At a time when our society is devastatingly split and dangerously exhausted with Brexit and Covid-19 it seems pertinent to consider what we might learn from one another. Community cohesion seems far too distant a goal right now – there is simply so much work to be done – but is there anything that colleges can do once it is safe to do so, to help us take tentative steps towards healing?
If we are to create a society for all ages, we need to work towards community cohesion regardless of the rollercoasters successive governments might spring upon us. We can achieve this with determination and education. Learning from each other within and between generations just might yield the fruit we need to sustain cohesion into the future, helping us to be less vulnerable to those mavericks who would desire otherwise. We now find ourselves in a situation where the choices of the few are having a devastating impact on the young people of the UK. The opportunities that were once open to them no longer exist, and many working in the FE sector fear a return to the dark days of the mass unemployment of the 1980s, particularly among today’s college leavers.
Obviously, the time is not right to be inviting guests into our colleges and taking students out into the community to mix with older generations, but there is hope that over the next year things will improve significantly. In the meantime, some thoughts to consider:
1. All-age reciprocity
All-age reciprocity is a great goal to aim for. Look for ways we can learn from each other. The trading of skills and knowledge intergenerationally can only be of benefit to us as a whole. It offers young people a fantastic example of life-long learning and gives older people the numerous and well-documented benefits associated with keeping your brain active throughout life. There are also psychological benefits to be gained, too. Older people may rediscover a sense of meaning, purpose and connection, while younger people may feel more supported, listened to, and inspired by the experience. Explore ways of creating and maintaining positive engagement, respect, and a broadening of horizons all round. An understanding that all ages have something to offer would be a useful and positive outcome.
2. Existing projects
Explore existing projects for example, the human library (Unjudge someone - The Human Library Organization), which hosts events virtually and in libraries, museums, festivals, conferences, schools, and universities etc. The concept is that readers in the human library can borrow human beings “serving as open books and have conversations they would not normally have access to.” The benefit to be derived from this is potentially immense if we explore prejudice, discrimination, belief, status, ethnicity, lifestyle, political literacy and so on.
3. Social skills
Focus on the social skills that can be enhanced through reciprocal all-age learning. Compassion, understanding and empathy just might flourish as a result. There is also the opportunity for both parties to become more comfortable navigating any social and cultural differences between them.
4. Befriender schemes
Befriender schemes can work effectively if we aim to match experience. For example, two people who are both working through bereavement, or who have experienced social isolation could potentially offer each other support and solace when discussing what is happening. This is similar to the scheme advocated in “Old School with the Hairy Bakers” back in 2015, where pensioners were paired with teenagers. Or “Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds” on Channel 4, which saw young children meeting up with the elderly residents of a retirement home to explore what might be gleaned from the experience. Attempting to match experience can work wonders for those who feel isolated by what has happened/is happening to them.
Find ways of following up on the benefits to be derived from any inter-generational schemes. For example, has behaviour improved in your college? Have there been developments in speech and language? Has confidence improved? Has wellbeing been affected for the better? Light touch monitoring of these benefits can help to drive such projects onwards, especially when it is clear that they are worth committing to.
We are missing a trick in our quest for a cohesive, tolerant and empathetic society at a time when divisions are deep and damaging, if we don’t explore what intergenerational teaching and learning can give to us. Intergenerational solidarity combined with the sharing of skills and expertise just might be the panacea we need for the tough years we have ahead of us. So, when safety dictates, let’s try it, shall we?
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for eTeach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.