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!

Top tips for less painful and shorter Zoom meetings

Yesterday I had a moment of frustration during a Zoom presentation on a training course I’d paid to attend. The content was fantastic but the presenter spoke for 40 minutes without any form of interaction and I was struggling to stay focussed. As a trainer I never talk for more than 15 minutes to a group without some form of interaction, and now we’re working online I try to limit it to 5-10 minutes – breaking up the content I want to share into more digestible chunks. 

I wandered onto Twitter to voice my frustration and remind other presenters to keep it to no more than 15 mins online – and the response told me 

a) that others listening shared my pain and 

b) many who give presentations from time to time were not aware of this guidance and found it helpful.

Jim Richardson from Museum Next then shared a brilliant video about how to make online talks engaging but I knew I would struggle to achieve that standard myself and thought it might be useful to share a few more basic tips about sharing info online. 

  1. Don’t share info in meetings, unless you really have to…

Sharing information by telling people in real time is not the best way to communicate if you want to be understood. Before you plan to share info like this ask yourself what is your purpose – do you want ?

  • people to be aware/ understand something – in which case circulate before and take questions for clarification, only if there are any.
  • feedback and ideas – in which case circulate and/or briefly share headlines and then discuss.
  • a decision – in which case share the info before, take questions for clarification and then structure a conversation to hear everyone’s responses so you can make an informed decision together.

Meetings should be for sharing views and making decisions together – not telling people things. It’s a better use of time to circulate info and then discuss the matters arising or any questions.

2. If you are going to share info live …..

Keep it as short as possible – respect your colleague’s time by preparing properly. Be clear what you want to say and think about how. Give your presentation a simple structure. E.g.

1) this is what I propose we do;
2) this is why;
3) this is what stage we are at;
4) this is what I need from you today….

Rehearse any slides or talk so you don’t waffle and stick to the essentials. If people want more info they can ask – so allow time for Q&A. 

Remember people will find it very hard to listen attentively for more than 5-10 minutes. So if what you need to share takes longer than that to explain, break down the information into sections and allow for discussion/ interaction as you go along.

As well as the challenges we all have working online, many people are really struggling with home-schooling and children being at home which eats into their work time – don’t take more of this previous time that you absolutely need.

3. Use a bit of structure

As a facilitator I find online conversations need more structure than their counterparts in real life. A very simple way to structure discussion and enable group decision making is the 4Fs exercise: simply ask yourselves 4 questions in this order, not skipping ahead and hearing from everyone:

Facts: what are the facts?

Feelings: how do we feel about this?

Findings: what conclusions do we draw? What might this mean?

Future: what do we want to do about this?

Don’t try and have big discussions in groups of more than 6-8 online. Break into smaller groups and report back or have conversations with different people. More than 10-12 is very hard to have meaningful interaction online unless you’re a skilled facilitator and using break out rooms etc

4. Don’t forget there’s a pandemic happening – people are distracted

Take a minute or two to connect at the start of a meeting  – some people are feeling lonely and even the briefest of check-ins can be useful. It could be as simple as asking each person to choose an object around them that says something about how they are feeling today or their life in Lock Down. 

This might be contentious (and if individuals don’t want to do this then I absolutely respect that choice), but I strongly recommend asking people to have their cameras and microphones on whether possible, as a chair/ presenter I find it helpful to see faces – I can see if you are distracted or bored and adapt accordingly. And as a participant I know I am tempted to check Twitter or my email if I’m not on screen. 

I also recommend everyone takes responsibility for good time-keeping; sticking to the agreed agenda (frankly I’ve had enough of seeing other people’s cats by now) and quits their email so there are less distractions during the session. And a 5 min review of how did that go – what do we keep/ do differently next time can be useful at the end of any session.

Actually, most of these tips apply just as much to sharing info in real life, but online and during a pandemic makes it even more necessary to follow these tips. 

Zoom also published some good tips last week about online meetings which I’m sharing here in case you missed them.

Hope these are helpful tips and your meetings are more productive online as a result.

‘Running’ tips for non-runners

Our kids being support ‘crew’ for their Dad as he finishes an ultra in 2018 – we’d followed him round providing fresh rice balls for snacks and encouragement during the race.

Maybe it’s because I am preparing myself for an ultra race later this year but I find myself comparing the log hard slog of National Lock Down 2 with running and ultra distance event. And I’m noticing the tactics I use to keep-myself-going-when-everything-hurts-and-I really-want-to-stop are actually useful in these strange times with no apparent end in sight.

