What is Peer Learning?

Kicking off an open interview with Kahit Hien, a Burkinabe food entrepreneur visiting Kenya to trade experiences with a pan-African group of engineering entrepreneurs. The empty chairs are for anyone in the audience to join in as an interviewer.

When  it comes to getting education right in topics and places where the  standard stuff just doesn’t work, Peer Learning has been the answer for  us.

So  far, it’s been described as something that happens in classrooms, but  this excludes things like writers’ groups, farmer field schools, and  tech meetups, which are all great Peer Learning environments.

After years of developing it in our education programs, we’re getting close to a methodology and writing it up in the Peer Learning Guide.  Getting the definition right is important to us, because a good  definition helps everyone self-assess and up their game. So here’s our  latest attempt at a description…


Peer  Learning is self-directed, collaborative education in which the  participating peers assemble the collective wisdom that is necessary to  accomplish learning outcomes.

Conventional  education is delivered by an authority in front of a class. That  authority is expected to be an expert, and they determine the direction  of the education, the measure for achieving success, as well as the  knowledge sources that are to be used to generate learning outcomes. If  what you want to learn is timeless, centralizing that knowledge and repeating it in such predictable environments makes sense.

When  what you want to learn is an emerging topic, or scattered in various,  disconnected places, when there is more uncertainty in the “final  truths” or the environment is changing quickly, then it’s necessary to  build conduits to distributed knowledge. Peer learning works well here, because each peer holds a bit of the  workable knowledge, and the learner can piece it together in her  interaction with her community of peers.

Because  today’s world is changing at an accelerating rate, more and more  subjects are emergent, so we see a growing need for peer learning. Plus,  peer learning puts the reins of education into the hands of the  learner, which is important when the goal is to empower doers and  changers. With peer learning, the learner sets their goals, and in many  cases, the topics too.

Peer Learning is usually a better choice when the “right answer” isn’t known, is changing, or is contextual.

Peer  Learning usually evolves into place. It starts ad-hoc and informally,  like when someone finds someone else with similar interests, or from  within traditional education programs to address needs that aren’t quite  being met. It takes time and repeated effort to evolve the mode of  education from a more structured, programmatic approach, into a peer  learning culture.

Peer  learning programs evolve in co-dependence with the progress of the  learner. As programs shift away from pre-planned and pre-scripted  content, they turn towards assessing the learners needs as they emerge.  In turn, this allows learners to become more self-directed, and allows the program to turn effort towards more relevant connections to knowledge sources.

Peer Learning happens in many different forms, but each form shares 3 major qualities:

  1. Responsiveness
  2. Agency
  3. Hyper-connectivity

Responsiveness

Learners,  especially those who are learning as they go, are all different. Rather  than try to predict their needs and lock them to the same path, peer  learning environments instead provide support and knowledge as and when  it is needed.

Responsiveness |rɪˈspɒnsɪvnəs|
noun [mass noun]
A program’s ability to systematically assess and provide knowledge as and when it is needed. At first, that means getting the learners’ goals and questions  up-front, and at a more advanced level, it requires diagnosing each  learner before they begin.

Without Responsiveness, education programs face resistance and awkward disconnects with their learners. For example:

  • You  might plan a talk on the importance of design thinking, but half the  participants are industrial engineers so you’re preaching to the choir.
  • You  might have a great class lined up on starting creative writing  projects, but most participants have publishers waiting on them for  releasing their second, or even third book. They know the basics.
  • You  might see that a business workshop is badly needed, but your technical  people don’t see the point of “the business side.” They don’t engage.  Some don’t even show up.

The  key to being relevant is to calibrate early and often. By Calibration,  we mean systematically assessing each learner’s needs, goals and  perspectives.

At Leancamp, the whole conference schedule is set by the participants, not the speakers.

In  some cases, it’s sufficient to ask the learners what topics or aspects  of a topic they’d like to learn. In others, they may be unaware of what  they don’t know, or the broader context of their journey, so Calibration  requires getting deeper understanding of their needs through  conversations with an expert, mentor or coach.

This  mentoring dynamic is key to practical education — listen and react in  order to stop wheel-spinning and spot the best opportunities to help.  (Often this mentoring role is filled by peers as well.)

Systematic  Calibration is one half of responsiveness. The other half is  systematically adapting and responding to the needs that have been  identified.

Levels of Responsiveness to the learners’ needs.

