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Educating Generation Z

Texas superintendent cites three keys: student-centered learning, design-based thinking, and collaboration

Published August 29, 2018
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When he stepped in as superintendent of Sweeny (TX) ISD in May 2017, Dr. Tory C. Hill didn’t immediately put his stamp on things. He listened . . . and he learned . . . and he coupled this new knowledge with the nuggets of wisdom he had amassed in 16 years as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, professional learning administrator, and assistant superintendent.

Hill’s proactive, fact-gathering approach has led to a clear plan for education in this small Gulf Coast town, not far from the metropolis of Houston. That plan is to educate Generation Z students in new ways that best serve their natural instincts and interests.

“With Generation Z, which is the majority of students we serve today, they are more hands on. They are more technology driven,” Hill said. “Even the generation right before them, the millennials, we consider them to be technology driven, but now our students today can multitask with so many different things. And so the way we design learning experiences has to be very, very, very different.”

Different as in creating a STREAM continuum at the elementary level that flows into STEM at the middle level and high school. Pitsco Education STREAM Missions, STEM Units, and STEM in the Gym™ were added at Sweeny Elementary School for the 2017-18 school year, and they lead into the previously added Pitsco STEM lab in middle school. From there, students can enter focused career pathways in high school, which cap K-12 vertical alignment that feeds neatly into programs at nearby Brazosport College and then on to careers with the area’s leading employers in petrochemical and health care fields.

“One of the things that I’ve been focused on is a very clear vertical alignment,” Hill said. “Sweeny ISD is located right here on the Gulf Coast, and the petrochemical industry is really the leading employer in our area. We are very fortunate to have Phillips 66 and Chevron Phillips right here in our school district, and they are major employers. And our students, if they choose to work in that industry, can really make a decent living.”

That’s a noble goal, but reaching and teaching today’s students must occur before skills can be learned and jobs eventually filled. Hill says Generation Z students have distinct learning needs. Among these are three key elements: student-centered learning, design-based thinking, and collaboration.

The mantra in education is that today’s students will work in a world that is nothing like the one we live in. “But what does it take to really get them there? How do we prepare them for that?” Hill asks. “The first thing is just student-centered learning, where the teacher is really the coach and the facilitator, and the students are driving that experience and have a voice in their learning and the products that show they’re learning.”

“Another element I think is important is design thinking – giving our students an opportunity to solve complex problems and think through challenges, sort of giving them the skills to be solution focused. Their future is not going to be about regurgitating facts. It’s going to be about really looking at problems and coming up with solutions to address those issues.”

Enter the STREAM Missions lab and STEM Units. “It’s not just the essential skills that students are walking away with. They’re learning. They’re gaining a soft skill, that design-thinking component.”

Lastly is students learning how to collaborate at a very young age, discussing and working through challenges together. “We have learned to rely a lot on technology, and many will criticize our youth because they’re so engaged in their phones or their technology that sometimes they might lack those interpersonal collaborative skills,” Hill said. “So, it’s important that we strategically design learning experiences and allow them to still gain those skills through working together on projects.”

Hill’s insights into the needs of Generation Z isn’t guesswork. Staff, community members, and students themselves have told him. “I sat down with about 12 elementary students my first month here in Sweeny, and I asked them simple questions – What do you love about your school? If you could do anything to improve it, what would it be? And what suggestions would you give a new superintendent? I still have the list to this day. The elementary students gave me a list of 19 items that they wanted me to address, and they weren’t items like the lunch food is not good. They were very specific items such as we want to be more engaged in the learning experience. We want more hands-on learning. And these are elementary kids.”

Similarly, Hill tunes in to what the region’s largest employers need. “I serve on a community advisory panel for both of these (petrochemical) organizations, and so we talk three or four times a year. We also have several of their key leaders, including the plant managers and other public relations staff, who serve on district committees to help advise the school district.”

Proximity to Houston, one of the leading health care regions in the world, means health care education also is a priority. “It connects back to the STREAM lab because there are Missions related to that line of work,” Hill said. “We have a thriving health science program that is growing exponentially. . . . It’s very refreshing to see that we have such a large number of students who are now interested in the health sciences pathway at the high school because there will be a growing need for that.”

Well-thought-out changes are in the works in Sweeny, Texas. More and deeper classroom experiences will lead to students making better choices about their future.

“At the end of the day, our sole purpose is to show that we’re preparing students to create their future, that we’re allowing them to engage in learning experiences that will help them reach their greatest potential,” Hill said. “And how do we ensure that we are preparing this student, this Gen Z student, to create their future? The types of learning design models that we use have to be tailored to these students that we serve.”

“Any time I have asked for help you have responded almost immediately via the phone or in person. Your constant inquiry of our operation, our successes, and our barriers has been crucial in our ability to run the Academy as we have. We could have not done it if it wasn’t with your support.”

– Jairo A Maldonado, EdM, assistant principal, Westfield High School, Houston, Texas

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