Education Opinion

A Design Thinking Approach to Working with Millennials

By Beth Holland — May 31, 2016 5 min read
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I had the privilege of co-authoring this post with Sabba Quidwai (@AskMsQ). In addition to being an EdTechTeacher colleague, Sabba is the Director of Innovative Learning at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

Colleges, universities, and workplaces across the country are perplexed by the younger generation entering their classrooms and offices - a generation often referred to as “Millennials.” According to the Pew Research Center, the Millennial Generation - also referred to as Gen Y or the Digital/Net/Google Generation - includes all individuals born since 1981.

We imagine that many are having conversations about the challenges and opportunities of working with this generation; although, most of the individuals in this age cohort do not identify with the term “Millennial.” Only 40% of adults aged 18 to 34 consider themselves part of the “Millennial generation,” while another 33% consider themselves part of the next older cohort, Generation X (Pew Research Center, 2015). This is not surprising as many may not want to be connected with the negative labels associated with the Millennial generation. As Alexander and Sysko (2013) described, Millennials “seem to bring with them a hedonism, narcissism, and cavalier work ethic previously unknown in the American workforce” (p. 127).

The Challenge with Generalizations

Why talk about others when we can talk with others?" - AskMsQ

When informing your decision about how to teach and work with others, consider replacing the term “Millennial” with immigrants, African-Americans, or homosexuals. It would most likely be a controversial discussion deemed inappropriate for an academic or corporate environment. Therein lies the challenge of conversations centered on generalizations, and yet they seem to occur with generations.

Today’s opportunities and tools to engage in dialogue with people make it counter-productive to discuss and generalize a group. A one-sided dialogue about, rather than with, Millennials often results in broad generalizations with little discussion of the context within which these younger students or workers grew up and now live. Moreover, to begin to truly develop an understanding of how to bridge this intergenerational divide, Millennials also need to be able to understand other generations.

While most can agree that generalizations do not always apply to everyone, the question that emerges is, “how might our generalizations influence the way we teach, work and interact with Millennials?” Lovely (2012) cautions against making too many sweeping generalizations about generations as they can lead to faulty assumptions such as that of the concept of Digital Natives - possibly one of the most detrimental generalizations to plague education in recent years.

The Digital Native Myth

Today's students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach." - Marc Prensky

In 2001, Marc Prensky first described Millennial students as Digital Natives - individuals who have always known the existence of digital tools. Over a decade after this initial work, Watson (2015) and Koutropoulos (2011) both called into question the generalizability of Prensky’s claims. After studying three universities in Malaysia, South Korea, and the UK, Watson (2015) asserted that a single profile of a Digital Native does not exist. Depending on the student’s culture, prior experience, nationality, and economic status, their use of technology to support their learning varied widely. Additionally, many Digital Natives lack the literacy, information-seeking, and problem-solving skills that they need to take advantage of technological advancements in society (Koutropoulos, 2011).

The digital divide between generations is growing wider, and understanding the context is critical for discourse if we truly want to provide Millennials with strategies and skills for success. While it is definitely easier and less time consuming for both sides to base their knowledge on generalizations and past experiences, do we truly serve each other and the world we live in best by doing so?

Before thinking, “I don’t have time...” consider using George Couros’s method of replacing the phrase, “I don’t have time...” with:

  • How will my students and employees benefit from this practice?

  • I am not seeing the relevance of this for teaching, learning, and the workplace...could you give me specifics of how this would impact my practice?

  • What has been the biggest benefits for your own practice?

  • If I was to do this, what would it replace that I am doing now?

To address these questions and better understand these inter-generational differences and challenges, we propose utilizing a design thinking approach.

Design Thinking to Facilitate Inter-Generational Discussions

When we begin with empathy, what we think is challenged by what we learn." - AskMsQ

How can we redesign the way we address intergenerational challenges and design our classrooms or workspaces to take advantage of the younger generation rather than stymie their creativity or thwart their motivation? By using design thinking, as educators and managers, we can start to build more effective environments with Millennials.

Design Thinking begins with empathy. When higher education faculty and those in the corporate world discuss Millennial learners and how to best teach or work with them, a constructive approach would be for both groups to engage in conversations. With the assumptions openly displayed, everyone would have the opportunity to address and learn from one another. By truly understanding students and workers, then educators and managers can begin to define issues and seek out novel solutions that may help to rectify the situation. Design thinking is an iterative process, allowing these conversations and solutions to grow and evolve over time.

Asking the Right Questions

If you can get people asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers." - Thomas Pynchon

A Design Thinking approach allows us to move away from assumptions and generalizations and puts us on the path to being able to ask the right questions that will truly address the challenges we face. Furthermore, this approach deepens our empathy for one another and fosters more innovative mindsets. As a result, we will all be better prepared to address the challenges and opportunities in the digital age.


Alexander, C. S., & Sysko, J. M. (2013). I’m GEN Y, I love feeling entitled, and it shows. Academy of Educational Leadership, 17(4), 127-131.

Koutropoulos, A. (2011). Digital natives: Ten years after. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(4), 525-538.

Lovely, S. (2012). Boomers and Millennials--Vive La Difference: How to Mesh GenerationalStyles in a Learning Community. Journal of Staff Development.

Pew Research Center. (2015, September 03). Most Millennials Resist the ‘Millennial’ Label. Retrieved May 31, 2016, from http://www.people-press.org/2015/09/03/most-millennials-resist-the-millennial-label/

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants part 1. On the Horizon, 9(6), 1-6. doi: 10.1108/10748120110424843

Watson, I. R. (2015). Digital natives or digital tribes? Universal Journal of Educational Research, 1(2), 104-112. doi: 10.13189/ujer.2013.010210

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.