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TP Msg. #1661 Creativity and the iGens

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The in-class active learning exercises so encouraged for previous generations may be wasted with the iGens. 


The posting below looks at the incoming generation of college students (iGens) and how their experiences may impact their creative thinking. It is by Charlie Sweet, Hal Blythe, and Rusty Carpenter
 - Eastern Kentucky University and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 27, Number 4, May 2018It is from a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [ ] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. ©2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published by Wiley Subscription Services Inc., a Wiley Company.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Scientists Are Opting for Remote Postdoc Positions


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Creativity and the iGens


A current and oft-played radio commercial boasts that the medium reaches “93% of millennials.” If college professors attained the same goal, reaching 93% of the millennials in their classrooms, they would be missing the major student population. Just as Genera-tion X (1965–1979) was replaced by millennials (1980–1994), so millennials have been superseded in the classroom by the iGens.

Who are the iGens? According to Twenge (2017), the iGens— sometimes known as Gen-eration Z, Generation
Net, or Screenagers—were “[b]orn
in 1995 and later,
they grew up with
cell phones, had
an Instagram page
before they started
high school, and
do not remember
a time before the
Internet” (p. 2).
As of 2016, these 23
million students have
replaced the millennials in our classrooms, and, most importantly, they differ greatly from the previous generation.

Although this column is not devoted to pedagogy specifically, where knowing your audience is a primary concern, the characteristics of the iGens nonetheless pose challenges for those educators interested in developing creative thinkers, an essential skill for navigating the twenty-first century. As Pink (2005) reminds us, “The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys” (p. 1). McWilliam (2008) doubles down on Pink’s claim: “Creativity is now being acknowledged as an observable and valuable component of all social exercise, from cradle to grave. . . . it is possible—indeed desirable—to teach for the sort of creativity that will be a core capacity for productive 21st-century workers” (pp. 23, 29).

But is the average iGen inclined to have his or her innate creativity nurtured in the college classroom? Let’s look at what the iGen demographics reveal vis-à-vis the characteristics of creative thinking.

General Attitude toward Education

Rosen (2010) sums up the attitudes of today’s tweens and teens as “they hate school,” clarifying the assertion with “the educational content is not the problem. It is the delivery method and the environment” (p. 3). To be precise, the shift is “techtonic” (pun intended). iGens become bored very quickly in the classroom if technology is not used, especially since many of the college iGens are used to the elementary and secondary classrooms being high-tech. But here’s the caveat. Not only do they lose interest in out-of-date college classrooms, but Twenge (2017) reports that by 2015 two out of every three US teens had a cell phone, and “The average teen checks her phone more than eighty times a day” (p. 2). In short, that means that in your one-hour class, the average student turns to the smartphone five times, once every 12 minutes (oh, and 40% of teens can type on their phones blindfolded). Obviously, the iGens love technology, but only if they can use it their way.

What do these statistics have
to do with creativity? Creativity thrives in a deep-learning environment wherein students have good disciplinary knowledge. Will these multitasking teens develop such knowledge? Carr (2017) emphasizes, “Not only do our phones shape our thoughts in deep and complicated ways, but the effects persist even when we aren’t using the devices. As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens” (p. C1). Carr goes on to cite an article in the April 2017 Journal of the Association for Consumer Research: “‘the integration
of smartphones into daily life’ appears to cause a ‘brain drain’ that can diminish such vital mental skills as ‘learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity’” (p. C2). Carr (2010) claims simply in The Shallows that “improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively” (p. 140).

Moreover, Baer (2010) indicates, “Subjects with more experience in a particular domain are likely to evidence more creativity
in that domain” (p. 330), but that knowledge is not being developed in iGen brains. Further evidence for Twenge (2017) of this lack of knowledge is the 13-point decline since 2005 in SAT critical reading skills, a 13-point decline in
SAT scores in general in the same time period, and less time on their homework than past generations. Multitaskers spending six hours per day (p. 51) on their smartphones and computers don’t have the depth of raw material necessary to be creative, and as Twenge says, “The human brain cannot multi- task” (p. 296), despite what Carr and a host of iGens claim.

The Role of Risk

Many researchers have noted the importance of risk-taking in creative thinking. Bandura (1997), for instance, argues, “The history of innovation vividly documents that premature abandonment of advantageous ventures because of early failures and discouraging setbacks would have deprived societies of the major advantages they enjoy
in virtually every aspect of life” (p. 456). Twenge’s research has discovered, on the other hand, that iGens prefer safety to risk: “iGen’ers’ risk aversion goes beyond their behaviors toward a general attitude of avoiding risk and danger” (p. 152), and they find “that it’s harder to protect your mind than your body” (p. 157).

