Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Intergenerational Learning Changes Learning, Changes Lives

When young and old learn from each other

January 3, 2012

As educators, we all know that learning is a powerful experience. But when that learning comes from a respected elder, it can be life-changing.

My Background in Intergenerational Learning

In 1988, I found myself a 20-year-old high school dropout living with my grandparents for the first and last time in my life. They lived on the other side of the planet for most of my childhood, yet the half dozen times I spent with them left me with some powerful examples of what it means to be productive person and what values are important. Those last 14 months in their home taught me patience, a better sense of traditional values, respect and what it means to be nurtured by an elder mentor. Most of all, it was a fascinating opportunity to listen and learn from a lifetime of experience delivered many times, in sometimes quite repetitive stories.

While I was there, I had another unique opportunity for mentorship with AIDS education pioneer David Brumbach. I had seen him speak on television about his Teen AIDS telephone hotline, and called him to offer to help. He believed in my abilities as a communicator and offered to mentor me. While I served as both a peer speaker and his assistant, David taught me many lessons, but most of all he was a living example of a superhero. His worldview still makes up part of mine.

After that visit, I left the US to go back to Australia. With my granddad deceased and my grandmother dying of a broken heart, I had to decide where I wanted to live and what I was to do with my new career path. By this time, I had my GED and the beginnings of magical career in the music industry -- all thanks to the influence and support of my father's parents. They believed in me, they encouraged me, they got past my rebellious ego and showed me that compromise works. The two of them modeled how people in the third age of life have the potential to positively shape the lives of the young people they encounter and create transformative relationships.

I did make it in the music industry one year later. With no formal training and a lot of self confidence, I signed a record deal and lived the life of a pop star for three years until a change in direction sent me on to other things. These early experiences solidified the deep understanding that I could really achieve anything if I set out to make a success of it.

Giving Back

In my mid-thirties, I spent six years as a youth worker for Melbourne Citymission, where I mentored quite a number of young people, and once again my life experiences and career position afforded me an opportunity to work along side many brilliant mentors, including some top business people and some very successful artists.

Even today I remain in contact with several of the young people I mentored years back and I have three mentors I can call on anytime. I find Facebook a brilliant way to keep in touch and nurture these cross-generational relationships.

So now I'd love to share with you some key opportunities that Intergenerational Learning can offer for educators and anyone else who works with young people. I have also included some examples of projects and programs that work well.

Top 10 Intergenerational Learning Opportunities and Outcomes

  1. Improved well-being, self-esteem and health for all involved
  2. Greater awareness of the issues facing both generations
  3. Development of stronger links to the community
  4. Breaking down age-based stereotypes
  5. Working on community projects or issues; solving problems together
  6. Improved interpersonal skills and communication abilities
  7. Increased knowledge and understanding of life-long career environments
  8. Cross-generational activities keeping older people in their own homes longer
  9. Younger volunteers helping older people with dementia with storytelling and teaching technology skills to overcome social isolation
  10. Older people teaching young people to be aware of the long-term impact of poor life decisions

Mentoring, guiding, and shadowing provide great learning experiences for all ages. This can occur through friendship, career and vocational support, business mentoring or tutoring.

Since the dot-com boom, reverse mentoring has been a popular form of Intergenerational Learning in corporations. Typically, executives were paired up with a tech-savvy graduate who would show them how to use a computer, how to blog, and set them up on networks or social media channels.

One of my favorite examples of types of Intergenerational Learning is Etienne Wenger's blog Communities of Practice. And Jackie Gerstein, EdD, in her blog post Learning Communities: The Future (the Now?) of Education, talks about a great example from her own life.

Top Five Considerations for an Intergenerational Leaning Project or Program

  1. Make sure you always involve the participants in the design and planning, and communicate about how activities will benefit all participants
  2. Take health and safety into account, and be clear about any boundaries that must me respected
  3. Remember to include new arrivals, and explain the project or program clearly
  4. Ensure any dominant personalities do not exclude others; look out for the reserved members of the group
  5. How will you evaluate and share the findings so others can benefit?

I've collected some great examples of Intergenerational Learning documented on video. Watch them individually below or start with the YouTube playlist.

Top 10 Intergenerational Learning Videos

What are your experiences with intergenerational learning? Whether it's a formal mentoring program or a family or community relationship that developed organically, I would love to hear about it.

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