Involving the Nation’s Grandparents in the Schooling of its Young

Mal Lee and Michael Hough

January 2011

It is time for Australia to recognize and begin harnessing the immense educational resource it has in its older generations and especially its grandparents and in so doing not only assist the schooling of the nation’s young and enhance future national productivity but also foster the sense of worth and being valued by society among its elders.

Historically Australia has never had such a well – educated cohort of grandparents (1), so well positioned to assist in the ‘teaching’ of the young.

With the ‘Baby Boomer’ surge increasingly entering the grandparent ranks that educational capability coupled with that other invaluable resource that group can provide – time – will continue to grow. As a complementary activity there is a real growth in organizations designed to deal with the educational and social interests of the ‘over 55’ age group – such as the University of the Third Age (U3A), College for Seniors, and Odyssey Travel. This means there are Australia wide available organizations that can reach and assist the grandparent generations in developing the attitudes and skills which will be required in the partnerships that are about to be developed and proposed between schooling, grandparents and families

The reality is that today is that a majority of Australian families with children school age are constituted of either both parents working or are single parents struggling to balance their work and child development responsibilities. It is a reality that the grandparent/s is/are already extensively involved in caring for and educating the kids, particularly in the hours after school and before mum or dad picks them up.

All the signs are that they are not only currently playing a vital role but that role will continue to grow. It is also encouraging to realize that the ABS reports that the fastest take-up rate in new Internet users are the older generation who are realizing that Internet access means they can communicate with a mobile and tech savvy younger generation e.g. grandchildren

The related reality is that the grandparents are provided virtually no recognition or support either by the education authorities or government, and are left to fend to their own devices to do the best they can.

Their challenge is to remain relevant is shared with many of the parent generation and the gap is being amplified by the young’s 24/7/365 use of an ever- developing digital and network technology and adoption of a networked operational paradigm that many grandparents struggle to understand.

In fact we are beginning to understand that there is a ‘social disconnect’ occurring between the younger and older generations of a kind not observed before-a disconnect caused by the fact that the different attitudes and usages of ICT between generations has led to a situation where the previous wisdom and oversight of the younger by the older generation(s) is in many cases simply no longer occurring. In simple terms older generations are either ignorant of the e behaviour(s) of their young, or are too busy to be involved in understanding and supervising that behaviour. This has largely resulted in unsupervised electronic behaviour(s) by young people who are technically very capable but are lacking in real guidance and supervision as to the moral and ethical implications of what they are doing on the Web.

A national coalition of adult learning organizations, tertiary education faculties, educational researcher and professional educational bodies and schools believe it is time for government to get a better handle on the current and emerging scene, and what it and the schools might astutely do to begin supporting and harnessing this immense untapped resource of the older generation.

It is time for Australia to give greater thought to the contribution its elders can make to the life and well being of the nation, identify how it can both use and value the grandparents and to put in perspective the negatives about ageing so often promoted by economists and social planners.

Current situation.


At this point in its history Australia – in contrast to many other cultures, such as the Confucian based that place great store upon the use of its elders in the holistic education of the young – has made little official effort to take advantage of the very considerable wisdom, experience and educational awareness of its grandparents, except with its indigenous peoples.

The more astute schools, and in particular primary schools have of their own volition sought to involve the parents and in some instances grandparents in the schooling of the young for many years but one will struggle to find any state or federal initiatives in Australia that are designed to either recognize, support or actively harness their contribution.

Schooling in Australia has increasingly come under the control of the professional educators and educational bureaucrats with even the parents’ involvement being largely symbolic with no real voice in shaping the educational experience let alone in the teaching and learning process.

While the rest of society is moving at pace into an increasingly interconnected and networked world the vast majority of schools continue to operate as discrete ‘stand alone’ organizations.   While the vast majority of the student’s homes have a burgeoning, ever-evolving suite of digital technologies which the young have long since normalized the use of 24/7/365 the majority of the teaching in the schools is still based on the use of paper, the pen and the teaching board – be it black, green or white.

Little is the wonder that the literature refers increasingly to the growing home-school digital divide (Illinois Institute, 2007).

Unwittingly Australia has developed two distinct, unconnected education streams; the ‘formal education ’ provided in the schools by the education professionals, and the ‘informal education’ which is handled by default by the parents, students and increasingly the grandparents, or not handled at all and left to the self help/ self learning of a younger generation learning by ‘doing it’ on the Web.

