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Interaction Design: From Age Segregation to Age Connectedness

Youth Gains Wisdom From the Aged promotes the idea that encouraging multi-age interaction helps build a deeper sense of community. The assumption, I believe, is quite true. The initiative described is quite worthwhile, yet what struck me more than anything else was the notion that linking different age groups is "new." Of course, within the education system the idea of age connectedness is new and contrary to the underlying enforcement of age segregation. However, if we step outside of the educational lens, the idea of people of different ages learning together is natural, organic and obvious...

When we hear the word segregation we unavoidably recall instances of racial segregation in which specific races of people are isolated and controlled in some manner - often to their detriment. Segregation, at its core, is a form of imposed isolation and confinement by one group of people on another. As such, it communicates the darker side of our prevalence for classification. Age segregation, then, means to isolate and confine people by virtue of their age. Education, for example, is a system that embraces the idea of age segregation as a means to design and implement education. This has, in fact, become a tacit assumption among educators. The notion is that people of the same age are at a similar level of cognitive and emotional development and therefore can be best served by the way of prerequisite knowledge, skills and attitudes. This assumption, of course, has absolutely no concrete evidence to support it.

Youth Gains Wisdom From the Aged invites us to reconsider the impact of age segregation and to explore new possibilities. In itself, the article stops short of identifying the fundamental issues but does serve as a point of departure for discussion.

Being Surrounded By All Ages

So being surrounded by all ages, all generations means that you are going to develop that sense of community, and if we develop young people who understand and have mixed with older people surely that's building up a greater sense of empathy, trust relationships, all of those things that make the whole person.

Of course it is obvious to say that a vibrant community cannot be attained via age segregation. In the context of the project described in the article we can correctly use the word "new," this sense of being new is really nothing more than a retrieval of a very old and ancient idea. The real question is, "Why do we find ourselves needing to retrieve the old." The answer to this question with respect to education is quite simple. Public education is a system that dramatically influences people for twelve or more years, and those twelve or more years immerse students and teachers in age segregation - or a system that does not actively promote connected learning across various age groups. The idea of age segregation is a hidden assumption and silent language in education. It is so pervasive in the environment that we often fail to see how it influences people.

It's been done many years ago within families, not within institutions, and what we're aiming to provide in our early learning centre is a sense of family. It's very much a new thing to integrate a younger generation and an older generation in care.

Connected Intelligence: Age Connectedness

Connected Intelligence Program identified the importance of age connectedness:

  • From: An artificial division of students into classes based on age groups…
  • To: Varied and diverse age groups collaborating on real world issues and problems

The idea of the "From" statement is to expose an assumption that is questionable. The idea of the "To" statement is to provide a probe (not an answer) that encourages other lines of thought. Take together, the "From-To" statements are designed to provoke thinking and action.

In other words, I simply do not accept the assumption that age segregation is a reasonable or even useful way to organization an education system. The idea of providing twelve or more years of public education that is organization by virtue of a student's age is unfounded and perhaps even harmful to community and cultural development.

In a meeting with government officials, I recall making the following demand, "Prove to me that age segregation is the best and most meaningful organizational structure for all of education." Of course, the room was silent since there is no concrete evidence to prove the claim. What naturally follows is the statement, "If there is no concrete evidence that all public education is best organized via age segregation, then we should at the very least be making an attempt to find other ways to organize it." This, in fact, proposes a new assumption, one that is open-ended and organic, but new nonetheless.

In this sense, Connected Intelligence is a means to: a) identify a specific barrier or assumption that is unproductive; and b) provide a specific method to counter the prevailing assumption and implement a new open-ended strategic direction. The idea was not to resort to simple-minded thinking and promote "age integration" in a bureaucratic manner, but instead to promote learning environments that encouraged and allowed age groups to mix organically. This sense of freedom and emergent design in the educational experience causes a great deal of discomfort for the traditional educator.

To put this proposition in blunt and simplistic terms, "Education via age segregation is a false and misleading assumption that originates in bureaucracy, so let's find other ways."

Building Communities and Relationships: From Age Segregation to Age Connectedness

A connection and a relationship are two different things. A relationship, to my thinking, is something more personal and human that a connection. For example, if we consider the idea of family connections versus family relationships there is a difference in felt-meaning. Family connections refer more to the social structure of linkages while family relationships are more centred on the human elements (emotions, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, care, etc.) of being together.

Connections, as an end unto themselves, are over-rated. Simply being connected to something does not mean that anything meaningful will emerge from that connection. All too often, the underlying metaphors for the idea of connections come to us through the lens of digital technology, networks, and online communication. It is possible to have a connection with something in the absence of a deeper more purposeful relationship. I would describe the idea of Connected Intelligence as being somewhat limited by notions of neural networks and digital technology, and a great deal of my own effort with it was finding ways to move it beyond those reference into something that inspired relationships and community.

The value of connecting different age groups is really a means to promote new senses of relationships and communities that would not otherwise have occurred. We do not know in advance what the characteristics and qualities of these new relationships and communities might be, but we encourage and facilitate their growth as an essential direction in education.

