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The pedagogic aspects of intergenerationalism

Delphine P. Shaw
The University of Western Australia
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The pedagogical praxis of 'intergenerational studies' has been extensively researched and documented by the administrative and medical teams of Il Melo Residential Aged Care at Gallarate-Varese, Italy. This was recorded for the European Union, by Dr Marco Predazzi of Italy, Dr Richard Vercauteren of France, and Dr Michel Loriaux of Belgium (2000). The second volume of their series Towards a Society for all Ages analyses the symbiotic benefits of the 'intergenerational studies' achieved in this University De Gallarete - Il Melo initiative.

The 'intergenerational project,' works in collaboration with Don Lorenzo government primary school Gallarate, and my research analysed and identified a number of the social, emotional, intellectual and communication benefits experienced by both the schoolchildren and the "social grandparents", most of whom were in fact chronologically more like great grandparent age of the children involved.


Education is increasingly examining the role of the teacher in ensuring the engagement and learning outcomes of their pupils, (Mathewson, 1994; Hootstein, 1994; Taylor, Houghton & Chapman, 2004; Chaves, 2005). This has been the topic of extensive debate, both political and public. While the focus had been largely on pupil attitude (Chapman, 2003 #5) and teacher methodology (Watson, 1996; Skinner & Belmont, 1993), pupils' processing skills have been less widely addressed in recent time (Shimojo, 1999 #137; Hannaford, 1995; Donovan & Austin, 1978). Teacher education at universities traditionally has not given great emphasis to the difference in pupil comprehension which occurs when data is presented with a focus on visual and auditory perceptual modalities only (Donovan & Austin, 1978). These trends are evident in the empirical work of Abrams (1976 #6), D'Annunzio (1975), Jones (1972), Mann (1975), Piercy (1971), Schevill (1973) and Simmons (1969). Thus, failures to examine the kinaesthetic and interactive modes were common limitations of early research within this field.

Research focusing on identified pupil groups (Schaper & Flores, 1985; Gardner, Feldman & Krechvsky, 1998) however, does indicate that different pupils perform more confidently with specific modalities.

There is an unresolved issue defining the importance of the perceptual modalities of the learner, to their learning, which concerns explicating the link between the individual pupil's ways of processing data and their inherent ability to engage with the teacher's 'perceptual modality choice' for the lesson.

An intergenerational educative program implemented by medical gerontology researchers of Il Melo Aged Care Residence and local teachers of Don Lorenzo Primary School in Gallarate Italy, produced very rewarding and interesting outcomes. The relationship was identified to be mutually beneficial because seniors assist the students to research, evaluate and record topics of learning and this interaction enriches the seniors experience and awakens intellectual faculties which are often repressed by institutional living. This long term research has been extensively documented in the writings of Predazzi, Vercauteren and Loriaux (2000).

This paper now explores the context of pupil engagement in a variety of learning situations, reports in detail the findings of the study on intergenerational studies in a University De Melo-Italy initiative and concludes with recommendations for both education and aged care providers.

Pupil engagement efficacy

Skinner and Belmont (1993) offered a particularly comprehensive depiction of engagement:
Engagement versus disaffection in school refers to the intensity and emotional quality of children's involvement in initiating and carrying out learning activities ... Children who are engaged show sustained behavioural involvement in learning activities accompanied by a positive emotional tone. They select tasks at the border of their competencies, initiate action when given the opportunity, and exert intense effort and concentration in the implementation of learning tasks; they show generally positive emotions during ongoing action, including enthusiasm, optimism, curiosity, and interest. The opposite of engagement is disaffection. Disaffected children are passive, do not try hard, and give up easily in the face of challenges ... [they can] be bored, depressed, anxious, or even angry about their presence in the classroom; they can be withdrawn from learning opportunities or even rebellious towards teachers and classmates (p. 572).
In Australia, a major research projects has been established to explore problems associated with school disengagement. Melbourne University established the Middle Years Research and Development (MYRAD, 2002) project in 1999 to explore patterns of under-achievement and disengagement for pupils in the middle years. Preliminary conclusions from this project suggest that many schools in Australia fail to provide contexts that encourage pupils "to connect with school, to engage with learning, and to become independent and thoughtful learners" (MYRAD, 2002). These reports also emphasised the need to integrate thinking and learning skills across core areas in efforts to increase pupils' learning engagement.

In Western Australia, many educators have sought to identify ways in which pupil engagement and learning can be enhanced. Programs developed to address this goal have included Emotional Literacy (McLean, 2001), Cooperative Learning (Bennett, 1999; Bennett, Rolheisser & Stevahn, 1991), and Brain Friendly Learning (Plumb, 2002 #52). Indeed, one of the explicit goals of implementing the First Steps programs developed in Western Australia was to increase learning engagement levels in the primary grades. All of these programs represent efforts to support and enhance children's engagement with their learning. None, however, have been reported to increase engagement levels across all subject areas.

