by Tom McBride

JOURNEY: How to Nintendofy The Gen Z Classr


Tom McBride


Remarks For the Southern Regional Education Board (10/2018


Whenever older people teach younger people, as happens every day all over the world, there will be a communications gap. One part of this chasm occurs when the older party, the teacher, assumes knowledge that the younger party doesn’t have. It’s an old principle of learning that we gain new knowlede based on what we already know. So in the 1970s, if students knew about the Watergate scandal, teachers could use that knowledge to teach about Shakespeare’s Richard the Third. The analogies shed light on both Richard Nixon and Richard the Third alike.


But nowadays students do not know much about the Watergate scandal, so that strategy is out of date.


The most important source of miscommunication, however, is not a teacher’s “hardening of the references.” Instead, it’s that teachers and professors bring to the classroom a different form of cognitive conditioning. There are many things about Millennials and Gen Z that are good to know, but one of the most important is this: By the age of 21 hey have spent over seven thousand hours on video games. They have spent only two thousand hours reading. What are teachers and professors supposed to do with this fact?


It will hardly do to turn a course in sociology or chemistry into a video game. The Super Mario Brothers Approach to Shakespeare’s Sonnets seems absurd. It’s a nice idea to turn classrooms into fun, but let’s not be ridiculous, right?


Yet the video game factor, or the Nintendo factor, will not go away. So how can teachers in the classroom adapt to it? The Mindset List team has already written a short book, The Millennial Promise, which identifies all kinds of teaching strategies. We urge all teachers to use it. It has 40 tips. But in this short piece, right now, you’ll find a practical guide for how to “Nintendofy” the Gen Z Classroom.


  • Always keep in mind that any course, as with video games, is a journey. And this means that, as with any journey, certain emotions need to be noted and engaged, such as curiosity, do-ability, safety, fear, and confidence. Students who take your course want to know why it is valuable for them to do so, whether or not they can learn the material, what chances they have for do-overs if they mess up, and what the progressive steps of the course are going to entail. And this means that you, as instructor, need to dramatize the importance of the course, lay out in clear “preview steps” the adventure to come, and clarify the means of evaluation and the possibility of second chances. Create a buzz around your course–but also communicate direction, challenge, and confidence. If your course is too simple, it will be boring. If it’s too hard, it will be defeating.


Look to the sweet spot, the middle ground: all the video games that have beem popular have found this mid-point between complexity and achievement, motivation and challenge.


  • Emphasize and define growth, another video game feature. It is essential to lay out, in full, the means and ends of academic growth. Just as video games have taken these students through several levels, you too should define what the plateaus in our course will be. For instance, you might point out, if you are a sociologist, that the course will entail four stages of growth: learning what social facts are; learning how social facts are established and researched; learning the work of the great practitioners in this field; and learning how to observe and research social facts in your own environment. In other words: 1. Workable Definition, 2. Research Methods, 3. Historical Examples, and 4.Applied Imagination. Different instructors will want to develop their own growth templates.


But do develop one, preview it, stick to it, and review it often in class. This will accord with the cognitive patterns your students have grown up with.


  • Make the materials dramatic. Video games are dramatic. They involve characters in conflict. They humanize forces. So when you introduce particular thinkers in your field, you should try to personalize them. Put their ideas into dialogue of concord and dispute with each other. This can even apply to concepts. Richard Dawkins, long before video games, called genes “selfish.” It was a figure of speech of course, but it turned out to be a vivid and best-selling way of explanation.


Games are conflictive, and that’s what makes them enticing. Gamify the chemistry, philosophy, or psychology you teach.


  • Nurture feedback. Video games are popular because they permit and encourage frequent response. Current students are like sensitive thermostats, alert constantly to changes in the environment and the need to adjust to them. They are a “how am I doing generation,” and a teacher may find this exasperating or adapt to it. The latter option is productive. This means taking time out to identify what is not clear to the class; what class members are curious about and wish to consider further; and what may lie ahead.


There is limited classroom time, so one professorial challenge is making minutes for this sort of thing and maximizing its benefits without allowing it to soak up too many hours.


  • Focus on retrieval. Another video game element: the retrieval of past information and skills in order to progress to higher ground. Teachers can promote the art of retrieval in several different ways. One is to offer a mini-presentation on how the retrieval of this or that concept will be essential if students are to go on to the next one. Another is more informal: taking ten minutes at the beginning of class to ask students what, in their view, they most need to remember in order to perform the coming week’s tasks, and why. Here’s another: ask them to word-process their understanding of a concept that was covered a few weeks back. This will give them an informed sense, a self-feedback, of what they are recalling and how well. Once they put keyboard to screen they will quickly be amazed at how much they do comprehend or how much they need to review.


Again, the idea is that the course is like a video game expedition, and that means often bringing out the “map” and showing how a memory of a previous stop will be helpful in grasping the next one.


  • Structure both community and competition. Both of these are video game features, as players form communities of rivalry. Along the journey of the course, have students work in cooperative but competitive teams, and one of the most useful rivalries involves striving for economy of statement.


A student’s capacity to express an idea in concise language is one key to her understanding. Excess verbiage is the foe of clarity, and sometimes it is also a way by which students try to hide their misinformation and incomprehension (a.k.a. bullshit). So: compose the class into four teams and assign each team the following task: To express a complex idea in a statement no longer than a Tweet. Then put the competing “Twitter Theses” under discussion and assessmen. The goal is to break down a complicated idea into as few and simple words as possible without discarding any essential complexity or nuance.


This is just one idea. Having teams debate the controversies of the course is another one. Competing team-designed websites is yet another.


The idea is to create a an exciting academic environment and a functional community/competition milieu at the same time.


For MUCH MORE check out The Millennial Promise: 40 Tips for the New Classroom. It’s available in hard copy or Kindle HERE: 


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