Peer Learning

Initiating Agency - how to enable learners to become self-directed

Salim Virani

A lot more becomes possible when learners are motivated and self-directed, but how do we help them get there?

The trick to building agency in learners is to focus on activities that inspire, and develop mindset.  Building confidence in a safe environment is a start.  From there, helping someone see their options gives them meaningful sense of choice. Finally, immersing learners in a community that share their desired mindset supports a sense of identity and becomes a source of inspiration.

Raise Confidence

Michel Thomas, one of the world's biggest language instructors, starts his French lessons by sharing an easy tip: most English words ending in -ion are also French words. Information, revolution, solution. Same word, French accent. How do you say fluctuation? Instruction? Circulation?  You've now started with a several-hundred word vocabulary. After 10 minutes learning a few other simple words, like "I have" is "J'ai", students can start making up their own sentences and talking to each other.  It's a fun confidence-builder that shows each student they can do this.

Experiential games and exercise that are designed for learners to succeed beyond their early expectations give them a sense of what it's like to own the skill. Group work increases the number of people who get this early boost, because as Eric Mazur learned at Harvard Physics, the strongest in the group understands the weakest, and can quickly explain what they're missing.


Knowing you're not alone is a big enabler. And thinking you're not good enough is a big disabler. Both can be addressed with an environment where people feel they can be vulnerable. That way, people share openly about their reservations and start to offer support. Otherwise, people only see unrealistic success stories that omit the missteps and mistakes, and feel inadequate in comparison.

Kelly Thompson is a best-selling author and one of Kickstarter's Top 10 funded novels. She explains why so many bestselling authors, like Chuck Pahlahniuk and Irvine Welsh, are zealous about their writers' groups:

Writing and “being a writer” is a frequently painful and protracted journey filled with epic highs and abysmal lows. And if you’re lucky enough to find the right writing group, as I did, the best thing about being in that group will be having friends that "get it."

Confidentiality and privacy are usually a prerequisite for safety. It was essential to begin Alcoholics Anonymous:

Because its founders and first members were recovering alcoholics themselves, they knew from their own experience how ashamed most alcoholics are about their drinking, how fearful they are of public exposure. A firm assurance of confidentiality was imperative if they were to succeed in attracting and helping other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.

Over the years, anonymity has proved one of the greatest gifts that A.A. offers the suffering alcoholic. Most newcomers still find admission of their alcoholism so painful that it is possible only in a protected environment.

New groups feel public, so people consider social acceptance and stigmas before speaking out. Flushing out everyone's hopes and fears, rather than success or failure, is a big stimulus for group cohesion.  It focuses everyone on their commonalities, and puts differences in progress in a broader perspective.  It makes it okay to raise their voice and ask for help. A simple introduction format is to ask people introduce themselves without their titles or achievements, but instead with their latest inspirations and latest struggles.

Hearing how other people like you are doing, both successes and challenges, helps people feel capable. It triggers the learner into action by example of their peers: "If they can do it, then so can I!".

Inviting people to share their personal journeys helps to create a feeling on kinship with a group.  An exercise we developed to do this is to put people in pairs, and ask each person explain why they started and stopped each major project or job in their life. Then the listener chooses 3 images from a stack of cards that they feel symbolise the story-teller, and explains why they chose them. Exercises like this Symbol Game reveal personal histories, different world-views, and get everyone to reflect on what behaviours they share.

Different cultures open up to groups differently.  Some are open to share troubles and criticisms to big room of strangers.  Others have stronger deference to hierarchy, or are more collectivist, so are more reserved at first.  Would it help people to open up if they interacted in smaller groups, or over a longer period of time?

Offering Options

Provide learners with a variety of approaches to tackle a problem. Such insights excite learners to try new things, because they had no idea it could be done in another way!

Sometimes, they're almost trivial, like when a rapper hears a great beat and writes a track around it. Can you create a similar space, where learners share little bits they like or find interesting?

Sometimes, it's about process, like seeing how another graphic designer makes an image pop out. Layer Tennis is a fun meetup format, where two graphic designers "compete" by working on the same image, passing back and forth every 15 minutes.  The audience mingles with drinks, keeping an eye on the designers' screens on huge projectors, and picking up all kinds of tips and inspiration.

And sometimes, it's hearing about a life story or career path that makes you realise you can do the same. We once built the largest online entrepreneurship course for Africa.  It was simply a set of interviews of African founders describing the unique challenges they faced, and the different ways they overcame them.  No prescribed answers, just exposing different approaches to such problems.

Conferences often serve this purpose.  They show a range of options and give learners a feeling that they've grasped the zeitgeist.  They have a sufficient range of options to choose from.


Mindset shifts arise from a sense of belonging to a group that is going in an inspiring direction. Make it a top priority to make it easy for people who don't know each other yet to seek out like-minded people. This is often where 'content' and 'instruction' get in the way, because they make relationships an add on. This needs to be flipped, where helping learners find and create their peer groups becomes the primary goal, and specific topics or skills is secondary.

Flocks is a format that connects people based on what they're trying to accomplish. A large conference room or lobby is surrounded by big posters with a simple fill-in-the-blanks message: I'm just a _____ trying to _______ in a _______.  People start to fill in the posters, which then act as a flag to attract others to meet them.

Inviting guest speakers from abroad is typical way to introduce new modes of thinking.  But elevating the role model to high-up on stage, where they just lecture at everyone else,maintains a disconnect.  This usually fails to change mindsets.  While these kinds of talks are a great way to wave a flag and attract locals, mindsets really shift when there's a conversation.

Fishbowl discussions put a few empty chairs on stage for the audience to join into a fireside chat.  Anyone from the audience can speak, but they have to sit on stage to do so, and one chair must remain empty, so there's a calm rotation of people joining the conversation.

This is an excerpt from our upcoming book: Peer Learning is.... Follow the link for the Table of Contents, and more reads.

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