So in the spirit of being helpful (hopefully) and partly to help myself keep going, I thought I’d share some top ultra running tips which seems to be helping me in Lock Down 2. Non-runners, who knew you needed more running tips in your life… think of it as the benefits of running without doing any running…

  • Don’t compare yourself with others – it’s not a race
    I never use the term ‘race’ about an ultra, yes there are a few super humans who are gunning for the glory of the podium, but for most of us it’s about just getting round in one piece – without losing too many toenails. When you’re overtaken by someone else it’s tempting to push yourself harder to keep up but rule number one is: ‘run your own race’. Having felt very low in the first Lock Down because a one stage I had very little paid work but saw many peers being very ‘busy’ or because other people were being more ‘useful’ than me to society I also know how harmful comparison can be for our wellbeing. 

Try and enjoy it
You’re kidding me right – enjoy the LockDown? People often say that to me about my hobby too – ‘are you doing it for charity?’ they tentatively ask, as that would be the only legitimate reason they can imagine to do something so daft.

I had the opportunity to witness a really great ultra runner up close last month when I supported Sabrina Verjee on the final leg of her Coast-to-Coast run. Despite the fact she had run nearly 190 miles with only an hour’s rest, in really tough winter conditions, I was struck how cheerful she was. Yes, her legs and feet clearly hurt and she must have been knackered, but focussing on the scenery, or chatting to other runners, or enjoying the cake you’re eating to fuel yourself keeps you going better than thinking about your blisters. 

Field testing my waterproof socks …. type 2 fun

This Lock Down we’ve been doing GLAD at home daily at tea time to lift our mood (citing 1 thing for which we’re Grateful, something we’ve Learned, Achieved and Delighted in). I’ve also been doing crazy ‘fun’ things and laughing about them with my friends: like eating Xmas dinner with my family in the backyard; long dark hikes round the local villages with friends; enjoying outdoor theatre in a torrential downpour; ‘testing’ waterproof socks by wading through the flood waters; camping in the freezing cold when all the hostels closed. Basically being a bit daft and trying not to let the restrictions stop us doing the things we normally love, even if that means it’s a bit ‘type 2 fun’ at times.  

  • Eat well and often
    A cardinal rule is low mood = eat food. People say an ultra is basically a picnic with some running, and keeping your energy up is important. In Lock Down when so few other pleasures are still allowed making nice things to eat, treating ourselves to nice snacks and experimenting with new recipes has definitely helped keep my family’s spirits up. 
  • Manage your mood
    Stay positive – don’t agonise constantly over what might go wrong or has gone wrong. In a long race – like in a pandemic – things will go wrong, and there will be a lot you can’t control – like the weather. It’s not easy, but work on your inner Stoic – when shit happens, ask yourself can you do anything about it? If not, try not to waste mental energy on it and focus on what you can control. 
Stay positive: when it’s forecast to rain all day for your first 50 mile ultra – see it as a chance to rock the bin bag look as you queue for the portals at the start… (it’s a VERY glamorous sport as you can see).
  • Look after your body
    This tip comes from legendary fell runner Nicky Spinks – what she termed ‘the rule of three’. If you think to yourself three times ‘I’m a bit cold’ or maybe ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘my foot is starting to rub’ then act on it – your body is telling you something and if you want to be able to keep going, you need to listen to your body’s needs and deal with them: whether that’s eating, putting on an extra layer or dealing with a hotspot before it becomes a blister. Women (including Nicky) sometimes beat men outright in ultra races and some have speculated a factor in this is that women athletes tend to look after their bodies better during the race – they don’t ignore and push through pain so they are less likely to encounter an injury or problem later that causes them to stop. 

Bottom line: if you want to go far, you’ll need to take good care of your body and this applies in Lock Down too. Feeling tired? Early night – guess who was in bed at 9pm on NYE? Feel a migraine coming on? Stop looking at the screen; have a nap; a cuppa and get some fresh air. 

  • Challenge yourself
    In his tips for ultra runners, Pennine Way record holder and coach Damian Hall suggests setting yourself a goal that scares you. Finding something that slightly takes you beyond your comfort zone can be motivating and stops you get bored. And goodness knows I have been very bored at times. For many of us work and life has been disrupted in many ways in Lock Down so there are lots of opportunities to try new things that stretch us and offer some satisfaction by having learned a new skill. Coach (not running coach!) Shirzad Chamine encourages you to look for the ‘gift’ in an apparently bad situation: what would you want to learn or take from a tough situation that would mean it has some value afterall? 
  • Break it down intro bitesize chunks – and just focus on the next mile
    In the first Lock Down I got excited about ‘building back better’ and the chance to shake things up for good; goodness knows that still needs to happen. But I also became self-critical and doubting – why wasn’t I doing something more useful? I ended up feeling over-whelmed and hit a bad patch and became unproductive.