Schooling in most instances has largely abrogated any form of educational involvement outside the school walls, even while the research is attesting to the profound impact of the digital and networked on the learning of the young 24/7/365.

The authors are of the view that this separation ought cease as soon as possible and that Australia should create the functional realities needed to achieve move to the networked mode of schooling suggested by Lee and Finger (2010) where the homes, the community and the school pool their resources and work collaboratively.

Fortunately there are throughout Australia – as there are throughout the developed world – a rapidly growing number of pathfinding schools, government and independent, primary and secondary that have left behind their paper based operational mode, have normalized the use of the digital in their teaching and which are moving at pace to take advantage of the opportunities available within a networked mode of schooling.

These schools are both physically and mentally ready to adopt a far more networked and collaborative mode of schooling, to provide an ever more appropriate C21 education and to work closely with its homes and to recognize, harness and support the very considerable, largely untapped ‘teaching’ resources available in their parents, the grandparents and carers.

Already Australia is seeing schools nationwide reach out beyond their traditional walls and operating hours and to work more collaboratively with their particular community, but they are doing so of their own volition.

Governments, national and state have still to take their educational thinking out of the traditional mould, and it is still difficult, if not impossible to identify any initiatives by them – except perhaps in indigenous education – that actively involve Australia’s elders in the schooling of the young.  For example while the Federal Government provides tax incentives for parents to acquire the desired ICT for the kids that provision doesn’t extend to those grandparents who feel obliged to provide that technology for the young they support daily.


As mentioned a sizeable proportion of Australia’s grandparents are playing a significant role in the holistic education, and schooling of Australia’s young.  How extensive is the involvement, exactly what role the grandparent’s are playing and what is the trend line has yet to be researched.

What is clear is that the contribution of the group is neither being recognized nor supported by government.

Nor is the group being formally trained, encouraged and assisted in being confident (and accredited where necessary) in the e learning and ICT based technology to the point where they can engage and assist young people in learning and assist them to develop the moral and legal wisdom and behaviour (s) needed to accompany their technical skills and capabilities.

What is also clear is that the moment one pauses and thinks about the contribution to schooling that this virtually untapped human resource could play with some astute support the possibilities abound.

What has consistently surprised the authors is that all they have spoken to about a fuller involvement of grandparents in schooling have been so positive and have immediately rattled off a string of advantages of such a move to the kid’s concerned, the family, the school and the nation.

As indicated a very important potential advantage to both the elders and the nation is the sense of worth and being valued that would flow to the grandparents from such an involvement.   In nation where one’s position in the workplace strongly impacts on one’s sense of worth when many lose that standing they feel devalued. The authors’ discussions with several U3A groups – many of whom have held very senior positions – brought this forth very strongly

It is vital that Australia communicates the esteem with which it views its elders, and does not as now appears put them out to pasture but actively involves them in the everyday life of the nation.

The limited data available would suggest that while a growing number of grandparents actively assist in the general education and schooling of their grandchildren many are concerned about their capacity to assist or even provide appropriate direction in the young’s use of the digital technology.

The anecdotal evidence suggests that many, if indeed most grandparents caring for the young have felt the need to provide ‘Net access in their homes.  They like parents from the mid 1990’s onwards believe – rightly – that it is vital educationally that the young have ready access to the ‘Net while the young are with them (Chowdry, 2009). Of note is that the ACMA research (ACMA, 2007) reveals the young strongly prefer to use the time after school and before tea to use their digital technology for school purposes; the time when many are with their grandparent/s.

Where the level of ‘Net access has always been greater in families with children so one suspects that could be so for grandparents caring for the young (Lee and Finger, 2010).

However while those grandparents, with their many years of experience are well prepared to assist with the general development and education of the young, particularly with the key process and social development skills – and most importantly usually have the time and desire to assist – many will lack a macro awareness of the ever evolving digital technology and will have an educational mindset attuned to the ways of the networked world.  Not surprisingly most grandparents will bring – unless educated otherwise – the traditional stand-alone idea of schooling to any initiative.

In brief any initiative that seeks to involve the grandparents will need to astutely build upon their strengths and assist address their shortcomings.

The Way Forward

The suspicion is that few within Australia would be adverse to the idea of school communities and the nation making far greater, and astute use of the immense resource it has in its grandparents.

However before government, or even individual school communities rush in to involve them the homework needs to be done to secure a far greater understanding of what is an ever evolving, ever changing scene. Not only is the nature of schooling evolving at pace but so too is the technology, and indeed the nature and composition of the ‘grandparent’ group.

