Vanessa Timmer explores how mixed-age learning fosters creative approaches to building a more sustainable world. This article is excerpted from EarthEd, the latest edition of State of the World which examines how, education worldwide can help people better adapt to a rapidly changing planet.
Older people in the city of Volograd in Russia are teaching sewing, cooking, and housekeeping to orphaned children. They socialize, play, share knowledge of the history of the country, and encourage the orphans to reach their potential by introducing them to different jobs. The intergenerational learning program—a collaboration between the city and the Elderly People Club—strengthens the connections among generations through mentoring and the teaching of skills and crafts. The children gain love and knowledge, and the elders feel personal fulfillment and contribute to the community.
The children gain love and knowledge, and the elders feel personal fulfillment and contribute to the community.
Intergenerational learning, writes academic Tine Buffel, “brings people of different generations together and builds on the positive resources they can offer each other via purposeful, mutually beneficial activities, which can also benefit participants’ communities.” It includes the exchange of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values.
This practice of intergenerational learning is as old as human civilization, with elders in Indigenous communities passing on critical wisdom to the young members of their community. These practices continue today. Young aboriginal girls come together with their elder women to learn Indigenous cultural practices in remote Australia, organized by Kapululangu Aboriginal Women’s Law and Culture Centre. In Canada, elders and youth from British Columbia’s Seabird Island Band take weekly walks sharing knowledge of plants, cultural landmarks, and traditional stories while building identity and a sense of belonging among youth. There is a growing recognition that traditional knowledge provides essential insights about the ecosystems that are home to Indigenous peoples, and there is equal interest in the value of multigenerational learning as a critical part of sustainability.
Historically, intergenerational learning occurred informally in families. In places such as India, multigenerational families remain the norm. Elsewhere, multigenerational families are on the rise due to economic pressures or health crises. In South Africa, grandparents now raise children whose parents succumbed to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Increasingly, intergenerational practice is becoming more relevant in extra-familial contexts including schools and educational institutions, cities, communities, and companies.
City infrastructure can support intergenerational exchange.
City infrastructure can support intergenerational exchange—as encouraged by the World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities network—through public space design, multigenerational housing options, and institutions such as science museums. Repair cafés, popping up in cities around the world, engage seniors in sharing their expertise in repairing goods, which is building a new movement among youth to demand repairable products.
Professional organizations are recognizing the benefit of mixed-age teams, informal apprenticeships, and mentorship programs.
Professional organizations are recognizing the benefit of mixed-age teams, informal apprenticeships, and mentorship programs. Companies such as GE and Target are engaging in “reciprocal mentoring,” where older participants share their rich experience and insights on company strategy while youth share fresh approaches and technological savvy. Technology is supporting mutual learning across continents: the Sole project, also known as the “granny cloud,” links adults of all ages to classrooms in Cambodia, Greenland, India, Mexico, and elsewhere to read stories, share cross-cultural exchange, and provide a “virtual granny” to the students. In intergenerational meetings in Portugal (known as Foz Côa, or “more social”), elders teach children how to make bread, raise farm animals, and play traditional games while the youth teach the seniors how to use computers, paint, and apply techniques for monitoring their health.
Intergenerational exchanges not only build skills and capacities in the face of sustainability challenges, but also support rich and creative approaches that are essential for creating a just and sustainable world.
Vanessa Timmer is the executive director of One Earth. She is a contributing author in the Worldwatch Institute’s EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.
Worldwatch’s EarthEd, with contributions from 63 authors, includes chapters on traditional environmental education topics, such as ecoliteracy, nature-based learning, and systems thinking, as well as expanding the conversation to new topics essential for Earth education, such as character education, social emotional learning, the importance of play, and comprehensive sex education.
Ultimately, only by boldly adapting education do we stand a chance in adapting to our rapidly changing planet.