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Ageing in Place - Eldragogy

Updated: Jan 29

The second article in a four part series by Michael Doneman on ‘Dataspaces of Ageing in Place’ action, learning and research with older people as digital education innovators.

‘The Getting of Wisdom’, the first post in this series, gives an introductory description of ‘Datascapes of Ageing in Place’ project, an exploratory research partnership between the University of the Third Age (U3A) and RMIT, grounded in recent practical work on issues of digital inclusion, digital literacy and digital ability among older people, most of them ‘ageing in place’.


Mentor the Mentor

A Digital Mentors group emerged from this process which, feeling relatively confident in the domain, became interested in what to do with this digital inclusion, literacy and ability, where to put it and how it might be useful.

The idea emerged of creating a ‘mentor the mentor’ or ‘train the trainer’ regime, where the value of interventions in digital access and literacy might be amplified and scaled across U3A by members themselves, in the project’s hometown of Melbourne, Australia as a pilot before possible extension to other areas and other training categories.

People gathered together learning
Generated by ChatGPT-4 using the DALL-E3 plugin (see footer for prompts used)

The Culture of Ageism

The project explores the idea that, contrary to the notion of ageing as a process of decline and fragility, older people can be seen through an asset lens, as valued contributors to social coherence and flourishing, in much the same way that elders and elderhood is valorised in many ancient cultures, and as it was once in the (fairly recent) history of the global West. This is brought to a (pain) point by the culture of ageism, which undervalues and even ridicules the assumed incapacities of older people:


‘Not bad … for your age’

‘Hello, young lady, how can I help you?’

 ’50 is the new 25!’

‘Young at heart’

 ‘You don’t look 65’

‘You probably don’t want to use this platform …’ 


We don’t have to look far.

Ageism, it’s said, is the last of the great ‘isms’, one which often remains invisible, and bound up in the steady discounting of elderhood as ‘unproductive’ in the political economy of neoliberalism.

It’s worth noting in passing that ageism doesn’t apply just to older adults; younger people in particular also feel its impact.


The benefits of Eldragogy

The concept of eldragogy is conceived from the DNA of andragogy, or adult education, as expressed by Malcolm Knowles in the 1970s, though rooted in educational thought from at least the time of the 17th Century theologian and pedagogue Jan Commenius, as indicated in the first article in this series.

It is offered here as an alternative to the term ‘geragogy’, on which there is a substantial extant literature.

'Geragogy' commonly assumes 'deficit' worlds among its constituency,
where provision of education and training must be adapted to address cognitive decline and the many perceived challenges faced by ageing people.
Education becomes a process 'for' a disadvantaged group, a kind of ‘Special Ed’.

This study adopts the term eldragogy, in its place, founded in the Old English eldra, for older person, parent, ancestor. How does eldragogy differ from received ideas of geragogy?

In a nutshell, eldragogy valorises access, equity, participation and empowerment to a substantially greater degree than the other categories discussed here. It is by, for and about older people, which is to say, older learners take responsibility for a heutological process of self-directed learning.

‘Heutology’ is derived from the Greek words for ‘self’, heauto, and ‘leading’, agoge,
and refers to self-determined, highly autonomous and highly motivated learning.
It features strongly in andragogy and, by extension, eldragogy.

The Superpowers of Ageing People

  • What if we were to begin working on the development of a ‘mentor the mentor’ product from a starting point of asset, rather than deficit?

  • What if we were to identify and deploy what the project’s co-creators call the superpowers of ageing people?

  • What if the design process was to assume, from a counter-ageist position, that participating older people were the experts, the curators of their own lives, mentors-in-the-raw, elders-in-training motivated to spend some of their ‘third-act’ years helping others, not as a career move but a life choice??


Knowles’s assumption in his formulation of andragogy, adult education, is that adults engage with education from a different starting point and for different purposes than those of children and young people. For example, it may be that an adult’s longer and richer life experience makes for a greater degree of criticality in their approach to learning, a capacity for metacognition and ‘triple loop’ learning.

‘Double loop’ learning, for Argyris and Schön, questions the assumption made ‘behind’ an expressed curriculum, for example, the biases and cultural influences which affect the learning.
‘Triple loop’ learning extends this by critiquing the learning process itself, metacognitively viewing a teaching-learning process from a ‘helicopter’ view. ‘Why and how is this learning taking place? How does the organisation or individual learn and interpret experiences?’