The authors, from their experience with organizational and school change would strongly advocate a graduated, controlled, piloted and measured approach where the risk can be managed and where there is the time and opportunity to learn before making any wide scale moves.

One needs for example to secure a clearer understanding of:

  • the degree and nature of grandparent involvement in the education of the young
  • the likely trend
  • what part of the grandparent cohort – which could range in age from 40 to 100 plus – is involved
  • the grandparent’s desires
  • the grandparent’s strengths and shortcomings
  • the level and nature of the technology in the grandparent’s homes – and what if any support might they – or some sub-groups therein – be wanting

The public policy developers need also to appreciate that the research (Lee and Finger, 2010) is suggesting very strongly it is pointless seeking to involve grandparents in schools that are not ready to adopt a more networked mode of teaching and learning.  The strong indicator is that it is not until all the teachers in a school have normalized the use of the digital in their everyday teaching will they be ready to adopt a more collaborative and networked mode of schooling that genuinely involves the parents, grandparents and carers.

In brief one ought in the first instance conduct pilot studies with those schools ready to work with the grandparents.

In many respects the time is opportune in Australia to make the initial moves.  There are schools across the country moving into the networked mode.  The Federal Government has in place a national digital schooling strategy and has foreshadowed providing all schools the degree of self-autonomy required to develop solutions apposite to the particular school community, and importantly he ‘Baby Boomer’ grandparent surge is about to have its impact


As a reader you know the importance of the grandparent/s in your life and those of your children.

All that is being suggested in this article is that government at all levels gives greater thought as to how it might go about more meaningfully involving the nation’s grandparents on the schooling of the nation’s young in the years ahead.

The Authors

MaL Lee is an educational consultant and joint author of the ACER Press publications Leading a Digital School, The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools, The Interactive Whiteboard Revolution and Developing a Networked School Community.

Professor Michael Hough AM RFD ED JP is a Professorial Fellow at the University of. Wollongong,

Note 1

For the purpose of this paper the term grandparent(s) will be used to refer to the older generation of Australians who have retired from full time work and are available to assist in the ways to be proposed in this document. It is acknowledged that not all older Australians are grandparents and that organizations such as U3A contain many members who are not grandparents. Later iterations of this argument will need to make the technical distinction, but for the purposes of assisting and relating to formal schooling the term grandparent will now be used


Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) 2007, Media and communications in Australian families, ACMA, Canberra,

Chowdry, H, Crawford, C and Goodman, A (2009) Drivers and Barriers to Educational Success. Institute of Fiscal Studies DCSF – RR102

Illinois Institute of Design (ID) 2007, Schools in the digital age, Illinois Institute of Technology,

Lee, M & Finger, G (eds) 2010 Developing a Networked School Community ACER Press Melbourne

Salt, B (2010) ‘Baby boomers to fill the gaps in the life-stage wasteland’ The Australian 25 November 2010

About Mal Lee

Mal Lee is an educational consultant and author specializing in the evolution of teaching and schooling from the traditional paper based mode to one that is digital, and in turn networked, and the impact of the technology on that evolution. Mal’s is a macro focus examining all the elements associated with the development, leadership and operation of schools operating within a digital, and increasingly as networked school communities. Most importantly his is a positive approach that envisions how educators and school communities might best use the ever-evolving, ever more pervasive technology in the home, on the move and in the classroom to provide an ever better schooling for the full range of students. Mal is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and a member of the Mayer Committee that identified the Key Competencies for Australia’s schools. A Fellow of the Australian Council for Educational Administration (FACEA) Mal has been closely associated with the use of digital technology in schooling, particularly by the school leadership for the last two decades. A historian by training Mal has written extensively, particularly in the Practising Administrator, the Australian Educational Leaders and Access, Educational Technology Guide on the astute use of technology in the development of schoolings. Mal has released four publications with ACER Press. In 2008 Mal and Professor Michael Gaffney edited and had published Leading a Digital School. In 2009 he co-authored with Dr Arthur Winzenried The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools – Lessons to be Learned, and with Chris Betcher, The Interactive Whiteboard Revolution – Teaching with IWBs. In 2010 Mal joined with Associate Professor Glenn Finger (Griffith University) in the writing of his most significant work yet for ACER Press on Developing Networked School Communities: a guide to realizing the vision – on the next phase of schooling. Copies of the books can be obtained from the ACER Press website at -
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