Yes, Together. Intergenerational learning.


Though many will say that the future is in the hands of the children, in fact the future lies in the relationship between the generations. What kind of education will they need? And how can we as adults open our minds to thinking in new ways with them? Intergenerational learning is NOT a new project, it’s as ancient as time. Ask instead about what is being learned?

These questions go well beyond the school yard. Schools have been formed by silo-ed thinking, and therefore produce silo-ed knowledge of the world that fits the demands of silo-ed workforce and all those silos violate the interdependency of our world — generating ecological and human rights destruction. There was a time when the dream of colonial exploitation thrived off this model and developed countries got rich off this epistemology. It supported objectification of absolutely everything from people to ecologies. This thinking built great nations, and great inventions… and it is now destroying the world.

Let’s be frank, the hold up on educational systems change is the adults’ fault, not the kids’. Students are by definition recipients of the system of education delivered to them. It is of no comfort to show our battle scars and consider the gauntlet of education to be a kind of coming of age test for youth. The education system as it is now is as toxic to teachers, parents, counselors, as it is to students.

-To help prepare coming generations to thrive in their lives is to prepare them to perceive, and respond to complexity far beyond what previous generations were taught.

-To teach complexity is to be a tour guide into a world of beautiful and messy interrelationships that defy the old school of right/wrong binaries. Education, as a system, must adapt and evolve to the changing world.

The systems we live within are in constant interaction, from social systems to economic systems, to biological systems and ecological systems. Our challenge in this era is to become familiar with the living complexity of our lives and avoid the destructive habits of reductionism. I have said this a hundred times…But when it comes to intergenerational interaction this change is not so easy. It is much easier to take up meditation, or a new diet, become expert in an new technology or get a degree, than to change the way adults interact with children. The habits are hardwired to repeat what we have experienced, the good, the bad and the ugly. With some attention and cultural support a good deal of “progressive” parenting and classroom interaction has increased adult sensitivity to children’s sensitivity. But this is only the beginning. The next horizon is one of authentic mutual respect between generations, patience, humility, and care. We are headed into rough seas, together. Yes, together.

Horizons we face together. (me and my kids at sea)

The more pressing issue is that the future is going to be so different from the past that a great many of the skills and habits, and “truths” that were in the landscape even a few years ago, are becoming obsolete. The weather, food production, addiction, medicine, ecology, economy, politics and cultural volatility are all in first place for the next tipping point of global and societal shake down. Their world, to put it most simply, will be, and already is, dependent on another approach to co-existence. Children of today are facing a world in which the basics are in transformation.

The education system is a story. And, like many stories it is  woven between so many variables that it often feels ungraspable. If the employment sector is a foot, the education system is a shoe that is designed around it and vice versa. We might think then of economy as the path upon which the shoe and foot must have traction. The interdependency is what I am getting at with this metaphor. The issue is that to fix the education system requires a profound study of employment, culture, media, ideas of success and so on. While the complexity is hard work, a deeper understanding can reveal possibilities we did not previously see. Patterns of linear thinking can blind us to the vital interrelationships and our own innate ability to respond with greater sensitivity to the complexity of our lives. As the adults in the room, in this moment in time, we owe at least this much to the coming generations whose world is in such pain. I say this not to cast blame, but to recognize that the ancestors, and elders have let these kids down. For whatever reasons our parents did not manage to stop the madness, their parents did not stop the madness, and neither have we.  The road to this moment reaches way back in history, it took centuries to get this lost, but we only have one generation to pop through arrested development of our species. They need all the help they can get.

When it comes to the intergenerational relationships called “education”, the notion of mutual learning (Symmathesy) is absolutely essential for me. The way we listen is given a good deal of lip-service these days. I have personally no idea how it is that one can listen with full mind/body/imagination without learning.

The wall of “adults know best” between the generations must be overcome and instead curate an environment of intergenerational mutual-learning. My father, Gregory Bateson, gave me a most precious gift by showing me that he was learning with me when I was a child. The gift was “learning to learn”. I grew up in an unusual household in which what was important was not who was right or wrong, but what had been discovered. From the very beginning of my life my parents did not hesitate to show me the world as they saw it, through a lens of interrelationship. The education they provided me was inherently ecological, introducing me to the patterns and processes that together create complex living systems, like forests, like oceans, like cultures, like families, and like my own body and ideas.