It may also be that social, cultural and economic changes (for example, employability and advancement, changes in life goals, experiences of losses and adjustments) inspire stronger focus and motivation among adult learners to ‘give back’, to share, to consider legacy. Similarly, the relative maturity of adult learners makes the process of peer-to-peer (co)constructive learning design a different process from that facilitated by an adult teacher with a young or inexperienced learner.

Andragogy vs Pedagogy

Knowles suggests four principles of andragogy that help distinguish it from what he terms pedagogy:

  1.  The learning project

  2. The learner’s context

  3. The learner’s purpose

  4. The learner’s readiness

The Learning Lifecycle

In a process analogous to Knowles’s, we propose that one can draw a distinction not only between the nature of the education effort as it applies to children relative to adults, but also between adults and elders (defined here as people ‘beyond retirement’). In this way we can imagine and frame a continuum which begins with pedagogy and moves through an andragogy to an eldragogy.


In relation to the learning project:

  • Pedagogy (education for the young) focuses on new learning and the development of competencies, often delivered didactically.

  • Andragogy, or adult education, focuses on growth learning and often works to vocational goals. Learning methodologies remain didactic, though constructivist processes are useful (that is, processes of ‘discovery’, ‘co-ownership’ and collaborative learning among peers and teachers).

  • Eldragogy goes further, to integration and appreciation, and methodologies are appreciative, with recourse to the didactic or constructive only as required.


The context in which the learner learns differs remarkably in this way of thinking:

  • In a pedagogy, the lead responsibility for design, delivery and evaluation is the teacher’s.

  • In andragogy, responsibility still resides in the teacher, but learners are admitted to the process to one degree or another, and there is a recognition of social-cultural and economic-political bias.

  • In an eldragogy the key responsibility is the learner’s, working heutologically and incorporating a ‘third loop’ understanding of the learning project itself. The ‘teacher’ is less a ‘teacher’ and more ‘host’ or ‘guide’.

What is the learner’s purpose?

  • In a pedagogy, they learn for life, and focus on readiness.

  • In an andragogy, they learn for life and work, and focus on application.

  • In an eldragogy they learn from life and work, and focus on meaning.


What do we understand about the learner’s readiness for the learning project?

  • In a pedagogy, the young learner needs baseline capacity - physical and mental health and social-cultural support and encouragement.

  • Beyond this, an adult learner brings life experience and criticality to the learning project in an andragogy, for the purpose of applying learning outcomes to work and life.

  • A learner is ready for an eldragogy when they are also motivated by existential drivers – the drive to ‘give back’, as already mentioned, and reflective meaning-making in the face of life changes, health changes and the realisation of mortality.


These are synthetic distinctions: the map can never be the territory, and there is bound to be considerable ‘overlap’ between and among these categories. Nevertheless, such a formulation helps us to consider elements of curriculum design, delivery and evaluation which are optimal for a group which has differing needs, in its later life stages, than those of younger groups, and which also inhabits different thought-worlds.

Datascapes of Ageing in Place

‘Datascapes of Ageing in Place’ activates these values and practices through real-life workshops and virtual connections, building ground-up from an inventory of digital devices in use or potentially useful, digital platforms and online services, and material objects and experiences mediated by digital devices and/or taking place on digital platforms.

There is a clear goal and output – a new ‘mentor the mentor’ curriculum for U3A (if ‘curriculum’ remains the appropriate term), but because of the personal meaning-making implications of an eldragogy, it is reasonable to anticipate a diversity of personal journeys as well, an elderhood-in-training, a getting of wisdom. These outputs, and others, will be launched and celebrated in 2026.


The third article in this series, ‘Love Me Love My Avatar’ – will consider the role of AI as a key focus of the datascapes engaged by project participants.

Image Prompt
The Image was generated by ChatGPT-4 using the DALL-E3 plugin on the following prompt: “Create a picture in the style of Botticelli, inspired by the following: "By contrast, ‘Datascapes’ assumes a positive position, a perspective that casts older people as a social asset in much the same way that cultures in East Asia, South Asia and First Nations Australia valorise and honour elderhood. To do this we set out to identify what we’re calling the superpowers of elderhood, the strengths and resources available to older people and their educators, and to co-create with the Digital Mentors cohort which has emerged from the RMIT/U3A partnership. We imagine an eldragogy which we can invent and play with in a community of practice towards, perhaps, the getting of wisdom. Throughout our process we take account of the pervasive and ubiquitous influence of data – living and working in and through data, subject to its influence and also using its capacity to communicate and innovate as we ‘age in place’."

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