Links between pupil disengagement and sensory modality preferences

Low levels of learning engagement are likely to reflect a complex interplay of learning, environment, personal, and circumstantial factors. Markova (1996) has suggested that increasing levels of school disengagement seen in recent years may reflect the inability of traditional classroom practice to accommodate diverse thinking patterns, or sensory modality preferences. The Special Education division of the Virginia State Department of Education (Education, 1981) defined a 'modality' as "a sensory channel through which individuals receive and retain information". Markova, et. al. (1996) define the sensory channel on which an individual relies most heavily as his/her 'preferred modality', and refers to the overall profile of modalities employed by an individual as his/her 'thinking pattern'.

Markova et al. (1996) suggest that there are six primary thinking patterns exhibited by pupils, reflecting the relative reliance on, and priority given to, the auditory, visual, and kinaesthetic channels. The importance of these modalities was originally highlighted by Bruner, Olver and Greenfield (1966) when they discussed the 'primitive properties' of the haptic space [kinaesthetic] auditory and visual senses to represent knowledge as imagery of experience and action. These, they asserted, must correspond with what we do [kinaesthetic] what we see [visual] and what we say [auditory]. Bruner et al. further stated that: "School forces [the child] to rely on linguistic encoding as a way of communicating because by its remoteness from direct action, it robs him of contextual and ostensive reference as a mode of carrying meaning (p. 323)."

Stated alternatively, children typically cannot resort to pointing or doing to convey meaning in formal schooling contexts, and thus must learn to use language as an implement of thought and learning. Markova et al. has suggested that if a child's thinking pattern does not correlate with modalities deployed in the learning context, the child will experience difficulties in engaging with learning activities. Disaffected behaviour such as frustration, embarrassment, avoidance, lowered self concept and apparent disengagement from the learning process can result. Hunt et.al. (1992 ) described this state as a manifestation of a loss of ganus. This behaviour is characterised by low levels of intrinsic motivation, self esteem and dignity, curiosity to learn, and joy in learning:

Ganus, a word that comes from a Latin root... covers a myriad of emotions from willingness to fervour, from enthusiasm to zeal. To have the ganus is to have the spirit, the desire, the will, the fire, the craving, the hunger, the yearning, and the aspiration all rolled up in one. Ganus is the fuel for learning. Ganus propels the child forward in his/her discovery process for it ignites and sustains the interest in his/her world (Hunt, 1992) pp. 55-56).
In educational circles, theory of learning styles is frequently based on the concept that the human individual uses three primary perceptual pathways to learning: visual [sight], kinaesthetic [body, sensation, motion], and auditory [sound]; and also is influenced by three states of consciousness: conscious, subconscious and unconscious. Markova (1996) has commented on the inability of traditional classroom practice to accommodate diverse thinking patterns, or sensory perceptual modality preferences of the pupils. The resultant inability of the pupil to successfully engage with the learning process has been identified as lack of application or will to engage, by many educators over the years. Perhaps the fault does not lie with the pupil's effort or attitude, but rather with the methodology deployed to engage the pupil.


My research setting

After conducting an intervention project into early childhood practice, emphasising use of integrated perceptual modalities, I analysed the engagement and attitude of the children towards their learning, and found they presented as happy as and more confident than earlier recorded. This led to the re-evaluation of the support given and the pedagogic and social values of the School Volunteer program involving senior citizens, which I had administered at my school over a 10 year program. I deduced that the relationship developed with this mentoring program, ensured both generations felt secure and trustful enough to expose their vulnerability, without fear of being diminished or compromising their self esteem, through embarrassment. This process of 'osmotic reciprocity' produced symbiotic benefits to both the elderly and the school children.

Intergenerational studies

The great gap in age between these two generations at the start and end of life and the gaining of a "familiarity" not based on biological or family bonds make this acquired community both a special relationship opportunity and one rich in pedagogical potential for both generations involved. (Predazzi et al., 2000)p26.
In October 2006, I then undertook to research the Gallarete University De Melo initiative at Il Melo Residential Aged Care at Gallarate-Varese, Italy. Here the 'intergenerational project,' works in collaboration with Don Lorenzo government primary school Gallarate. From interviews with the teachers concerned, I found that the deployment of praxis which was achieved enabled the gradual integration of many 'perceptual modalities' of the school pupils, during the intergenerational studies, [especially those modalities of interactive, aural/oral, and kinaesthetic/haptic]. This in turn enriched the children's lived-learned experiences and consolidated their comprehension of the content or experience of the study through meaningful rewarding engagement.


