Innovating for Generation Alpha in Our Schools

Jody Britten
Jul 3 · 12 min read

I was an educator long before I became a parent. When I became a parent, I was suddenly able to observe the ways of life for our youngest leaners around the clock. Through parenting I became intrigued and educated in the ways of Generation Alpha. Through my professional world I have finetuned the pathways to develop educational experiences that this generation not only needs but will increasingly expect from their K12 schools.

What is Generation Alpha?

When I talk with educators from around the country, very few have even heard the term Generation Alpha. A term coined by an Australian social researcher, the evidence on Generation Alpha is important to understand. The facts of this group of students are quickly emerging as educators, service providers, and marketers seek to understand the children of millennials.

  • Generation Alpha includes any child born after 2010.
  • Starting in 2017, Generation Alpha students began enrollment in Kindergarten.
  • Generation Alpha students are skilled in navigating digital tools and have a way of “thinking digitally” about how things connect and diverge.
  • Capturing the attention of online influencers that speak their language (like Pat and Jenn of Popular MMOs), Generation Alpha is seeking a storyline (not just commercials).
  • In a recent survey of parents in the United States, a reported 81% of parents say that their Generation Alpha kids influenced parent technology purchases.
  • Unlike other generations, Generation Alpha kids are part of the decision-making conversation in their households. Weighing in on purchasing priorities, vacation plans, purchases, and more.
  • Technology is not just a toy or distraction, but a way of living, connecting, and learning for Generation Alpha kids.
  • Recent reports suggest that this generation will surpass the technology skills of their parents by age eight.
  • Their somewhat radical approaches to communication shouldn’t be shocking, 50% of them don’t have home phones and use free messaging services to text friends, relatives, and parents.
  • Their use of Artificial Intelligence is commonplace and natural that they understand how to use Siri and Alexa (among others) from the age where they learn to speak.
  • They will use technology to learn and interact with content and demonstrate mastery in ways that many of our teachers have not yet mastered.
  • Generation Alpha comes to K12 with the propensity to expect personalization. They will expect meaning and purpose behind their learning and expect hands-on instead of didactic or teacher directed experiences in classrooms.
  • Parents of Generation Alpha kids are expecting high quality experiences that they didn’t have.
  • These same parents hold the responsibility of parenting and making choices in the best interest of their children as a high priority. They will seek choice, they will seek value, and they will seek a differentiated experience.
  • Generation Alpha kids expect diversity and value diversity among their friends and classmates. They know they are different from their peers and find value in learning with and from others.

What challenges will Generation Alpha bring to K12 education?

The data and information we have on Generation Alpha kids points to a clear need for innovation; and quick innovation at that. When Generation Alpha kids joined the ranks of students in K12 classrooms we lost our opportunity for the “slow pace of change” to pass as the educational norm. Rather this population (and their parents) will demand rapid-cycle prototyping and responsive systems of learning to meet the dynamic needs of this tech-savvy generation.

Further, existing evidence suggests that our schools will have to establish their presence in more than content and skill. Generation Alpha students will look for reasons to go to school that are beyond learning to read and master numeracy skills. These expectations start in Kindergarten and are expected to continue. They will love their teachers and enjoy their friends but question why they have to spend six hours (or more), five days a week inside of a school. They will look at software programs that are used (often with fidelity) to develop literacy and numeracy skills and wonder why they are using programs at school (instead of being in the comfortable confines of their home or public library). For this generation it is the experience and action that leads to learning; not just instruction and content-based inquiry.

The learning challenges for schools to meet the needs of Generation Alpha are real and need to be addressed now through innovation and a complete overhaul of learning environments. Two facets of Generation Alpha students that have a base of full-scale implementation are critical thinking and problem solving. These are simple targets that can serve as a starting point.

This generation expects to think, solve, create, and document. If they can’t do that at school (in every classroom) they will question (like no-other generation before them) why they are physically present. If their parents can’t respond to those questions about mandatory education, they may be seeking alternative options for their kids. Options that engage and empower their Generation Alpha kid.

The challenges that Generational Alpha will present to our educational systems are real and have far reaching impact. As millennial parents participate more in telecommuting, K12 systems of education need to be cognizant of the increasing options for school (including home school). Participation in home-schooling has increased 50% in the past fifteen years, as has telecommuting (growing 140% within the same timespan). While there isn’t national data to support any correlation between Generation Alpha and school choice, there is cause to pay attention and do our part to ensure that public schools are our first choice not our last.

