What’s the point of peer-peer learning?

Tomorrow I have been asked to participate in a research interview for a project the British Council has commissioned around peer-learning, and the consultant sent me over some interesting questions she wants to discuss, that led me to ask my own questions about this topic…

So firstly, what is peer-peer learning?

In my experience, it can be informal, like for example the conversations I’ve had with lots of fellow facilitators of the past few months about their experience of working online, or formal, like the Action Learning set I’ve been part of for many years where we meet approx. 6 times a year for a day to learn together.

Peer-peer learning is often part of training too, whether that’s a simple as inviting explore and idea together in small groups, or practice a skill or technique in pairs during a session. Sometimes participants are ‘buddied’ during longer training programmes, and recently I was part of a learning ‘pod’; a group of 5 of us doing the same course who met for 45 mins a week to support one another’s learning. 

So who’s a ‘peer’? 

I think this is a really interesting question – in the (distant) past I’ve certainly been guilty of being a bit reluctant to participate in peer-peer learning as I wondered whether people had enough in common that we could learn from one another. But I’ve realised from my own experience that I’ve often learned most from people whose experience or perspective is very different to my own. Some of the most important insights I’ve had came from hearing from people with a very different experience to me – for example as a Clore Fellow, it was talking to a theatre professional, Chris Stafford, that I realised what I wanted to do/be in the visual arts sector – as the Executive Director role didn’t (yet) exist.

As a trainer who includes peer-peer learning as a tool within the courses I design and deliver, I often read in the feedback forms that participants highly value these opportunities to work with others on the course. However, as a participant I’ve also had less than brilliant experiences of this kind of learning when it’s felt that maybe the experience level in the group has been too unequal, particularly when that’s been about practising a skill or technique together or the other participants haven’t been as committed to the group.

What are the benefits of peer-peer learning?

Cost – maybe it’s because I’m a Yorkshire woman, as we’re known for being natural frugal, but one thing that appeals to me about peer-peer learning is that it’s very cheap! For the Action Learning set I’ve been part of for nearly a decade, we met (pre CV19) in one another’s homes, bringing our own ‘pot luck’ lunch so the only cost was our time, and local travel. 

Relevance – peers’ experiences are likely to be similar to yours, so they can offer examples that resonate to you. If you’re asking ‘how do I…’ and the person offering advice has a much bigger budget or set of values to you, then their suggestions are less likely to be appropriate.

Safety – the founder of Action Learning, Reg Revans, described this approach to peer-peer learning as ‘comrades in adversity coming together to support one another, and learn in the process’.  Peers can be supportive, and understand the challenges you face so it can be easier to share your doubts and concerns with them. 

We can also embed our own learning though teaching others. A primary school teacher friend of mine explained that it is current practice to encourage pupils at different levels of skill to work together, with the ‘stronger’ pupil supporting their classmate. I asked her, wasn’t this unfair on the more able pupil? But she explained that explaining a concept to someone else helps your own learning. Whether that’s through embedding via repetition or how the brain processes information when explaining it, I’m not sure. But what she said rang true with my own experience of training coaches for several years; I would find my own understanding improved by explaining the principles, techniques and skills to others. 

What kind of learning works well on a peer-peer basis?

We know from cognitive psychology that there are many different ways to learn, and we learn information or concepts differently from how we learn self-awareness or a skill. I’ve not (yet) read anything that suggests what types of learning are best-served by peer-peer models, but I have some hunches from my own experiences as a trainer and learner.

I think peer-peer learning is particularly useful in developing emotional intelligence and specifically self-awareness. A supportive peer-peer environment can be a safe space to notice and ‘un-learn’ our limiting beliefs or recognise behaviours and attitudes which might not be serving us well. 

Peer-peer learning is also incredibly useful when it comes to applying concepts or techniques to real-life situations. Because peers are often able to offer their experience, this means examples are more likely to ‘fit’ our world and resonate. This is incredibly useful in training when having understood a concept, to be able to convert that learning into action there is a step of processing ‘how can I use this information’.

Most recently, as part of a learning ‘pod’ on an online course I was doing, I also experienced the benefits of accountability via peer-peer learning – we each had to read a chapter of the training book and talk about it together the next week. Not wanting to let down the others, helped motivate me to do my individual ‘homework’. 

As a trainer, I’d add peer-peer learning can be useful when the participants are sceptical about the content or the learning opportunity. When ‘conscripted’ onto in-house training courses, I find participants are less resistant to learning from one another than an external ‘expert’ who has been foisted on them!

However, I wouldn’t necessarily expect to be able to learn foundation skills or concepts through peer-peer learning. To me, it feels like a follow-on from core training, rather than a replacement for it.

What makes for great peer-peer learning?

A clear agenda – even if I’m having a 60 min informal check-in with another professional, then it can be helpful to clarify what we want to get from one another and agree the best way to do it. It’s not just a chat, it’s important to have mutually agreed aims!

Structure – can be helpful. I’ve mentioned Action Learning which can be an incredibly powerful model over time, but it takes a certain degree of skill and familiarity with the process (and/or a very experienced facilitator). I often used the Troika Consulting model as a simpler peer-peer format on courses I run – as it takes less time to set up or practice and participants can easily continue to use this format after the course finishes if they enjoy it.

Equality – I don’t get hung up on titles and some variety of experience on the group is helpful, but it’s important we can see one another as peers and all learn ourselves as well as support one another. If the experience levels are too diverse then I find this can tip into more peer-mentoring than peer-peer learning, and that can impact commitment too if some people ‘gain’ more than others – especially when time is unpaid.

Diversity – different perspectives are often where biggest learning happens, so opportunities to learn from other sectors, other countries, people with a very different ‘style’ to me – all of these are valuable – so long as we have shared interests or values (there has to be some commonality).

Ground rules – confidentiality is often important, to be able to share openly, especially those things that are not going well. I value being able to be really open with my peers and I’m willing to share information widely, if we’re clear about the boundaries. Personally I like to ‘contract’ that we balance support with challenge – it’s a learning space, not a support group!

So, I’m a big fan of peer-peer learning and intend to keep doing it, formally and informally, and including it as part of my work as an Action Learning facilitator and trainer. Peer-peer learning isn’t a panacea though: I see it as one type of learning, but not the only one I deploy as a trainer or seek as a learner. It’s suited to some types and stages of learning, and requires a bit of support or structure to be effective.

I would love to hear other experiences and views on these question though – as well as find out more about research in these areas… so get in touch!

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