Responding  to learners’ needs usually involves more than offering lectures or  courses on the topics they request. At first, it is sufficient to  anticipate different learning needs, and prepare a range of content  options, depending on their context, culture or experience. For example,  a creative writing workshop could have prepared modules that go deep on  plot, dialog or character development, selected based on the writing  projects the students bring.

As  learning goals become more advanced, they become more specific, and  this means prepared content becomes insufficient or impractical. Maybe  the more advanced writers need to dig in with specific writing styles,  or research techniques, or a hundred other things you can’t prepare.  More sophisticated forms of responsiveness are able to react  appropriately without prepared content, relying on a wider range of  educational formats and domain experts to attain learning outcomes. At  scale, learners and domain experts are able to find each other  efficiently, without the need for a centralised assessment and referral.

A program can offer responsiveness to a learner’s need in varying degrees.

Level 0: Ignorant. The form and content of education are predetermined and unchanging in the face of different learning needs.

Level 1: Calibrated. Learners are invited to ask questions, and state learning goals at the  start of, and during the learning experience. These questions are  responded to with pre-determined modules that allow for some variance in  delivery from the major predetermined content.

Level 2: Diagnostic. Learners  needs are proactively and deeply assessed through activities such as  mentoring, before the learning experience takes place.

Peer  Learning environments are able to assess learning needs through  mentoring interactions between its peer constituents, and respond to  them by involving relevant expertise.

Agency

Agency — |ˈeɪdʒ(ə)nsi|
noun
Flexibility  given to the learners in deciding their learning outcomes. This starts  with inspiring and empowering the learner to self-direct, and then  builds on that self-direction by switching to a supporting rather than  directing role.

Success  in education is determined by what the learner becomes, not what they  study or what they can repeat. And in almost every case, the role of the  educator includes developing the learner’s mindset, and inspiring them.

Agency  represents the learner’s ability to act towards achieving their  learning outcomes. In a peer learning context, agency refers to the  ability of the learner to self-direct. Agency in a program context means  an education program that is conducive to supporting autonomous peers  who have different goals and take different actions.

Peer learning firstly builds the learner towards a state of agency. It enables them to spot their  own opportunities and act on them. This happens through experiential  learning exercises that inspire, build skills, as well as confidence,  and thereby encourage the mindset with the learner to take command. An  observable success condition of experiential learning is when the  learner becomes more self-directed, and their project goals direct their  learning goals. They are able to articulate learning goals, and defend  them.

Workshop participants sharing their main challenges, and what they want to learn to do differently.

Once learners have been made aware of their agency, and they are actively setting goals and communicating them, the next phase builds on this agency. Since learners now define, and specify what they need for  their own learning journey, the education dynamic shifts from a learning  push by the educator, towards one where the learner pulls with specific  requests. This inherently implies a shift in the role of the educator  towards one of facilitation and support. As more learners start building  on their agency, a culture of practice emerges.

The  following stages represent the markers by which you can assess how an  education program addresses the agency of its learners:

Level 0: Constraining. The learner’s path is dictated completely by the program design.

Level 1: Enabling Agency. The  learner is taken through various advancement levels of learning  exercises where they can specify how they would like to achieve learning  outcomes.

Level 2: Active Agency. Pull-based  education — the education programs delivers the entirety of the  learning experience on demand. The learner sets their goals, and  learning institution responds in a facilitation and supporting role.

Hyper-Connectivity

Disciplines  are specialising and intertwining at a faster pace, as are learners’  goals and challenges. Even where deep research and siloed knowledge are  concerned, the nature of learning goals increasingly crosses formal  boundaries.

Hyper-connectivity |ˈhʌɪpə-kɒnɛkˈtɪvɪti|
noun [mass noun]
Being  able to make meaningful connections that jump outside of the learner’s  network, to the most relevant sources. This starts with brokering select  connections on the learner’s behalf, and evolves into creating  environments where they can make those connections instantly by  themselves.

For  learners to succeed on their own terms, they need to pick, choose, and  connect subjects. The more innovative the learners’ ambitions, the more  likely they need to learn from innovators and experimenters who aren’t  authorities. This is even the case when innovating in subjects where  academic institutions have already developed deep bodies of knowledge.

New connections made from a cohort in an engineering commercialisation program we run in the UK.