The insistence from Generation Alpha to innovate our K12 education systems to thrive and meet their needs will be something that many of our educators and leaders are not prepared to address. Given the current data, we can’t ignore the forthcoming expectations for public education. Our elected officials, our superintendents, our building leaders, and our classroom teachers must be ready and willing to leap. If they do not, we may need to answer the unfortunate question: Where did all of our students go?

What can we do to immediately address the needs of Generation Alpha in K12 education?

Since 2001 we have been working to advance systems of public education to leverage technology, research from the learning sciences, and research on engagement and empowerment. The lessons of implementation failure and success are many.

When I compare the change processes of entrepreneurs to the change process of education the major points of difference are time frames, capacity to engage in rapid cycle prototyping, inclusion of consumer feedback, use of data, transparent communication, and flexibility of vision. In one area, there is a clear connection between entrepreneurs and educational leaders; if we are all about the current hype, our vision or product will be outdated before it ever gets off the discussion table.

So what can we do to ignite and inspire our systems of education to meet the needs of Generation Alpha and truly be “kid ready?” Given the research and the lessons from practice here are our top five strategies.

1. Hire and fire for the future. There are two people that every school district needs to hire. First, a psychometrician who understands classroom-based assessment, data visualization, and data modeling. Second, a Chief Innovation Officer who has a deep knowledge base related to developing 21st Century Skills and empowering students with technology. This person must be able to practice what they preach and model the use of skills and technology within their own work. These two hires will likely set the stage for systems thinking that is not automatically present in typical district level leadership. Just as we need to hire, we also need to look at the individuals who are holding too tightly to current or past success and people that are not practicing (or interested in developing) their own critical 21st Century skills. Look at our collective leadership and think about how many are connected nationally or globally. Look at our collective leadership and think about how many have actually led in the systems we are trying to design. Don’t hire for the experiences we needed yesterday but the dispositions and eagerness to innovate with purpose that we will cumulatively need tomorrow.

2. Data. Start with it, end with it, and use it continuously. Data is not test scores, data is information directly from our stakeholders about concrete, malleable, and understandable components of education in today’s world. Think about using tools like the Future Ready Dashboard to identify where the district is, or the parallel TRAx Digital Learning tools to identify where individual schools are. Use walk through protocols and tools so that we are constantly collecting data about what is happening in K12 schools; not from a perspective of standardized tests but on the ground practices that are tied to the educational experience of students. Start with data collection to figure out where the learning organization is currently functioning. Do not take action. “Slow down to go fast” and collect the data first before making assumptions. If we are faced with a question look for data to answer that question before leaning on personal experience or perspective. The Utah Digital Learning dashboard provides resources in assessing 21st Century skills and these tools can help inform the work and the understanding of the current system.

3. Leverage the people who are uncomfortable with today. Too often educational change is initiated and led from behind closed doors. Throughout our country we have pockets of innovation in our K12 schools. It is time that those pockets become the majority. I can’t think of one district or school I have been in that doesn’t have local innovators. These are teachers and leaders who are doing things differently and entrenching their work in their own deep understanding. Innovators don’t just teach differently; they know differently and can back their work up with research on learning and research on both engagement and empowerment. Use those people that are eager for change to support, drive, encourage, and challenge current practice. Start with data-driven conversations, tie in longitudinal research on learning and authentic learning, and be inclusive of our stakeholders. There is no room for ego in developing schools and educational organizations that are “kid ready” so leave it at the door. Start with a large group, use working groups, dream, and empower conversations that are not only about what our data says, but what our data doesn’t say. This will be the group for courageous and continuous conversations; not the place where one person has the only answer or all of the power.

4. Vision. Build it with our greater communities, make it simple, and ensure that it is both purposeful and inspiring. A vision cannot lock us into a plan that will take decades to fully achieve but lead us continuously towards our organizational North Star. The most successful and forward moving organizations we have worked with have one group in mind: their students. Visit a kindergarten classroom or a preschool and think about how the Generation Alpha kids that are headed to our K12 classrooms will thrive with our vision guiding them. Remember, this generation of kids will more than likely not be about “getting jobs” they are starting their life living with purpose and intention. Does our vision push the entire system to support them as they do so? Use data, talk to stakeholders, create a vision that leads us into the next decade with a sense of purpose and a landmark for every decision that needs to be made. Use vision as our anchor and guide; but don’t let it weigh us down. Don’t let that vision sit on a shelf, but let it be dynamic and a constant presence as we reflect on data, new hires, and planning financially for what is next.

