“All I really need to know about the benefits of mixed-age learning I learned in kindergarten,” said anyone who went (or whose kids went) to a Montessori school. In Montessori’s mixed-age classrooms, younger kids watch older kids do their work, and older kids, while helping the younger ones, get a chance to master what they teach and practice leadership.
Mixed-age learning programs have advantages for adults too. Your first thought when hearing “mixed-age” is probably mentoring programs, but don’t stop there. Traditional mentoring programs are fine but it takes a great deal of time to administer and manage all those pairings. Think instead about groups of mixed-age members learning together.
The benefits of mixed-age learning experiences
When you learn alongside someone a generation or two ahead or behind you, you get exposed to very different life perspectives and experiences. You can see what life and work is like for people outside your usual cohort. This insight helps you better understand fellow members and your employees or supervisors, which is especially important for volunteer leaders because it forces them to break out of their bubble.
A study found that mixing with different age groups helps break down generational stereotypes. This experience can help uncover unconscious bias and correct the assumptions that older and younger professionals have about each other. Each age group gains a fresh, more accurate perspective.
In mixed-age group experiences, younger members can find mentors and sponsors, and perhaps even hear about job opportunities. They can listen to older members who’ve been through it all, the personal and professional ups and downs of life. Younger members can benefit from the wise counsel of older members and get a healthier perspective of their own challenges.
Anyone who manages a younger staff would benefit from getting to know young professionals outside the workplace. In the association setting where communication might flow more freely, they can learn about the challenges faced by young professionals. They can hear new ideas and perspectives, and get an inside look at what’s going on with younger generations. They’ll see how rewarding it is to share what they know and make a difference in someone’s life.
Ideas for mixed-age learning programs at your association
93% of the participants in an AARP study said being friends with people of different ages provides different benefits than the ones they get from friendships with people their own age. Here are some ideas for introducing mixed-age learning to your association and building a stronger cross-generational community.
Expand upon an existing mentoring program
Try group mentoring instead of the traditional pair approach. When three (or more) mentors and three mentees participate in a group mentoring session together, there’s less pressure on any one individual. In a group setting, young members can hear about different scenarios and receive a range of advice. They get exposed to more experiences and perspectives from both their peers and mentors.
Chapters of the American Marketing Association run six-month mentorship programs. In addition to meetings between the mentor and mentee, participants also get together (virtually these days) for workshops, fireside chats with guest speakers, and happy hours. The DC chapter participants met for a “shark tank” where they practiced answering interview questions.
Diversify governance and project groups
Provide opportunities for different age groups to work together on a common purpose, for example, on a committee, task force, advisory group, or project team. Ensure the cognitive diversity of these groups by appointing members of different ages. Their focus won’t be on the age difference, as it is in mentoring groups, but on the outcome they’re delivering together.
Offer special educational programs for mixed ages
Intentionally create a mixed-age experience for specific learning programs by reserving seats for different age groups. The biggest challenge will be finding a topic that appeals to those at both ends of the knowledge spectrum. You could start with discussions focused on wellbeing, books, or trends. Get ideas from younger members and see if the interest is there among older members.
You could do standalone programs or tie the program to a larger event. Design a pre-conference workshop for mixed ages based on the flipped learning model. Participants take an on-demand online program ahead of time, perhaps have an online meetup to discuss the content, and then meet for a deeper dive in person at the conference—or do it all online. You could also continue the conference conversation online in a post-conference deep dive.
The American PsychoPathological Association (APPA) offers a few mixed-age learning experiences. In a pre-conference workshop, students, fellows, and trainees have the opportunity to meet and get to know university faculty. In informal roundtable discussions, “junior” attendees have a chance to meet and learn from more senior APPA members.
Encourage mixed-age learning communities
Help members from different age groups form professional learning communities (PLCs). PLCs allow members from different organizations to knock down the physical, psychological, and age barriers that separate them. In PLCs, they share their passions and interests, learn from each other, and solve common issues while developing and deepening relationships.
As associations rush back to in-person social and educational events, keep your younger members in mind. They don’t always have the budget or flexible schedule for travel. Give them the same access to education and networking that other members enjoy by offering virtual mixed-age learning experiences.
“Every stage of life longs for others,” said writer and clinical psychology professor Andrew Solomon. “When one is young and eager, one aspires to maturity, and everyone older would like nothing better than to be young. We have equal things to teach each other. Life is most transfixing when you are awake to diversity, not only of ethnicity, ability, gender, belief, and sexuality, but also of age and experience.” You don’t normally hear membership described as ‘transfixing,’ but perhaps mixed-age learning experiences will have that effect.