Generations and Learning Style

In my last post I told a story that talked about the younger generation and asking questions. I put out there the possibility that at least some members of the younger generation might think that asking questions in a group setting was "rude" and they preferred to ask questions directly. I thought the comments to that post were an interesting mix of agreement and push back.

Some of the push back basically said, "But group questions and discussion is a valuable way to learn and these young people need to adjust." I tried to make the point that any time you tell anyone they "need to adjust" you first need to question your side of the story. Just because they have a different point of view doesn't mean it's wrong or inferior. I encourage people to approach that situation with curiosity, playing with different possibilities rather than being sure that you're answer is the right one.

But Jeff De Cagna brought up an interesting point to me in a conversation we had. While we may all have different learning styles, that doesn't mean we should ignore principles of adult learning. We all benefit from pushing the edges of our comfort zone in that regard. Sue Pelletier blogged about my post and got the following comment:

I am a member of that “younger generation” and I found this quite
interesting. I have always felt the same way. I much prefer to ask
questions in private, over email, or in general not in front of the
group. And as you point out, it is not because I’m shy (I consider
myself to be quite outgoing and talkative), but because sometimes I
feel like I could be wasting others’ time. More than that though, I
simply prefer to learn that way. I am more likely to walk away fully
understanding something if I ask or discuss it personally
(electronically or not).

It's always a balancing act between people's preferences (where they are comfortable) and their learning edges (which are by definition uncomfortable). You need to have some time in both. I love pushing people out of their comfort zone because it's a part of growth and learning, and that should be a driver here: improving learning (rather than trying to figure out the absolute "right" way to do something).


  1. 25.01.2009 at 9:30 am

    Jamie, you correctly present this issue as a “both/and” challenge. Learners, regardless of their generational identity, will always prefer to stay within their comfort zones. But, as we discussed, decades of research on learning also confirm that different learning situations demand different learning approaches. It is this ability to adapt that predicts learning success.
    The issue of organizational learning is not fully present in the discussion so far. Building individual understanding is absolutely crucial, but all learning occurs within some social context that must not be ignored simply to make some people more comfortable. The idea that asking questions might be rude or a waste of others’ time is not new, and I doubt this way of thinking is limited to members of Gen Y. Since our educational system does not value inquiry, the responsibility for caring about it falls to our organizations. It is critical that we make them safe spaces for open and active questioning of all kinds, because we have seen repeatedly the potentially dire consequences of failing to do so.
    My point is simply that while we agree generational differences in learning should be understood and respected, they are just some of the factors to be considered. Managers need to act as learning coaches, and all learners must act to expand and strengthen their full range of learning capabilities.

  2. 29.01.2009 at 10:26 am

    Hey, Jamie, all of these points are well taken and they help me understand other perspectives.
    However, I still object to the underlying assumption that the habits of younger people are always preferable to those of older people. That just is not true.

  3. 29.01.2009 at 11:05 am

    Thanks David. I agree! It is not my underlying assumption that the habits of younger people are preferable. It is my underlying assumption that if we are curious and opening to learning (regardless of age) we will more easily discover what works the best. As always, thanks for weighing in.