Today’s Member post is by Roam Member, Andrew McPeak. Andrew is the Director of Worldview and Urban Missions at Medici Project, a non-profit based here in Atlanta. He graduated from Bryan College in 2011 with a Major in Liberal Arts. While in school, he was the President of SSTOP, a student-led anti-human trafficking group, and post graduation, he spent 2 years as the Coordinator of the Worldview Initiative at Bryan. Through his position with Medici Project Andrew speaks to students aged 13 to 22 about how to utilize passion and find a purpose filled vocation through a personal faith. He and his wife Anna were married in August of 2011 and reside in Atlanta.
After graduating college I spent two years working with a ministry as a public speaker to high school students, and a mentor to college small group leaders. Our goal was to be part of the spiritual development of the high school audience we were reaching out to, but over the 5 years I spent as a part of the ministry, we were finding that mission was becoming more and more difficult to accomplish. The problem, we eventually figured out, was that we were facing a generation shift, and we weren’t prepared for it. As Generation iY was replacing Generation Y in high school we were losing our audience to boredom. The first half of Generation Y were known most for their efforts to promote social good and so they intrinsically had interest in our programs, while the second half of Generation Y, those born after 1990 called iY in “Generation iY” by Tim Elmore, were known mostly for how much they are on their phones and were therefore more likely to get distracted than to learn something of consequence. During that journey I came to discover that while there was a lot left for me to learn about Millennials in particular, the reality is that the shift away from the learning styles of the past stretches much farther than I had previously thought; leading me to a fundamental discovery that forms the thesis of this post: most of us don’t really learn the way we think we do.
Over the last few years I have found that there is a ton of research on millennials and learning styles (In fact, most researchers would call Millennials the most researched generation of all time). Since the majority of Millennials have either just finished or are still in school, the largest source of information on this topic comes from the world of education. Consider this study by Elisabeth Kelan and Michael Lehnert from the University of Bath in England (2009) which illuminates the difference between education inside and outside of the classroom.
“[Inside the classroom,] teaching and learning are highly formalized and routine-based, usually around strict time, subject, and level or grade demarcation systems. Meanwhile, learning outside these formal education centers often takes the shape of constructivist patterns, being more fluid and informal, and often anything but less efficient (Suárez- Orozco and Sattin, 2007). Scholarly learning emphasizes non-contextual learning, whereas learning outside of scholarly systems is mostly context-dependent and ‘hands- on’.”
Growing up as a Millennial on the cusp of this shift, the non-contextual lessons we were often taught centered around no child left behind policies which, despite the merit they might have possessed, only served to teach us all that there are more subjects in the world that we don’t care about than there are ones that we do. While inside the classroom we were asking questions like “when are we going to use this?”, outside we were handed technologies inviting us to explore, touch, ask questions, and share with our friends. My friends and I began to believe that learning is necessarily boring while entertainment is necessarily fun, leading us to believe that maturity into adulthood means learning to find a personal balance between boring and fun. While this has been a challenge for every generation, because the things we must do aren’t always the things we want to do, it is the Millennial generation who have been the first since the great depression to holistically challenge this notion, asking why they can’t do their work and enjoy it too. The inspiration for these Millennial beliefs, despite their seeming naivety, are not
unfounded. Companies and non-profits like Apple, TOMS, & Invisible Children give Millennials hope that it is possible to do what you love, make a difference in the world, and make a decent living all at the same time. There are even efforts from businesses to make seemingly mundane tasks like taking out the trash more interesting. What makes these companies so successful at giving hope to a generation, as many might guess, isn’t their superb marketing (though they are genuinely good at it). Instead, for the people of the 21st century, the linchpin value that sets these companies apart is that they are established based on the conviction that the physical matters.
That’s right, the physical matters, all the time, and in all situations. If you really want to engage the heart of your 21st century audience and motivate change, you have to start by engaging their hands. For thousands of years of human history, the only way to engage with others in culture was through conversation, as a result, the primary mode of learning was through words, whether written or auditory. Books and lectures, at that time, formed the back drop of educational, cultural and religious life. Coming into the twentieth century, with the emergence of billboard ads and television programming the primary mode of learning for all young people became visual. Because my ministry started before my time in the late 80’s, the foundation of all that we did rested on the assumption that our audience were mostly if not completely visual learners. But the things that once worked for our 80s & 90s audiences led to glazed glares from iY Millennials, and this was despite our state of the art and, in my opinion, very relevant visual presentations. Why was this happening? Because at the turn of the Twentieth century, another learning shift occurred. Although much of what we experience today is visual, the defining characteristic of most new technology developed after the turn of century is that it was made to be touched. Our technology responds to our touch, it knowns what we care about, and we can hold it in our hands or take it with us. When we realized this, we made a drastic shift in our programming. We cut the length of our visual presentation, and put the students into small groups instead. We gave them technology to touch and creative things to do. We asked them personal questions and listened to their answers. We let the input they gave us shape the tone and direction of the conversation. The results were almost immediate; we were engaged with our audience again, we got positive feedback from the students, and (not so) remarkably the parts they always seemed to remember on their post event surveys were lessons from the small groups, not our meticulously crafted visual presentation. Obviously we knew we were on to something, and by now we probably all know the impact these kinds of changes can have on Millennials in an educational setting. In the year since, however, I have begun to notice that this learning shift (known as “kinesthetic learning“) is far more influential than the previous visual revolution. Just how far does this “physical revolution” go? The answer, is really (really) far.
