Chachra 2014The Kids are All Right

Today’s students haven’t changed, but their world has.

By Debbie Chachra

“Students these days aren’t motivated. When I was a student, we’d settle down and do our homework. And the quality of students has gone down too.”

If you’re an educator, you’ve almost certainly heard someone saying this. You may have said it yourself. There is a clear implication that students today are somehow worse than they were a decade or two ago.

Quite apart from the longitudinal bias (one’s memory of being a teenager, with the benefit of decades of hindsight, is likely quite different from the reality at the time), this particular lament is so old and so common that there’s a 3,700-year-old Sumerian clay tablet on which a father admonishes his son for hating school. There’s no reason to believe that people have changed appreciably in the past 20, 40, or 100 years, and that’s just as true of the people complaining about kids as the kids being complained about. Elvis, the Beatles, punk, rap: The specifics of what the older generation complains about change each generation, but the complaints themselves are tediously predictable.

What has changed for “kids these days” is, of course, the culture they live in. For engineering students, there are three major elements of this: the rise of the knowledge economy; the decline of stable, long-term employment; and advances in technology.

In many countries, including the United States, the proportion of students who go on to higher education has been steadily increasing. The dark side of the knowledge economy is the decline in manufacturing and other jobs that can be had with only a high school diploma, and the widening differential in earnings that a college degree gets you. The students who might not have gone to college two decades ago now have little choice but to do so. As a result, classes may no longer be full of the “best and the brightest” (defined as those most capable of conforming to and succeeding in an industrial model of education) but instead represent a much broader cross-section of our society.

The rewards of getting an engineering degree have also changed appreciably. Our students have watched their parents’ generation lose once-stable jobs to downsizing. They (correctly) no longer believe that their education will provide them with a secure job for as long as they work hard and hew to the corporate culture.

The third major change is the rise of technology. It’s true that social media sites provide endorphin hits to gregarious primates like us, and we tend to think of electronics in the classroom as distractions. In part, that’s because we haven’t fully incorporated them into how we teach. When I went to engineering school a generation ago, the professor was the dominant source of information in the classroom. Now, I expect my students to use their connected devices to find information far beyond my areas of expertise. While I’m sure there’s a certain amount of distraction still occurring, it’s outweighed by the utility in the classroom that smartphones and laptops provide and by the types of learning they support, including collaboration over a network and the development of our students’ ability to search for, find, evaluate, and synthesize information on their own.

Rather than lamenting that our students don’t behave the way we did, we can ask ourselves: What kinds of pedagogical approaches are appropriate to the world they will graduate into and their future work environment? Rather than picturing them pursuing a career at one company, we can imagine them working for a few years at a company, on a specific project, and moving on. What would they need to excel at this? Some possible answers immediately suggest themselves: teamwork skills, excellent communication skills, the ability to ask questions and find answers, and experience at marshaling resources. Mostly, they need to work both autonomously and collaboratively.

Our students are not worse than we were, or even different. But they are facing a different world from the one we faced, with different risks and rewards, and that will affect their behavior. So we have two choices. We can either try to jam them into an educational system created for a world that no longer exists, or we can educate them for the world that they’re actually going to enter.


Debbie Chachra is an associate professor of materials science at Olin College. She can be reached at or on Twitter as @debcha.