Creativity, however, depends on students’ willingness to take risks, to challenge popular assumptions and beliefs, and, as Star Trek told us, “to boldly go where no one
has gone before.” In our Teaching Applied Creative Thinking (2013), we devote part of a chapter to risk, outlining their fears and offering several guidelines for creating risk in the classroom (see Chapter X). The minds of creative thinkers don’t seek safe spaces but rather the unknown. Thus, the core nature of iGens’ fights against the development of creativity.


As we pointed out in previous columns, design thinking, a type of creative thinking, begins with empathetic thought. All designs start with consideration of what consumers like and need. Pink (2005) calls this trait “high touch,” which “involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit it in others” (p. 3). Yet, iGens prefer safety. While they wish to connect with others, their preferred method is through texting over face-to-face (F2F) communication. As a result, the in-class active-learning exercises so encouraged for previous generations may be wasted with the iGens.

Carr (2017) cites a study done in the United Kingdom and reported in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that examined how students performed with and without their cell phones: “The mere presence of mobile phones inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust” that diminished “the extent by which individuals felt empathy and understanding” (p. C2). Twenge (2017) reports that iGens “are uncertain about relationships: you might get hurt” (p. 216), resulting in fewer deep relationships, less empathy, and more solitude rather than connecting.

Good News

The news isn’t all bad. Where iGens seem to express their creativity is through technology. Rosen (2010) notes, “Research shows
that students in virtual settings
are more likely to share opinions, feel less threatened to seek help from peers or teachers, are more motivated to learn, are more self-reliant, and feel less pressure to perform compared to students
in real-world settings such as the classroom” (p. 72). Providing students with technological methods of demonstrating their learning through such items as audio and video presentations offers an opportunity for creative expression.

Collaboration, which we have often identified as an excellent creative strategy, finds favor with iGens. Although iGens spend less time on homework than previous generations (two hours less versus millennials in the 1990s), they have learned from first grade on to collaborate on classroom projects (the classroom provides a safe environment). Nonetheless, the iGen drive not to get hurt, which seems to peak in their college years, can negate elementary and secondary practices. The college classroom with greater ethnic, religious, economic, and social diversity suddenly seems not so safe.


Teaching creative thinking
has always been difficult, and the degree of difficulty has increased with the advent of the iGens. A recent classroom observation of ours put all these iGen statistics into perspective. The instructor began the education class for seniors by pointing out a quotation at the beginning of the text that compared today’s problem of innumeracy with what Gutenberg confronted in the fifteenth century. When the instructor asked
the class to explicate the analogy, complete silence reigned with the seven students. Questions and
hints from the instructor provoked more silence. Finally, the instructor, noticing each student had a cell phone within arm’s reach, seized on a teachable moment and asked them to look up Gutenberg on their phones. All seven went to Google, then Wikipedia. None of the seven collaborated. Instead, they began to shout out nuggets their “research” had uncovered. “German,” “blacksmith,” “died in 1468,” and “printing press” were offered as explanations of the analogy. When the instructor asked them to collaborate (think, pair, and share) to derive a synthesis, their actions ceased. Millennial collaboration was a sure thing, but not so much here.

Like most iGens, the problem was—ironically—they hadn’t read enough, so they weren’t sure what they were really doing. Innumeracy was a new term, but no one thought to look it up. They all went to one source, and they believed that all the little facts they uncov-ered were of equal importance. That creative thinking skill of pattern recognition eluded them.

In truth, the classroom observation told us more about the iGen mentality than it did the instructor. We had been provided with an inadvertent glimpse into what’s called the Google Effect (iGens don’t think they have to learn much because they can always look it up), but the abyss scared us. Yes, iGens don’t seem to possess the creative skills necessary, but they also seem to lack the necessary critical thinking.

Carr (2010) likes the playwright Richard Foreman’s metaphor for what’s happening culturally. We
are becoming “pancake people— spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button” (p. 196). In time, we can see the iGens being labeled Pancake People.

Is it possible to construct a new pedagogy as well as a complementary space to implement it for the iGens? That’s fodder for another column.


Charlie Sweet

Telephone: 859-622-6519 Fax: 859-622-5018



Baer, J. 2010. “Is creativity domain specific?” in Kaufman, J., & R. Sternberg (Eds.). The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 321–341.

Bandura, A. 1997. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York, NY: Freeman.

Carr, N. 2010. The Shallows. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Carr, N. 2017, October 7–8. How smartphones hijack our minds. The Wall Street Journal, pp. C1–C2.

McWilliam, E. 2008. The Creative Workforce. Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales Press.
Pink, D. 2005. A Whole New Mind. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Rosen, L. 2010. Rewired. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.

Sweet, C., R. Carpenter, H. Blythe, & S. Apostel. 2013. Teaching Applied Creative Thinking. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Twenge, J. 2017. iGen. New York, NY: Atria Books.