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‘Third-age learners’ blossom in art classes, new research shows

A Concordia collaboration reveals insights about pedagogy and learning in retirement
September 25, 2018
Anita Sinner (left) with co-author Ranya Esmat (centre) and third-age student Reto. | Photo by Concordia University
Anita Sinner (left) with co-author Ranya Esmat (centre) and third-age student Reto. | Photo: Concordia University

How will society meet the intellectual and creative needs of the gray tsunami — that population bubble of war babies and post-war boomers who want engaging pursuits in retirement?

One promising option is a community art education (CAE) program for seniors like the one at Concordia. It’s offered in collaboration with the Alumni Association’s program for extended education on campus.

“Concordia’s CAE began in the early 1990s and it’s unparalleled in terms of longevity, embeddedness in community and links to art teacher education,” says Anita Sinner, associate professor in the Department of Art Education.

Sinner is part of a team of researchers studying “third-age learners” (i.e. retirees and people over 65) in community art classes and how pedagogy can adapt to their needs. Their findings were recently published in the International Journal of Lifelong Education.

“We found that it’s essential to rethink our pedagogy with seniors, not for seniors, and be mindful of our assumptions about who and why they want to learn,” says Sinner, who worked closely with the article’s lead author, California State University’s Dustin Garnet (PhD Concordia, 2015).

“Seniors can handle criticism and aren’t interested in hearing platitudes like ‘that’s nice’ and ‘good work’,” says Sinner “They want to be asked what they think and consulted about how to make the art classes more challenging.”

Sinner notes that as the number of seniors grows, expectations of universities as public institutions will require a reorientation in curriculum design and instructional delivery.

“The demographic shift means we need new methods of preparing future educators, and organizations need to adapt to meet the needs of students of all ages,” says Sinner.

Seniors in the art studio getting coffee

The study drew its conclusions from an eight-month CAE program of workshops geared toward the over-65 demographic. The workshops were three hours per week, from September to April, taught by student-teachers in the CAE program.

Four retirees — three women and one man — participated. Workshops covered an array of art techniques, such as mural making and light painting. Student-teachers took notes and photos during class. Researchers conducted bi-weekly interviews, incorporating those photos as conversation prompts, as well as asking generic questions and tailored questions for each participant.

The published result of the research includes a first-person narrative from the perspective of the male participant, “Reto”.

“Reto’s narrative highlights key themes found in lifelong learning, particularly personal development and social inclusion,” says Sinner. “What we did not anticipate was that the coffee breaks would emerge as critical to learning, because that’s when discussion with the student-teachers and among the participants deepened.”

As revealed in his narrative, Reto came to realize that personal development in the CAE context wasn’t exclusively about acquiring new technical skills, but also developing social ties and broadening one’s area of interest — light drawing, for example, was new to the group.

“The engaged practice of the CAE program provided a transformative environment for art to ignite the creative potential of third-age learners,” concludes Sinner.

Find out more about Community Art Education (CAE) at Concordia.

Read the full study.


Patrick Lejtenyi
Public Affairs
514-848-2424, ext. 5068


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