Millennials think differently from the generations that preceded them. This gap presents an obstacle for older managers and teachers who must communicate with millennials on a daily basis. During my first semester as a baby boomer teaching at an Illinois University, I experienced difficulty understanding how millennials process information. Using the trail and error method, I cracked the millennial cognitive processing code.
Looped Linear Thinking
I became frustrated when I explained a concept. I identified the concept in general terms and then dissected the concept into its component variables. To determine if the students understood the concept, I presented a parallel situation and asked them to use the same strategies they used to explain the first situation to explain the second situation. I got blank stares. One of the students stated that he did not know how to explain the second situation because the second situation was different from the first situation. I told him that although the second situation may be described using different words, the underlying fact pattern was the same. I asked him to use the same strategies he used to explain the first situation to explain the second situation since both situations have parallel fact patterns. Again, a blank stare. I discovered that millennials cannot transfer concepts they learned to explain one situation to explain a parallel situation. They focus on one task, loop around until they master the skills required for that task, and move on to the next task, loop around and master the skills required for the second task and so on without recognizing that the skills mastered in a previous task can be applied to a future task that parallels a previous task. As baby boomers age, life becomes easier because they have a large repertoire of problem-solving skills they developed in the past to solve future problems. Looped linear thinking leaves Millennials in a constant state of flux because they face each problem as a new and separate event requiring them to find a new solution to a problem instead of relying on problem-solving strategies they used in parallel situations in the past.
Millennials play video games, lots of video games. The object of most video games is to move from one level to the next level by mastering the tasks presented in each successive level. The skills mastered in the previous level do not necessarily apply to the next level. Consequently, millennials master a set of skills at one level and then move to the next level and master a different set of skills. They see each level as a separate challenge with a different set of strategies to master the level they are currently playing. This creates a looped linear thought process. Millennials master one task and move on to the next task. They see each task as a separate task. They do not realize that the strategies used to master one task are the same strategies to solve a similar task.
The ability to take a set of strategies to explain one concept or situation and transfer the same set of strategies to explain another concept or situation is called critical thinking. Looped linear thinking preempts critical thinking. The lack of critical thinking prevents effective problem solving not only in the classroom but in life. Upon graduation, millennials often experience frustration because they cannot use critical thinking to solve workplace tasks and social dilemmas. The lack of critical thinking skills leads to lost jobs and broken relationships.
The New Normal is Not Always Normal
When I encourage millennials to use critical thinking in the classroom, I often hear something to the effect. “Millennials communicate effectively, only in a different way. You just have to understand the way we think and adapt your teaching style.” I understand how Millennials think. Just because I understand how they think does not make their way of thinking the right way to process information. Looped linear thinking is akin to reinventing the wheel over and over again. The wheel has been around for a long, long time because it works. Likewise, critical thinking has been around for a long, long time because it works. Perhaps millennials should adapt and not the other way around.