PREAMBLE

 

People are segregated by age in everyday lives – education is seen as the domain of the young, work as the adults’, and retirement and leisure as seniors’. This is the tripartite structuring of our lives (Figure 1) – an age-based thinking institutionalized and manifested into age-segregated spaces – that has become socially accepted as the status quo. Hence, despite aspirations for intergenerational living since the 20th century, proliferation of age-segregated institutions and ageism remain a contrasted reality today. This situation prevails in most urban-industrial societies today, including Singapore.

 

Although such a lifestyle structuring generates a productive workforce that industrial societies favored, a structural lag issue will become increasingly evident as development continues this way. Given the rise of hyper-ageing societies around the world, societal structures will increasingly be unable to keep up to the needs of an ageing population with increased longevity and higher literacy, impacting social inclusiveness and economic sustainability.

 

Specifically, social alienation by age persists. The increasing desires of seniors to remain in mainstream life are impeded by age-segregated institutions, and ageism is fuelled due to lack of cross-age interaction. There is also a perceived burden on economy and social support network, whereby changing demographics burdens a shrinking and maturing workforce, as well as fiscal strains whereby higher national healthcare and long-term care expenditures for the aged are required.

 

Being a family-oriented and rapidly ageing society, these are pertinent issues in Singapore that the state and ground up efforts have been actively addressing through various initiatives and funding. The focus on ageing in place[1] and the active ageing movement[2] in recent years especially demonstrates this. However, although these initiatives achieve the goal of empowering and inclusion of seniors to certain degrees, they cannot comprehensively address the underlying issue of age-based thinking.

 

In fact, there are ways to resolve such social stability issues and simultaneously injecting vitality into economies. However, a mindset shift is required whereby seniors are viewed as valuable assets that can strengthen social support network and contribute actively to society, instead of the prevalent ageist thinking that they are dependants who drain national resources. This is achievable if there were more transitions into age-integrated structures, such that shifts in inherent lifestyles towards one that is less age-based can be fostered.

Figure 1: A gradual shift from the tripartite division of life course to a more age-integrated one. Riley and Riley conceptualized these two ideal types of societal structuring by age in 1994. (Adapted from Riley and Riley 1994)

Figure 1. A gradual shift from the tripartite division of life course to a more age-integrated one: Riley and Riley conceptualized these two ideal types of societal structuring by age in 1994. (Adapted from Riley and Riley 1994)

 

SCHOOLS AS CRITICAL STRUCTURES TO BEGIN TRANSITION

 

Within the education part of the tripartite life course structure, schools feature prominently as spatial domains of the young. Being powerful institutions that facilitate learning and inculcate ideologies, examining schools’ potential as age-integrated structures is critical towards fostering inherent mindset and lifestyle changes, especially since the internalization of societal workings begin during the learning stages of the young.

 

Moreover, the benefits of transiting to a more age-integrated learning environment are multifold. By actively involving other age groups from the community in the teaching and learning process (either as mentors or co-learners), opportunities are created for the societal participation of seniors. Lifelong learning opportunities directly provide the avenues for senior empowerment, and also aid social mobility, which is crucial for low-income groups and community members who wish to upgrade skillsets. These are all recent trends and community needs that the government has been focusing on, realized through programmes such as C3A Intergenerational Learning Programme, RSVP’s Mentoring Programme and the national SkillsFuture movement[3].

 

More importantly, age-integrated learning environments empower the young. With a higher degree of intergenerational integration (for example, one-time structured meeting differs from intergenerational interaction occurring on a natural basis), schools can do much more than providing lifelong learning opportunities, but also life-wide and life-deep learning for children[4]. Educational studies have shown age integration benefiting children’s development, whereby there is continuity of knowledge and creation of new ones, as well as development of social skills. The recent reframing of the Community Involvement Programme in schools into the Value in Actions programme[5] by the Ministry of Education (MOE) similarly indicates the importance of learning in relation to the larger community, whereby cross-age and trade connections can be made.

 

REIMAGINING LEARNING SPACES

 

In spite of these initiatives, schools remain largely disconnected with the larger community. Students’ cross-age and trade experiences mainly happen during limited programme timings instead of being inherent to learning. Thus, to construct higher degrees of age-integrated learning environments, schools cannot simply depend on programmatic transitions, which constitute the majority of past and current strategies. System and management, as well as school typology and design are critical to this discourse as well.

 

Relating to system and management, Singapore schools prevalently adhere to uniform curriculums and guidelines under the MOE[6], constructing a formal school system and culture whereby learning is orderly, disciplined and scheduled. Instrumental goal achievement (homework, tests, prizes for prestige etc.) is prioritized, and relationship between teachers and students are hierarchical with weak social cohesion. In this institutional culture, schools are still fundamentally domains of the young, as any relation or support from community members are screened by the administration, whereby collaborations that enhance the traditional curriculum are endorsed. This, coupled with subject-based curriculums, results in a specialized and unidirectional learning whereby there is danger of students blindly focusing on specialized theoretical learning without a holistic understanding of societal workings. Many students emerge feeling lost and having little drive, and at the same time many community members are unable to participate in the learning process and thus have unfulfilled needs or aspirations.