While the focus of the Il Melo administrators was to discern the benefits to the residents [through the free entering into a relationship which highly corroborates self respect and restores independent decision making], by actively researching ways to assist and support the resident and day care seniors - to avert the onset of symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer's disease - as well as ways to enrich and add value to the seniors' lived experience, my focus was to determine 'What values the school identified for the pupils involved in the intergenerational project?'

Teaching Staff Evaluation of Intergenerational Studies

The primary school staffs of Don Lorenzo were enthusiastic about the functioning of the whole project and were readily able to identify and appreciate the great value of having personalised and individual support and interest given to each and every child from an informed and caring grandparent surrogate. The mutual rejection of "judgement", the more evident the younger the children, was seen to overcome role tensions and performance anxieties, opening an extremely relaxing emotive-affective spontaneity. Neither party needed to make their image more acceptable or defend their territory. In this safe environment, the children were able to share personal experiences and ideas to a far greater extent than within a normal classroom setting.
This arena sees the miracle of the breaking of the double circle of egocentricity of the relationship: the natural one of childhood, the result of an identity in search of itself, and that of old age, an ultimate defence of a threatened identity. (Predazzi et al, 2000, p28).

Duration of Intergenerational Collaboration

Once the program commenced, the same pupils continue their learning experience throughout the year, visiting the Il Melo Residential Aged Care Centre weekly for a work period of two hours, then returning and working at school on the topic for many more hours. Over a six year liaison, strong bonds were developed between the seniors and the schoolchildren and both groups richly valued the opportunity to share learning.
The recurrent observation of a surprising awakening of self critical ability in elderly people, engaged in sufficiently intense and lasting intergenerational relationships, is an emblematic symbol of the psychological "ease" and great development potential of this type of relationship - the meeting of generations acts as a major psychological catalyst for interaction - leads to a vital perception of the present. (Predazzi et.al., 2000, p28).

Practical Integration of Perceptual Modalities

The teachers of Don Lorenzo identified that this continuity also vastly improved all the pupils' engagement with their learning, their capacity to address both strengths and weaknesses, and their learning security within a climate of continuously supportive, caring adults. The importance of this 'relationship' is amplified in the work of Greenspan, Stanley I :ref to be added: In the course of the intergenerational studies the seniors and children collaborated, and worked together on their project and always produced artefacts at the conclusion, to record their combined ' learning' in one of many ways; [i] puppets, [ii] models, [iii] drawn or painted pictures, [iv] songs, [v] poems, [vi] stories [vii] skits [viii] murals etc. - depending on the topic and the age of the children. When the initial introductory classes of Don Lorenzo pupils graduated primary school, a new group of infant pupils were commenced on the 'intergenerational program.' The original class teachers now commenced their tuition again at year one level with their new pupils, remaining with the same group for the next 6 years.

Emanating from the "reminiscence theory" of major European Intergenerational Agencies, Il Melo introduced the neologism "relivescence" (Predazzi et.al, 2000, p31) to indicate the re-awakening of both participation and social interaction faculties of the elderly who are engaging in intergenerational experiences. The re-emergence of the elderly person's ability to make individual and group plans while enjoying solidarity and group synergies, marks the regained "taking on" of the present. This restores personal dignity which produces important psychodynamic results.

I subsequently identified an interactional situation which I called "osmotic reciprocity". This was a process by which learning experiences, life values and life experiences are acquired by absorption, through a mutual action of give and take, especially in the interchange of privileges and confidences between distinct individuals.

Being a grandparent in this respect entails by the elderly person, willingness to devise new mental and relational patterns in order to stay on the same wavelength with young grandchildren and, more importantly from the geragogical viewpoint, through this experience relate once again to the minor and major positive potential of an age freed from production and reproduction duties, and hence more favourable for forms of cognitive and affective exploration of life. Observed at close hand, the grandparent experience is revealed as a factor which triggers mental flexibility and behavioural tolerance, at times totally unexpected, in elderly people apparently with rigid attitudes; ...The elderly person recognises in the child the continuity of life and is encouraged to restructure his or her experiences positively, so as to communicate in some way ... with a high giving and communication content. (Predazzi et al., 2000, p26)
This positive, unfettered attitude of mental flexibility and behavioural tolerance in the seniors, receptive to affective cognitive exploration and creativity, vastly enriches the pupils' perceptions of learning; as it lacks the usually restraining imposed expectations of both parents and teachers.

The Il Melo researchers identified that the anticipation of the children's visit revitalised the residents' motivation, their awareness of "time" [past, present and future]; and their "relivescence" when sharing and telling stories to the children. Seen as a happy time, this experience caused the elderly to cultivate a positive outlook and communication.

The teachers identified that confident academic and social engagement of the children, was observed to be incremental and cumulative throughout of the intergenerational work. This shared learning experience helped the children explore and comprehend the depth and breadth of family lives, of lived changes, and also enabled them to develop a perspective and understanding of a both past and future.