This time I’m made my peace which what I can do right now which is mainly ‘backstage’; supporting my family (which includes frontline medical staff); and supporting others by giving anything I earn, above what I’ve decided I need, to charities. I hope I can do more to tackle inequalities later, but now I’m just focussing on surviving this phase – head down, slogging on best I can. 

Focusing on the next mile with two kids at home trying to learn looks like a day-by-day horizon, and at most looking a week ahead – mainly so I know what to order for the weekly food shop.  

  • Keep moving but pace yourself – it’s not a sprint
    So just as I set off slowly in a long race, I’m pacing myself during Lock Down. I’ve made the mistake of setting off too fast so many times in marathons and then suffered the consequences that I know now to take it steady from the start. 

I’ve no idea when this current phase is going to end, but I’m trying to be realistic that we might be home-schooling til Easter and that 2021 might not be significantly better to 2020. To me it feels like we’re in it for the long haul, and I’m also under no illusions that the ‘real fun’ doesn’t end with the medical crisis, with this lot in charge I suspect that’s only the start. But do try and keep moving slowly – it’s easier to move at a slow pace than stop and start.

  • Know that you will hit a rough patch at some stage
    This happens in ultra events, and it happened to me in the first Lock Down a couple of times when I could feel my mental state declining. I acted quickly on the signs – took a day or two off work and did what I needed to (usually for me that’s going for a long walk on my own and some early nights).

Two final thoughts about what happens once you finish an ultra. First, you need a recovery period: to rest and recover fully before taking on any new challenge. Second, once you’ve recovered you will be stronger and proud of what you’ve achieved. Oh, and you might need to see a chiropodist…

The unexpected gift

It seems to have been raining, muddy and cold for weeks now – I can barely bring myself to watch the news or look beyond what we’re having for tea that day. It’s pretty bleak in the UK right now. But it’s not all bad and holding onto the positive outcomes and possibilities definitely helps me. 

Last year I learned a new technique for finding those ‘silver linings’ that we all need to keep us going on a pilot for a new coach training programme based around the Positive Intelligence model.

It’s very simple, and old as the hills, but we are simply invited to find the ‘gift’ in an apparently difficult situation by asking one of the following questions:

‘If you could take something good – a gift – from this situation, what would that be?’

‘For you to be able to look back on this situation and in hindsight to have learned something new, what would that be?’

Simple, not new, but useful.

Positive thinking isn’t a panacea and doesn’t change that sh*t happens, but it offers us a tool to motivate ourselves to keep going when the going is tough. 

I’ve started using the ‘gift’ question in some coaching sessions recently and have been humbled when clients who’ve been made redundant find the courage to find a gift of pursuing a better work/life balance or more creative fulfilment in their next roles. I’ve also seen a possible gift enable fresh thinking about what is possible in a situation which felt hopeless. 

Positive thinking has served me well in the past. Many years ago during one of the endless restructures that happens at the Arts Council I experienced a major career disappointment; I had been acting Team Leader for around a year but when the post was advertised internally I was not appointed to the permanent role. Adding insult to injury I had been acting up alongside doing my original job so was working ridiculous hours, and continued to be expected to ‘act up’ whilst the post was externally advertised. It felt like a very public humiliation, as well as big disappointment to me personally. Going into work each day those months after my unsuccessful interview felt really tough. But I managed to focus on supporting my team through the restructure as best I could and when I was interviewed for a dream job at British Council a few months later I was told by the panel that experience of leading change helped me land that role. 

In terms of CV19, I was reaching a bit of a low spot earlier today looking at the relentless rain outside and wondering when I’d ever get out of these four walls. So I started to think about what ‘gifts’ I have been offered by Lock Down that I want to keep after restrictions are lifted and I came up with a few, as follows:

  1. More time with my children in the evenings as I’m travelling less
  2. Wild camping in UK last summer after my hiking trip to France cancelled
  3. Working with a wider and larger range of coachees
  4. Opportunities to run more training and facilitation online in future
  5. Time spent birdwatching with my daughter on our daily walks to the allotment
  6. Chance to (almost) complete my Wainwrights in 2020 
  7. Discovering a new favourite corner of the Lakes after rescheduling our summer holidays

Those seven gifts came up for me quite quickly, and I know I’m not alone in finding some ‘gifts’ in Lock Down – time and again I hear coachees tell me there have been unexpected upsides to the disruption (notably for many greater flexibility for home-working) which they are keen to hold onto.

But the real power in the ‘gift’ technique is to look forwards, not backwards, and to find an opportunity in what first seems like a bad situation. So right now I’ve got a minor running injury that’s meant I’ve had to pull out of my first race of the season, but the ‘gift’ I’ve found is that I can focus on doing a period of weight-based conditioning instead which should prevent injuries in future and enable me to do more running later in the season. In a work context, I’ve got some time on my hands as I’m doing less training delivery than usual due to CV19 but finding the gift of researching new materials and redesigning my training resources so the course I am running will be improved quality.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy to find the ‘gift’ or that these gifts offset the bad stuff, but I find it helps. So – what gifts could 2021 offer you? 

