other paraphernalia of the 20th century is fading away faster than we image.

Kevin Wheeler
Kevin Wheeler Founder and Chairman the Future of Talent Institute. Kevin started FOTI in 2004 out of his passionate belief that organizations need a more powerful and thoughtful architecture for talent than they have. After a 25 year career in corporate America serving as the Senior Vice President for Staffing and Workforce Development at the Charles Schwab Corporation, the Vice President of Human Resources for Alphatec Electronics, Inc. in Thailand, and in a variety of human resources roles at National Semiconductor Corporation, Kevin has firsthand knowledge of the need for better strategies and approaches to finding, developing and retaining people.

Today, Kevin is a globally known speaker, author, teacher and consultant in human capital acquisition and development, as well as in corporate education. He is the author of numerous articles on human resource development, career development, recruiting, and on establishing corporate universities. He is a frequent speaker at conferences. He writes a weekly Internet column on recruiting and staffing, which can be found at, and he and Eileen have written a book on corporate universities, The Corporate University Workbook: Launching the 21st Century Learning Organization. He serves as adjunct faculty at San Jose State University, the University of San Francisco and on the business faculty at San Francisco State University.

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