I would also suggest that if we are to facilitate something called learning then the emergence of relationships and associations across all age groups is essential. However, we would not, of course, simply place different ages in an educational setting to receive a curriculum via mass communication. Merely integrating different ages in order to impose a prerequisite is regressive. Age connectedness would lead to new relationships and communities that could not be pre-determined. In other words, age connectedness is an activity of both exploration and discovery, and the nature of interactivity is organic.


  • Age Integration and Age Segregation
  • Isn't it natural for children to be divided by age in school?

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Hi Cyn,

The experience you describe aounds all too familiar. Why am I hearing the distant echo of "Tear down the wall."

"The curriculum being a source of bullying."

There it is in a nutshell. Right on Brian!

It is so easy to point the finger, but much more difficult to look inward and admit that we may be the source of the problem.

Brian, to follow up a bit with the project Rob and I were working on over the past few months with the ed system here on PEI:

Some key people who are at the helm of the school boards have identified the system as part of the problem, but they too are bullied into looking outside for the cancer source. As a result, band-aid programs and solutions are brought in to 'save the day'. This is our learning culture. Sad.

Hi Rob,

Once again the three of us find ourselves in a very similar place. The synchronicity is unusual and quite enjoyable.

Thought you would like this... The Ontario government announced a $23,000,000 anti-bullying plan today. They refer to it as a "Comprehensive Action Plan To Address Safety In All Ontario Schools." At first glance it looks like nothing more than an expensive policing program for schools that deals with the symptoms but ignores potential causes. I could find no reference in the announcement to the nature of schooling itself as a potential source of the problem.

In addition, I have yet to see any concern, let alone meaningful action, at all for the thousands of students that have already opted out of school because of bullying - by other students or the curriculum itself. This is completely inept. The curriculum is a source of bullying.

Hi Brian
I not only agree with you but I think that we can go further. One of the current designs of school that mnakes no sense to me is the idea of Middle School. This puts 16 year olds at the top of the tree - how does anyone support this? Guarantees dysfunction.

When I went to Harrow as a 13 year old - the school was run by 18 year olds - men!. Becuase the discipline was run by the 18 years olds as was the operational aspects of the school such as games etc there was no barrier between the teachers and the boys. By 16, some of my best frinds were on the staff and by the time I left definitely 3 of them had become friends for life.

The staff had a full life in the non class side of the school. Art, theatre, music, whatever, the beaks acted as coaches. This adult relationship then operated in the class room.

I am appalled by the barriers that I see in most scholls betwen the staff and the kids and by the over reliance on age peers.

I wouild go even further than you - I would offer that most of the disengagment, bullying, acting out adoption of loser culture is activated by the age segregation that you so ably discuss

Hi Cyn,

The Queen Street Commons sounds like quite an interesting place. I noticed in your weblog that you have a diverse age group.

Rob's post Free At Last - Did You Take The Package? that references Charlie Grantham and Jim Ware's Business Community Centers as Third Places.

It seems to me that your organizational design is more organic in nature: "where people gather for a variety of reasons and to do a variety of different things." There is no curriculum, or prerequisite, to be enforced here so interactivity is free to evolve. As you mentioned above, age segregation doesn't factor in unless you consciously segregate age groups to specific areas of the commons - but then it isn't a commons anymore.

There is a connection between the Queen Street Commons and Connected Intelligence. I would consider Connected Intelligence a kind of third place as well since it offered a retreat from education where people gather for a variety of reasons and to do a variety of different things. Age groupings were a variable and younger people often acted as mentors to older more experienced people, do the idea of what a mentor was became more fluid as well.

It's very simple when we think about it, but our preconceived notions about age and learning by the way of education are often so deeply embedded in our thinking that we're no longer even aware how it can bias our thinking.

BTW - I Furled the Queen Street Commons website and added the weblog to Bloglines. Looking forward to following along.

Interesting Brian. Anyone who has worked with me in the past few months is probably getting tired of me using the analogy of The Queen Street Commons for so many different scenarios. Whether we are talking about creative environments, collaboration, organic relationships and such, it seems something very special is happening here.

There is learning from the 'olders', not on purpose, but because it is happening naturally. As is learning from the 'youngers'. At the Commons, the age ranges from 22 to 68 and nobody seems aware of the differences. There is no need to make it the focus of our relationships because it's not what the essence of the relationships are about.

If, for example, we decided a better environment would include putting the 20 year olds upstairs so they could listen to 'their' music while they work, we would missing out forming real bonds. We would only be connected in the sense that we share a space. But, in the end, we would convince ourselves that we do not need each other. That there is nothing we share.

Age segragation retards learning and the ability to develop healthy mentor-relationships. As adults living, working and playing in a shared space we seem to have less of a problem identifying with each other beyond the confines of age groups. Is this because we are not compelled to follow an agenda of 'learning' or, as it were, to follow an education system's curriculum?

Instead we respect or environment and yearn to collaborate. As a result we go deep into relationships with one another, and this forms community.

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