Will we ever go back to face-to-face coaching?

Writing from my home office on the bleak depths of a second national Lock Down it feels unlikely that I’ll be able to meet coaching clients face-to-face in the near future. And I find myself wondering will we ever go back to meeting face-to-face for coaching sessions or has something shifted for good?

‘Good’ is the operative word here, as from my perspective I’m preferring online coaching for lots of reasons – both as a coachee and as coach. But as a coach I’m always driven by what’s best for the coachee so very conscious that not everyone is as comfortable online as I have become.

So what are the benefits of online coaching? And when would it be better meet in person instead, once circumstances allow. And, given we are likely to be mainly online for the foreseeable future, how can we make the most of this way of working for coaching specifically?

Let’s start with the benefits –

Coaching online saves time travelling to and from a place of meeting for coach and coachee, and it also eliminates the financial and environmental costs of travel. Very simply, online coaching costs less. In the wake of CV19 I changed my pricing for coaching to Pay What You Can – recognising how many people I knew were under-employed or unemployed and therefore would struggle to pay typical coaching rates. My individual clients now pay a wide range of rates from £10 to £80 per hr and I could not afford to work on this basis if paying the direct and indirect costs of travel and meeting room hire.

Another benefit of online working is that when coach and coachee meet in person we need to find a mutually comfortable and convenient place to meet – and that can be tricky. Some coaches rent meeting rooms, but that pushes up costs and those kinds of rooms can feel a little clinical to me. Others, myself included, meet clients at their own home/office. Many meet in public space like cafes and vestibules; I’ve had many a London meeting in Kings Place foyer and I know others use the South Bank Centre spaces. But I often feel those spaces are not ideal in terms of confidentiality. 

The beauty of online space is that it can be intimate but it is also private. The comfort of being in our own home, unobserved and in control of our environment, can make it feel like the safest space to think and talk. Even before CV19 many of my clients chose to schedule coaching for days when they were working from home as this offered a level of privacy, comfort and focus that it can be harder to achieve in the office or a semi-public space.

There are however downsides to online coaching –

Particularly at the moment, home might not feel like the place to do our best and freshest thinking, especially if we don’t have great wifi, a quiet corner to work from or there are other family members in the house who might interrupt or overhear. Others have a strong dislike of being seen on camera, in which case I find phone coaching can work just fine.

The tendency when we don’t need to travel to meet to cram in a session between meetings, or at the end of a long day of other meetings, can mean we are not getting the most from coaching. Before CV19, I already advised new clients to schedule sessions when they feel they will be fresh, able to focus and to avoid other commitments directly before or afterwards – to give them time to prepare for a session and process it. 

As a coach we will inevitably miss some things when working online that we might have noticed face-to-face, if we can’t see the whole person and notice their body language or movements as fully.

When working online, exercises that involve the coachee moving around the space might feel slightly odd at first – not both coach and coachee. But actually my experience has been that spatial exercises can and do work pretty well online (and certainly better than in a semi-public space!). They are not however a huge part of how I work with coachees, I tend to use metaphor, writing/drawing and conversation most often and all of those techniques translate great to online. For those coaches and coaches who are more into kinetic and somatic models the online space is potentially more of a limiting factor.

I’ve always learned a lot about coaching from being coached – and to this day I work with other coaches from time to time. When I am working with my own coach I actually prefer working online. It means I can work with a coach who lives several hundred miles away easily, rather than spending half a day and £100 on train fare which would be prohibitive. And I feel more comfortable speaking from my own home than being in a less familiar space. It feels no less intimate or effective, and a lot more convenient. But I’m an introvert and generally like working online, so I’m also very conscious the coachees I work with might have very different preferences.

In my experience though, far more has been gained than lost by taking coaching online during CV19 and I hope that coachees who might previously have preferred to meet face-to-face will at least try coaching over video-conference before assuming face-to-face is going to be better for them. 

I’m wondering if what we’ll come back to after CV19 is a hybrid model – where coach and coachee might meet initially but continue their work together online. This has often been how I worked with clients based further away – we’d meet face-to-face for the ‘intake’ or first session and then follow-up by phone or video-conference. But let’s not make that the default for every coaching relationship. For a long-time I assumed I had to meet coachees face-to-face initially to be able to work together productively but after the past ten months I don’t think that’s really true for all of us, and if there is a more cost effective and planet-friendly way to do things then I hope we can give it a go.