On the shoulders of my father. (G. Bateson and me age 10) Photo Kai De Fontenay

We, the adults, the so-called authorities, will have to shift the form of our customs of intergenerational interaction to model the humility of revealing our own learning. These shifts include: revealing subjectivity, exploring the necessary inconsistencies in complex systems, and practicing zooming in and out from detail to context. The patronizing humiliation of “tough love” and the attitude of “teach that kid a lesson” are two of the most deformed and poisonous ways to infect the potential of interaction between generations. I cannot express that strongly enough. Authority is not diminished by revealing learning. It is increased.

Three Useful Terms:

Transcontextual Description: This term refers to the ways in which multiple contexts come together to form complex systems. It allows for a concentration on the interdependency between contexts that give resilience to both living and non-living systems. Transcontextual description offers insight into where contextual overlap is reinforcing and where it is loose enough to initiate shifts.


Noun: An entity formed by contextual mutual learning though interaction.

Verb: To generate mutual learning contexts through the process of interaction between multiple variables in a living entity.

*(for more on Symmathesy please read the article written by Nora Bateson in Small Arcs of Larger Circles or online in numerous journals)

Warm Data:

“Warm Data” is information about the interrelationships that integrate elements of a complex system.

Here is a link to the idea of warm data.:

3 thoughts on “Yes, Together. Intergenerational learning.

  1. I came across this blog from “Ecology of Systems Thinking ” FB group which I was referred to by Michael J. , from Inspirational Insights FB group (‘pro-truth pledge’) which i got to from some other group (i think on economics).

    I realized this was Gregory Bateson’s daughter. I read ‘steps to an ecology of mind’ and several other things by him–I don’t think as part of a college course , though possibly for anthropology . He was one of my favorite thinkers, but wasn’t really part of what I was supposed to study.
    (I mostly studied theoretical biology–e.g. Turing’s model of morphogenesis, lotka-volterra ‘predator-prey model’, applications of statistical physics to ecology and evolution…—-I didn’t have the discipline to really get beyond the basics of these ideas but I still study them a bit. Santa Fe Institute, NECCS , etc have lots of working papers. )
    Bateson for me was an ‘outlier’ — didn’t fit neatly into any curriculum. Its hard to know what is the use of these ideas (I was sort of being steered into the world of biotech, big data, algorithms, cluster analyses etc. but I got off that train—didn’t want to spend my life in front of a computer, but here i am).

    To me, the biggest problem in and with education is knowing ‘what do you need to know, and who should know what?’ I’m in DC and Georgetown U has a center for study of employment patterns—the demand seems to be for IT and engineers, service industry, and health and elder care. There is also the automation/robotization issue.

    Not too many people need or want to know theoretical biology unless its for cancer research, drug development, etc. The only people who get paid for that are in top 10% usually. There are many more artists and musicians around (i’m one) than professional, paid artists. I’m not sure how many scientists or artists we need.

    I did some teaching (math and chemistry; didn’t last long— i quit –very stupid—i i figured i could find a better environment, but it turns out there aren’t any, and its better to get a CV and ‘roll with the punches’, ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’. )

    I had a hard time justifying teaching people stuff when they’d just end up knowing alot of things which are fun to know but are basically useless when trying to find a job (except for a few )–i felt I was training (young) people to do jobs I didnt want to do, and their parents were paying me with money they got doing jobs they didnt want to do. . .

    I actually liked teaching if people were interested and I had some choice over curricula. Maybe some people like their jobs and prefer paying people to teach their kids. Some people dont want to be scientists or artists but want other work.

    It may be that the structure of social interactions between young and old will show up in large scale social patterns. Thats the lesson of complexity theory—simple rules lead to complex patterns. The question is what kinds of complex patterns are desriable, and what are the simple rules that lead to them. .

    Liked by 1 person

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