Increasingly,  the only relevant experts out there are not strong educators — they  often don’t have blogs, presentation slides or even strong articulation.  In managed peer learning environments, their job is to have the wisdom  and experience to share, but they aren’t expected to be able to teach.  The educator’s job to is to identify and connect these experts to the  learners, and to create environments where they can share their wisdom  and spread their mindset. Inherently, this comes with separation of the  educators role from that of the domain expert. Since the experts  themselves are not educators, educators needs to work with them.

Facilitating  connectivity is paramount for peer learning, and in managed peer  learning it’s part of the educator’s responsibility. Yet connectivity is  more than linking the learner to knowledge. It’s about enabling the  learner to leap over the constraints that keep them from the knowledge  they need. These constraints are generally caused by either the lack of  common language between knowledge disciplines, the lack of authority to  position requests for knowledge in other networks, or by the sheer  limitation in reach of the learner’s personal network.

This is where hyper-connectivity comes in. The “hyper” means being able to make meaningful connections that jump outside of the learners network, to the most relevant sources of wisdom wherever they are in the world.

At  first, hyper-connectivity means manually brokering connections. The  facilitator appraises the learner’s needs for introductions to  expertise, and then curates connections to the relevant expertise within  the facilitator’s reach. Curation here consists of creating a pitch to  seduce the expert’s contribution, showing them where, and how they can  help.

When  learners are able to voice clear requests for learning something from  outside domains, these challenges become an attractor to distant  experts. The quality of the challenges themselves, and the  clarity in which they are voiced, now become compelling intellectual  puzzles. The challenges posed by the community become opportunities for  experts to open up new career paths, to develop their craft, and  sometimes to progress the state of their art.

It  takes work and hustle to individually invite experts and broker them to  specific learning needs. Many education programs struggle with inviting  experts as guest speakers or mentors. Getting expert involvement is an  onerous act of making sure the expert can prepare, that it’s worth their  time, and convincing them to commit to the program schedule.

When  Peer Learning models are introduced, invitations get easier, because  experts don’t need to prepare content and the specific requests  presented to them make their value obvious. It gets easier for program  organisers too, since there are more experts to choose from — experts  without prepared training content will work just as well as the few who  have workshops and talks to sell. (Often “unprepared” experts are better  since they are more open-minded to the challenges presented, and  explain things more practically.)

Peer  Learning also helps experts learn from each other. Experts see merit of  the challenges that the community is working on, and know that other  experts will too. The peer learning context attracts different experts  that can all teach each other. Once this starts to happen, there is much  less need for manually brokering connections, as the relevant  hyper-connections that bridge knowledge domains are self-sustaining and  automatic.

At  this stage, the distinction between learner and experts dissolves, as  the educational institution now also addresses what the experts want to  learn. A pinnacle of hyper-connectivity exists when institutions develop  a reputation for hosting learning events that are core to the  state-of-the-art in specific communities of practice. Unconferences like  Barcamp are a great example — they attract novices and experts alike,  since everyone can learn something relevant, and build useful  relationships.

The degrees to which hyper-connectivity can be offered to the learner are the following:

Level 0: Unconnected. The only source of knowledge is the person standing at the front of the room.

Level 1: Selective. The education program provides relevant introductions, mostly brokered  through people involved with directly delivering the program.

Level 2: Instant. The educational experience attracts a relevant and diverse group of  domain expertise, so as needs emerge they can be addressed with seamless  lead time, and under full directive of the learner.

Assessment

The  previous paragraphs showed the factors of responsiveness, agency, and  hyper-connectivity. All of these are needed for a program to evolve into  a full-fledged peer learning experience.

The  next section in the book expands on how to use these to reveal changes  that improve learning impact, while saving time and effort…

Read on to the next chapter on how to evaluate your learning curriculum by applying the Peer Learning factors to your own education programs!


This section we shared from the Peer Learning Guide (You can read more by signing up to the newsletter)  is an attempt to re-define Peer Learning in a broader context. Previous  works have defined it as student-to-student learning in a traditional  education institution. We want to include other types of learning. For  example, emerging communities of practice that are self-organising like  artists figuring out a new style, meetups that regularly connect a loose  group with a common interest, farmer field schools where farmers visit  each other, or writer feedback groups that help each author improve  their work.

We’d love your feedback on this. What are the peer learning environments you’ve seen? Do these dimensions and levels apply?

Salim Virani

Salim Virani

Founder of Source Institute. I've developed educational programs for some of the world's top-tier accelerators and business schools, like Seedcamp, Oxford, UCL and the Royal Academy Of Engineering.