As we continue to shape learning environments to meet the needs and expectations of today’s students, we find ourselves at a generational turning point. While Generation Z continues to toss their graduation caps each year and enter the next stage of their lives, it’s time to get to know the next generation of students entering our schools today, commonly referred to as “Generation Alpha.” These are students born since the year 2010, the same year Instagram and the iPad launched, and are just entering the early years of education. They will be the first generation completely born in the 21st century and the first generation that will see the 22nd century. Here are some notable characteristics of our newest generation and how they are beginning to impact school environments:

Flex Scheduling and Instant Access
Today’s students have never raced home from school to be in front of the television at a certain time to catch their favorite show or listen to the radio for hours on end just to hear that one song they’ve been dying to record. In today’s streaming world, instant access is no longer a novelty, it’s an expectation. The notion of ‘scheduled’ access to resources and information is obsolete.

Considering these evolving expectations, high schools are beginning to rethink the convention of limiting students to specific scheduled resources. At Community High School District 99, in Downers Grove, IL., new student commons are being created at each high school to allow additional flex time and grant students access to resources throughout the day. These new spaces will foster more choice and independence among students, no longer corralling them in study halls and lunch periods. Resources such as counseling services, college and career planning, and dean consultations will be more accessible to meet student needs. Library access will be more commonplace, not limited to a special pass or specific day of the week. All-day cafes will no longer limit access to food and beverage to a twenty-minute window in the day. This ultimately will shift the student experience, one that is much more aligned with life beyond high school.

Health and Wellness
With the rise of social connectedness, the Millennial Generation saw an increased prioritization in health and wellness. Now parents, Millennials are passing on these values to their children. Additionally, Generation Alpha is expected to be the most diverse generation ever, continuing to broaden their palates and appreciate a more international cuisine at a young age. This new perspective sheds light on the way schools are reconsidering both their food service programs and dining environments. At Adlai E. Stevenson High School and Sunset Ridge School, newly renovated dining facilities take a “healthy food first” approach, where the presentation of food has evolved to entice students to eat healthier and encourage nutritionally dense foods. Digital displays are used to convey more than just pricing, serveries allow for more personal choice, and daily specials are actually “special.”

Generation Glass
While their predecessors, Generation Z, are also characterized as digital natives, Alphas will take an even larger leap into the world of connectivity. Also known as ‘Generation Glass’, screens are fully integrated into their lives, glass is no longer something one looks through and forbidden to touch, but an everyday medium one looks at and is encouraged to touch. As tablets continue to replace textbooks, Generation Alpha will be the most technology-equipped generation ever.

Not only are these students who don’t know a world without Google or iPads, but these are learners raised in a world where “Siri” and “Alexa” are common household names. In their eyes, interacting with artificial intelligence and voice assistants is simply natural. Touching and voice control will likely be of higher preference than typing and texting. Alphas learn by talking and doing; their knowledge is gained through experience and actions.

This type of active learning is supported by environments where interaction and learning are heavily based on sensory skills and real-life lessons. Collaborative spaces for making, prototyping, gaming, research, and video production are essential to today’s modern learning environment. Lake Bluff Middle School’s new STEM Lab and Aptakisic Junior High’s collaborative Project Studios are examples of such dynamic, technology-infused environments that promote visual, hands-on learning, further bridging the world Alphas live in with the world they learn in.

Digital Depth
Parents of Generation Alpha are more comfortable utilizing wearing technology on their children at younger and younger ages, not only tracking their steps and sleep patterns, but even the words they say and hear. While technology has always promised some level of transformation to the learning environment, given that Generation Alpha will be the most tech-savvy generation to date, the potential has never been so substantial. We are seeing classroom content becoming increasingly interactive, visual, and immersive through the use of wearables, augmented reality, and virtual reality. As educators continue to evaluate how these technologies can best support learning, its important to consider the impact on the physical environment. What if augmented reality can help connect learners and teachers wherever and whenever they are needed? Can virtual reality extend school facilities by simulating otherwise costly and potentially hazardous labs, studios, and other real-worlds environments? As the best uses of these technologies are being explored by educational stakeholders, the potential for this ‘digital depth’ is one to watch as Generation Alpha continues to advance.

Wearables, augments reality, and virtual reality are impacting Generation Alpha in significant ways. Wight & Company's PK-12 team explores ways in which these technologies are being implemented in classrooms.

These growing characteristics of Generation Alpha are all a result of change. Change that will continue to swarm the workforce in ways we can’t even imagine today. We are seeing many ways how school environments are adapting to the world Alphas live in and the world they will graduate into.

At the core of this evolution, is the development of the human skills necessary to navigate the demands of the future workforce. Common spaces and dining facilities are no longer holding pens for students, but a continuation of the learning environment, fostering self-direction, independence, and social skills.

Digital interactions and virtual connections can provide students with a custom personalized learning experience. These innovations invite students to collaborate in unique ways and think critically about their decisions and the consequence of those decisions. Hands-on, real-world work encourages collaboration, allowing students to see problems from different viewpoints and create solutions accordingly. Active learning through exploring, building, and tinkering fosters creativity, an increasingly essential skill in a world cohabitated with Artificial Intelligence and constant screen time.

Renowned futurist and demographer Mark McCrindle identifies Generation Alpha as “the most transformative generation ever”. If schools continue to adapt to meet their needs and expectations, our youngest generation will be better prepared for a challenging, but remarkable, future.