5. Focus on learning experiences. This seems to be something simple for most educational organizations. However, schools and districts often times forget that the system must support those experiences and those experiences do not rest solely in the hands of the teachers. Is leadership trained? Are school boards clear with the data and plan for innovation? Are families and parents educated about learning? Do students know their “why”? Do you walk through schools and see synergy between vision and the learning environment? Do you walk through classrooms and see potential? When vision and leadership meet classroom practice that is equitably supportive of Generation Alpha kids and makes use of the skills and experiences that they bring to the classroom we have progress and we may be on our way towards innovation that will stick.

6. Stay the course and build the culture. Gone are the days that we can sit passively and pass standardized tests. Our Generation Alpha students and their parents just don’t buy into that behavior. We have to take every opportunity to teach and inspire a culture of innovation. And as district leaders, we have to practice that which we expect. Get outside of our box and learn something new. Challenge ourselves to redefine our organizational structure and create working teams where no one leads and everyone collaborates. As leaders we must build the culture we want and that will not happen if it isn’t practiced and expected in every facet of work. Will there be stumbling blocks? Will there be hard fought battles? Will there be concerns? Yes, to all three.

If we are truly going to be “kid ready” and create systems of learning where our Generation Alpha kids will thrive we must not stop and we must not go slow. We must be strategic, use data, think bigger, educate ourselves on how 21st Century skills and hands on learning really develop skills and content knowledge, and we must fully believe that these new opportunities will be best for our kids. Be eager to fail fast and reflect on what worked and didn’t. Be purposeful in your challenges and actions. Be focused and ready for what is next, not what is now.

Start with one simple question to educational leaders: Generational Alpha is here, are we ready?


References that contributed to the knoweldge-base of the article include:

Adrianne Pasquarelli and E.J. Schultz. (2019) MOVE OVER GEN Z, GENERATION ALPHA IS THE ONE TO WATCH. Available online at https://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/move-gen-z-generation-alpha-watch/316314

Brett Creech. (2019) Are most Americans cutting the cord on landlines? Available online at https://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-8/are-most-americans-cutting-the-cord-on-landlines.htm

Khumo Theko. (2019) Meet Generation Alpha. Available online at https://www.fluxtrends.com/meet-generation-alpha/

Joe Nellis. (2017) What does the future hold for Generation Alpha? Available online at https://www.cranfield.ac.uk/som/thought-leadership-list/what-does-the-future-hold-for-generation-alpha

Christine Michel Carter. (2016) The Complete Guide To Generation Alpha, The Children Of Millennials. Available online at https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecarter/2016/12/21/the-complete-guide-to-generation-alpha-the-children-of-millennials/#7c99c1dc3623

Ilyse Liffreing (2018) Forget millennials, Gen Alpha is here (mostly. Available online at https://digiday.com/marketing/forget-millennials-gen-alpha/

Susan Fourtané. (2018) Generation Alpha: The Children of the Millennial. Available online at https://interestingengineering.com/generation-alpha-the-children-of-the-millennial

Laura Vanderkam. (2016) How These Parents Work And Homeschool Too. Available online at https://www.fastcompany.com/3055528/how-these-parents-work-and-homeschool-too

Pamela Price. (2013). How to Work and Homeschool: Practical Advice, Tips, and Strategies from Parents. Available online at https://www.amazon.com/How-Work-Homeschool-Perspectives-Homeschooling/dp/0615811728

Derrick Vargason (2017). Meet Generation Alpha: 3 Things Educators Should Know. Available online at https://www.nwea.org/blog/2017/meet-generation-alpha-3-things-educators-know/

Alex Williams (2015). Meet Alpha: The Next ‘Next Generation.’ Available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/19/fashion/meet-alpha-the-next-next-generation.html

Shannon Pfeffer (2019). Lessons learned from my generation alpha consumer. Available online at https://www.campaignlive.com/article/lessons-learned-generation-alpha-consumer/1580908

Jody Britten

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fierce mom, constant learner, writer, speaker, researcher, thinker, designer, gadget queen, advocate for learning that matters & public ed, lead with my actions