 

On the other hand, schools’ spatial designs liken to that of a fenced fortress (especially the lower tertiary institutions), with many hierarchical, mono-functional and inaccessible learning spaces: Firstly, schools are planned as separate zones within neighborhoods, only opening up certain spaces for public usage in order to incur less management costs and reduce liability issues. Although this ensures security, it also effectively decreases the relevance of learning spaces to the wider community. Inaccessibility is a resulting issue as well, with schools being a separate entity from other domains in life, and community people are being “brought in” only when there are relevant collaborations. Secondly, in-class spaces encourage hierarchical learning instead of informal learning whereby cross-age and trade experiences can be facilitated on an equitable basis.

 

Therefore, in order to genuinely incorporate elements of age-integrated learning into schools, current school systems and curriculums should be rethought, and new design typologies explored. In terms of programme, it is not too far-fetched to start incorporating intergenerational programmes that were once optional into school curriculums themselves, or even welcoming older age groups as co-learners instead of mentors. After all, these are ideas that have already been formalized in countries like Japan and the U.S., such as the Akitsu Elementary School and The Intergenerational Schools.

Figure 2. Akitsu Elementary School: Voluntary circles/club activities conducted and managed by older community members for the students. (Source: 秋津コミュニティ 2012)

Figure 2. Akitsu Elementary School: Voluntary circles/club activities conducted and managed by older community members for the students. (Source: 秋津コミュニティ 2012)

Figure 3. Akitsu Elementary School: Annual joint events and festivals (such as the regional grand sports day) organized and participated between the school and community. (Source: 秋津コミュニティ 2012)

Figure 3. Akitsu Elementary School: Annual joint events and festivals (such as the regional grand sports day) organized and participated between the school and community. (Source: 秋津コミュニティ 2012)

Figure 4. The Intergenerational Schools: Multi-aged classrooms whereby older grade students and seniors learn alongside younger students.

Figure 4. The Intergenerational Schools: Multi-aged classrooms whereby older grade students and seniors learn alongside younger students. (Source: IGS 2015)

Figure 5. The Intergenerational Schools: A daily scene to have seniors in schools and using the learning spaces for intergenerational contact. (Source: TIS 2015)

Figure 5. The Intergenerational Schools: A daily scene to have seniors in schools and using the learning spaces for intergenerational contact. (Source: IGS 2015)

Figure 6. The Intergenerational Schools: Off-site programming spaces whereby students and community members conduct experiential learning that is closely tied back to traditional curriculum. (Source: TIS 2015)

Figure 6. The Intergenerational Schools: Off-site programming spaces whereby students and community members conduct experiential learning that is closely tied back to traditional curriculum. (Source: IGS 2015)

In terms of design, instead of a zoned off typology, the school can be envisioned as a network with a central node within neighborhoods itself, extending accessibility and relevance to community members. Alongside traditional or specialized learning spaces and curriculums, transitions to more flexible and intermediate learning spaces that encourage skill-based and experiential learning are needed as well. These spaces can allow for easier facilitation of collaborative learning and informal interaction across social groups.

 

By viewing the school as an intergenerational shared-site whereby generations are not distinct but collaborate closely and share both resources and knowledge, all age and social groups can receive empowerment through this process. Even if schools’ status as the domain of the young will continue to be the reality for a long time, it is time that Singapore starts exploring this and providing more age-integrated options across schools such that more resilient and lively towns can be built.

 

REFERENCES

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  • 秋津コミュニティ. 学校を地域住民の生涯学習活動&福祉の拠点 =スクール・コミュニティにした 習志野市立秋津小学校&秋津コミュニティ 32 年の実践. Akitsu: 秋津コミュニティ, 2012.

 

[1] Enabling seniors to age in place is mainly realized through keeping seniors “healthy, active and safe”, as well as providing “access to quality and affordable care”. (Ong 2015)

[2] The Council for Third Age (C3A) is in charge of the active ageing initiative until today. C3A was set up in 2007 specifically to promote active ageing in Singapore. Its main areas of focus are “lifelong learning, social gerontology, and instilling optimism on senior employability”, and funds programmes in lifelong learning as well as senior volunteerism. (C3A 2015)

[3] Both C3A and RSVP’s programmes are intergenerational programmes that bring seniors into formal classroom settings, with the former having students teaching seniors in various courses, whereas the latter trains seniors as mentors to guide students. SkillsFuture emphasizes the provision of opportunities to develop skills required in the future in the form of education, training and career progression for Singaporeans.

[4] Whereby lifelong learning refers to learning that extends from childhood all the way into old age, life-wide learning refers to the breadth of experiences (e.g. perceiving how society works and social skills) as well as obtaining the know-how to adapt to various life challenges. Life-deep learning provides exposure to “religious, moral, ethical, and social values”, allowing navigation between roles and processing of information through familiarizing the associated languages. (Banks et al. 2007)

[5] Through VIA, there will be more emphasis on learning and application of knowledge, values and skills through authentic experiences whereby students serve the community. It focuses on letting the students identify areas of interests, and increases curriculum time for reflection, differing from CIP whereby programmes were geared more towards one-off activities (Most students conduct activities just for the sake of fulfilling requirements instead of genuine altruism).

[6] In 2013, a total of 87% schools (across primary, secondary, mixed-level schools and junior colleges/centralized institutes) are government-run, or government-aided. Out of this percentage, 100% of primary schools and 95.5% of secondary schools are government-run, and these are where the majority of Singapore’s students attend. (MOE 2014)