The unfathomed values of the "osmotic reciprocity" that occurs when safe, non-judgemental self critical reflections and evaluations are involve, is palpable. This "self criticism' ability develops for both groups, because of the reciprocal acceptance and trust that is generated between the two participating age groups, in the intergenerational activities.

This free and aimless grandparent relationship, unrestrained by the reality principles constraining parents, is ideal for weaving fantastic play webs, unaffected by the disciplinary requirements of an educational process. It offers the children a pleasurable relationship similar to peer interaction.

That which has been termed "a love without Oedipus" (a. Fonzi 1988) involves creative synergies and the possibilities of encounter ... for imaginative play processes which are so congenial to children and those elderly people, still capable of being grandparents (Predazzi et al., 2000, p33)


Both the researchers and administrators of Il Melo Residency and the staff of Don Lorenzo School viewed the intergenerational studies project as a medium to successfully engage the learning and communication skills of both the seniors and the school pupils. The results indicate that the skills, attitudes and behaviours nurtured in all participants, amply justify the continuance and expansion of the work.

Projected Extension of Intergenerational Studies

While the University De Melo administrators are currently looking to extend and enrich their study courses to embrace a wider range of topics for the Il Melo residents, outside seniors and other interested community members; for the pupils of the collaborating school, they hope also to create new courses with topics which the residents and school pupils can undertake together, over a set learning period. Content areas under consideration for these extended new intergenerational studies include: [i] computer studies, [ii] literature, [iii] writing, [iv] local and national history and [v] natural history.

The praxis of the Intergenerational Program of Il Melo - Gallarate, through the collaborative, interactive and personalised individual support given to each child; aims to optimise the pupil's learning potential through utilising diverse perceptual modalities, in such a way as to enable each pupil to enrich their learning, with improved integration of their own unique "thinking pattern" (Markova, 1996). This in turn, reduces the anxiety the pupil experiences when trying to adapt to the restricted modality usage usually experiences in traditional classroom praxis. The pupil's creativity and curiosity are emancipated, recognised and supported by their senior mentor, and recording of their findings is undertaken in a broad variety of styles.

Recommendations for Intergenerational Studies in Australia

In view of the different cultural expectations for the elderly experienced in Australia, the following recommendations are offered as starting points to trial implementation of a similar project to that of Il Melo, in our Australian schools.

Future Research

Much political commentary is made about the necessity to optimise the utilisation of venues, resources and personnel in both health and education. Therefore, further research into the possibilities of a program such as the one described in this paper, could prove beneficial to many of these identified needs. The vastly fragmented families of our Australian society, geographically isolated through work and emigration, coupled with the economic imperative of working parents outside the home, have dramatically diminished the interactive social climate available to earlier generations. This has however been to the great cost of the happiness, emotional security, welfare and interactions of both the very young and the very old. It has left all segments of the family vulnerable to fragmented values and reduced self worth.


It is considered that this "intergenerational studies" enterprise of the "Third Generation University" of Gallarate -The University De Melo, warrants further analysis and research to establish ways in which it may be successfully emulated, modified and implemented throughout our society. Its economic value of wisely utilising available resources and personnel is well documented in the literature published by Il Melo Centro di Cooperazione Sociale. Its practice affords an invaluable insight into the scope and richness of "possible" care and education which can be provided for both children and the elderly. The praxis also demonstrates an example of amazing emotional enrichment for the lived experiences of both these groups. The purposeful engagement experienced by all participants who are involved in the project, ensures a continuously enthusiastic and happy learning experience. Even when the participating pupils of Don Lorenzo graduate from their primary school, they keep in touch with these valuable "extended family" seniors, who have so supported their learning experiences and lives.


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missing references
Chapman, 2003
Mathewson, 1994
Hootstein, 1994
Chaves, 2005
Watson, 1996
Shimojo, 1999 #137
Abrams 1976 #6
Plumb, 2002 #52
Greenspan, Stanley I :ref to be added:
a. Fonzi 1988


symbiotica mutually advantageous association or relationship between persons
osmotic reciprocityprocess by which something is acquired by absorption, a mutual action of give and take, especially in the interchange of privileges between distinct individuals
perceptual modalitiesa sensory channel through which individuals receive and retain information
Alzheimer's Diseasea serious disorder of the brain manifesting itself in premature senility
dementiachronic or persistent of the mental processes marked by memory disorders, personality changes, impaired reasoning; due to brain disease or injury
senile dementiasevere form of mental deterioration in old age, characterized by loss of memory and control of bodily function

Author: Mrs Delphine P. Shaw. Email: dpshaw@iinet.net.au

Please cite as: Shaw, D. P. (2007). The pedagogic aspects of intergenerationalism. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2007. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2007/shaw.html

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