The concept that people of different generations learn from each other is as old as humanity itself: parents have always had the job of raising their children; since universities came into being, professors have been older and the students – younger; teachers usually come from a different generation than their pupils. The notion of a learning process involves passing on wisdom, greater knowledge or life experience (things acquired over a long lifespan) to those who have not been alive as long. So is intergenerational learning really anything new?
Intergenerational learning is not a one-way street
The concept behind intergenerational learning is that people of different generations learn from one another – not only the young from the old, but also the old from the young. Where does this development come from, and what does it mean?
The field of developmental psychology only recently systematically incorporated into its research the idea that the processes involved in education are not a one-way street, but rather reciprocal. Children learn early on how to influence the behaviour of their parents (e.g. by nagging, crying or kicking up a fuss in public) and so they show their limits to the parents, who in turn have to anticipate these limits and learn how to deal with them. Thus, becoming or being a parent is also a learning process. During this process parents learn a lot from their children. This example illustrates how by introducing the concept of intergenerational learning the perspective shifts away from learning as a one-way street to one based on reciprocity.
However, this is also not a particularly new concept. Ever since Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, with its description of how learning (and especially adult education) functions as a partnership of equals and how teachers learn just as much from participants, this idea of reciprocal learning has been reflected in the professionalisation of adult educators. This can also be explained by the fact that in adult and continuing education the age gaps are different to those in school or traditional universities. In adult and continuing education it is absolutely normal for educators in the field of management-training to be of the same age or even younger than those they are training. The same can be said for the fields of literacy or culture-related adult education.
Intergenerational learning as post-modern phenomenon
In addition to this insight, which may appear rather mundane at first glance, the shifting perspective on intergenerational learning is also caused by social developments which today are characterised as “post-modern”. The realisation that there is neither a single fixed truth nor a single universally-valid educational canon, but rather that both need to be continually reconstructed and tailored based on the context, has led to the erosion of concepts such as wisdom, life experience or greater knowledge, which were previously attributed to older generations. What also has to be factored in, is the accelerated production of knowledge that is highly relevant to society. To acquire such knowledge older generations are dependent on younger generations in order to keep participating. This affects many areas and is currently very obvious in digitalisation: When teenagers or young adults explain processes to their parents and grandparents that are basic to modern society, such as online banking or using a touchscreen to buy a train ticket from a machine, then the “wisdom of the elderly” seems rather obsolete.
The situation is different when it comes to the relevance of intergenerational learning in relation to sustainability. For example, global climate change can only be tackled by the generation that currently holds the key to power, and these people carry an enormous responsibility for the following generations, although they themselves will not have to face the full consequences. In that case, intergenerational learning takes on the connotation of learning from, about, and possibly with the following generation.
Affects some areas, but not all
While both digitalisation and climate change are processes that do indeed turn much of the conventional wisdom about learning on its head, there are other areas that are less affected, because they are fundamentally more one-sided. For example, it is in the nature of things that the “eye-witness accounts” popular in politics-related adult education continues to primarily mean knowledge passed on from older to younger people. The same goes for the mentoring programmes popular with companies, in which someone long-established at the company provides close guidance to a newcomer in the first months or years of their employment. Likewise, it is standard practice in companies that when it comes to knowledge management, a transitional period is organised in which departing employees can pass on relevant information to their generally younger successors.
It is important to emphasise that it is also possible to think outside the categories of younger and older generations. For example, after the Brexit vote there was a lot of discussion revolving around “young” and “old” in the UK. Concentrating on this difference is reductive and ignores the fact that not just age, but also social background and educational level are important influencing factors – the jury is still out on whether they may be even more important than age.
Intergenerational learning in adult education in Germany – an issue closely linked to profession
In recent years, adult education in Germany has understood that the theme of intergenerational learning is highly relevant to its own field, as generational change is taking place within this area in Germany. The study programme “Adult Education” dates from the 1970s. The first groups who studied this field are now heading towards their well-earned retirement, with a new generation coming along to succeed them. A generation that during their academic training learned different, modified, perhaps more highly developed and professional standards concerning adult and continuing education. This generational change was discussed in the academic debate at the annual meeting of the adult education sector in Tübingen. Likewise, a large number of professors who guided and influenced the field over many years are now entering retirement. Naturally, others are taking their place.
Intergenerational learning – multi-generational houses
In terms of policy and practice, multi-generational houses have attracted a lot of attention in Germany. They were subsidised as part of a funding directive by the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs. These places where several generations live under one roof for purely practical purposes, were given the task of coming up with educational offers. The model has endured to this day. In the first two financing periods, the idea was to come up with educational offers for several generations, to offer tutoring, to come to an understanding regarding care provisions, but also to deal with issues such as employability, civil society, and the integration of people from all social classes and cultural backgrounds.
Intergenerational learning as participation
In all the abovementioned fields the focus is on social interaction. In the case of digitalisation, it is about ensuring the participation of older people; in the case of climate change – it is about facilitating the participation of future generations in processes that will primarily affect them; in professional life it is about updating standards for participation under new social conditions; a multidimensional approach underpins the concept of multi-generational houses – one that cultivates the participation of those living in close proximity to one another as well as different generations. In other words, the new understanding of intergenerational learning as a two-way process incorporates the idea of inclusion in the European sense and work as a partnership of equals in the Freirian sense.
Dr. Christian Bernhard, EPALE Coordinator in Germany, has been working at the chair for Adult and Further Education at Bamberg University, Germany, and completed his PhD in Adult Education in 2017.