The adoption of the physical revolution is translating across age ranges and culture streams like no other learning style shift ever has. According to the Pew Research Center 83% of 18-29 year olds have a smart phone, which is a number that would surprise no one. However, 74% of 30-49 year olds (Generation X) and 49% of 50-64 year olds (Baby Boomers) also carry one of these touch-based devices. When it comes to tablet adoption, the numbers are even more surprising. While 37% of 18-29 year olds have a tablet, 30-49 year olds are more likely to posses one (44%) and 50-64 year olds are almost just as likely (31%) to possess one. While disposable income is an obvious factor in this adoption rate, it cannot be overlooked that older generations are utilizing a touch-style of technological interaction nearly as often as Millennials.
Beyond the realm of technology, here in Atlanta, like so many other cities across America, there is a growing love for local. There is a resurgence in our love for hanging out in local coffee shops, for products that are created in our neighborhoods by people we know, and for living in spaces with tangible histories. Many of the tasks that educated people once outsourced to other professions and other countries (like making food, wood and metal working, gardening, sewing and other activities) have become common place among 25-40 year olds in city centers, and its a trend that is growing rather than diminishing. Recently, IBM Research found that because of this trend, and the introduction of new technologies that help connect individuals to their immediate environment, local small stores may begin to overtake their online counterparts in the future. The need to ‘get our hands on it’ that started with technology has translated now to the things we eat, and the way we are entertained with mobile games and new shows (consider ABC’s “Rising Star” (a signing competition which removes judges in favor of letting audience members vote in real time through an app). It even translates into the way we communicate through Twitter, Instagram, and Snap Chat. As it turns out, almost everything we do now has taken on this physically interactive characteristic.
As strange as this may seem for me to be focusing so much on the physical attributes of our lives, there is a long standing precedent for this idea. Because so very often the things he was teaching in the classroom were being cognitively but not practically applied by his Millennial students, professor and author James K. A. Smith in his 2009 book, “Desiring the Kingdom”sought to recover the original purpose and establish a new method for education in the classroom. With this goal in mind, Smith came to some very consequential realizations:
“Our primary or default mode of intending the world is not reflective or theoretical; we don’t go around all day thinking about how to get to the classroom or thinking about how to brush our teeth or perceiving our friends. Most of the day, we are simply involved in the world. We navigate our way and orient ourselves for the most part without thinking about it – like driving home from work by a route so familiar that we can do it without even being “conscious,” and thus sometimes find ourselves in the driveway unable to remember driving home. Our default way of intending the world is non cognitive and pre reflective: it is an affective mode of “feeling our way around” the world…”
Smith’s greatest contribution comes in his book’s great question: ‘If we don’t live as thinking beings, why do we try and shape one another by only ‘teaching’ to the mind?’ Instead, he realizes, true shaping work requires the education of our desires, not our minds, and “the education of desire requires a project that aims below the head; it requires the pedagogical formation of our imagination, which, we might say, lies closer to our gut… than our head.”
So what does this mean for your next lecture, board meeting or product launch? Primarily, it means that if you truly want to shape the lives and decisions of your employees, customers, and students, you have to change the way they love, not they way they think. How should you go about doing such a thing? Well here are a few ideas:
- Remember that the space you are in matters. One of the first major mistakes a company can make is to think that the place they are in doesn’t matter as long as the products are selling or the company is growing. No matter your profession, however, you have to be very clear about what your company or product is trying to say about the way the world should be. If you sell software, you are not actually selling software, you are selling the better life your consumer will have if they choose to use your software. This “better life” feeling should be tangible for your employees in your place of work. If it isn’t, than it may be time to ask if your company or product really does what you say it does.
- Partnering with local businesses inspires authenticity and integrity in your employees. Remember how much local matters to your employees and your company, especially if you employ Millennials! Having local doughnuts or coffee in the office or choosing another place besides Starbucks or Chili’s for your next coffee or lunch meeting communicates to your customers and employees that you have your finger on the pulse of your local community, and that you care for people as much as you care about profit margins.
- No matter your business, consider how you can bring more physical interactions into daily work for your company, school, or non-profit. Making your work physical can increase the value of your employee’s experience (and typing on a keyboard doesn’t count). Consider taking your next meeting to another location, utilizing an object lesson and bringing the object for everyone to hold and/or take home, or begin your next meeting with a table conversation or live poll rather than just a presentation. Even if your killer visuals are working for now, they can’t be expected to work forever; not in the shifting world we live in.
At the non-profit where I work, Medici Project, our main constituent base are Millennials between junior high and college age. One of our main goals is getting them to adopt service as a personal value that will transcend whatever future vocation they pursue in whatever future place they might choose to live. We do this by getting them up out of their chairs and out into the city of Atlanta to serve. We put them face to face with those in need so they can see the humanity in their eyes and how much of a difference caring for the “little” things can make for someone. Along the way, we strike up conversations about why serving is so important for our communities and our personal lives. After serving with us, some choose to make changes in their vocational direction, others start to look for non-profits they can work with when they get back home, still others report seeing the world from a totally new perspective. Whether their life changes are drastic or simple doesn’t matter. What matters is that the tangibility of our object lessons cause our students to see clearly the changes they need to make, leading them ever closer to adopting service as a personal value for their lives.
Our high school and college audience today will very shortly be your employees and customers in the future. If you want to matter when that time comes, no matter field you are in, you must make changes today to prepare for that future. It’s time to get physical.