Peer learning moves the emphasis off subject expertise and onto community development, which means thinking of team skills in relation to event operations, facilitation and network-building.
For example, if there's a lack of advertising skill to recruit applicants, building a community through events becomes a more viable option. Or if techie lecturers are too boring, switching to interesting demonstrations is a more engaging option.
The main consideration in developing a team's capacity is their ability for understanding people, their learning goals & challenges, and ensuring that you can run the logistics needed to easily repeat these interventions.
Where educational teams once relied on lecturers, it now needs facilitators. The former strain of scheduling and cat-herding shifts towards more experienced event organizers who can optimize their effort around attractive, repeating events. The pressure to get a curriculum right in advance is relieved. Now community skills are needed for building an experienced network.
Creating a functional learning environment
Education programs are usually expected to to deliver results consistently.
Industrial learning aims for consistency by homogenizing inputs. The content is repeatable, and the learners are all at the same stage when they start. The idea is that learners then progress equally, and come out at the same stage. But in reality, they progress at different rates. The typical way to handle this issue is to break curricula into smaller stages, preventing the slower learners from progressing to the next stage until they are ready.
In Peer Learning environments, the learners goals determine the content, and learners are often at different stages, even heading in different directions. So to achieve consistency, the focus moves to making consistent progress, rather than filtering for consistent inputs.
In both cases, program designers need to research and anticipate learning needs.
With industrial education, the content and schedule needs to be planned meticulously to anticipate what knowledge may be needed in the future. With Peer Learning, that diligence is invested in lowering response time instead, detecting learning needs to address them on demand. This becomes easier and more efficient because less effort is needed for planning, leaving more time for building connections systematically.
When your tactics shift towards ensuring consistent progress, your toolset shifts from siloing needed knowledge within your program, to creating conduits to that knowledge when it's needed.
So, Peer Learning programs deliver consistent progress by:
- Lowering access time to knowledge resources
- Using expertise watchfully - to stop the learners from spinning their wheels
- Providing role models - creating a culture that transforms learners mindsets
Lower Access Time
A learner has a question, and someone out there has the answer.
When motivated learners are left to their own devices, they'll try find the answers they need, but that takes time.
Consider the learners' goals where they'll struggle with long lead times to get to the right answer - those are critical time-wasters, and can be eliminated quite easily by readying a support network of people with relevant experience.
As educators, we can take the responsibility to shorten these lead times to days and hours. This means upfront investments in getting resources, connections and knowledge at the ready.
A side effect of this is that the support network won't be fully utilised. Getting 5 experts ready when the learners only acts on 2 will accelerate everyone. Missing out on a needed expert will slow them down. So as educators, our investments in building these networks is measured on the learners' utilization rate, not the experts.
It's prudent to evaluate the learners' challenges and expertise routinely - in advance, at the start, and throughout their learning journey. Let them lead the discussions.
With their noses to the grindstone, learners can spend weeks and not move forward. Sometimes they don't realize this is happening, other times they get discouraged and side-tracked.
Peer Learning environments pool expertise, not necessarily to distribute it, but to allow those with experience to oversee learners, and interject to guide them when necessary.
When learners are isolated, it's difficult for them to ask for expert attention. But pooling a group of experts, and giving them an easy way to help a group of learners saves both sides wasted time.
In co-working spaces or offices, something as simple as a table football provides a simple, informal way for supporters to hear how things are going. If anyone is stuck, they can casually grab someone who might be able to help.
Where more frequency is necessary, light-weight structured updates expose both new and persistent problems. These can be in writing, or scheduled as coaching conversations, or weekly "lessons learned" demonstrations.
Inject role models
When looking at your learners' paths, what defines progress? What attitudes would help people drive themselves forward innately? Who are the role models you'd like your learners to want to emulate naturally?
Peer Learning environments rely less on structure to drive results, and more on culture.
Y Combinator uses their speaker dinners to create a positive peer pressure for showing off weekly progress:
It’s a bit misleading to call these events “dinners” though, because they last half a day. People start to show up for dinners around 6 pm. We encourage founders to treat each dinner as a mini Demo Day and to show each other and us what they’ve built that week. We’ve found these weekly deadlines tend to push people to finish things in order to show them off.
Measurables have a tendency to counter-act desirable attitudes. Reporting on the same measurements over and over creates a "reporting to your boss" culture. That encourages learners to lean towards easier goals that they can consistently achieve, instead of stretching themselves. Setting targets for learners takes away their agency, and creates a culture where learners wait to be told.
It's worth considering what truly defines progress - thinking beyond measurables towards shifts in attitude and how those can be observed.
At YC, emphasizing role models helps drive a culture towards emulating their examples.
The speaker usually shows up before 7 and talks informally with the founders before dinner. The actual talk happens over dessert. Most speakers are successful startup founders, and the talks are usually about the inside story of what happened in their startup(s). Talks are strictly off the record to encourage candour, because the inside story of most startups is more colourful than the one presented later to the public. Because YC has been around so long and we have personal relationships with most of the speakers, they trust that what they say won’t get out and tell us a lot of medium-secret stuff.
There are easier ways to start inspiring learners than inviting role models.
Story-telling, sharing news and insights yourself can go a long way. Private chat groups can work just as well, letting educators casually drive attention to interesting and inspirational stories. The more informal and silly the conversations, the more likely others start to find and share stories of their own.
Have fun with it. Read biographies of people you'd like to see emulated - and tell "did you know?" stories.
Invite people to play little games from cultures you'd like to emulate. 500 Startups is known for playing the pitching game in car rides, where two people come up with a random word, and the third has to pitch a startup idea combining them. That game was popular in consulting companies a decade earlier, teaching juniors how to think on their feet in client pitches.
Let role models arise within your program as well, especially in the first few weeks of the programme. It's worth being clear and direct in terms of expectations from the outset, and when the first learners live up to your expectations, put them on a pedestal to share their experience with the others.
The roles of educators in peer learning
Whereas traditional education tends to divide roles into teaching and administrating, peer learning calls on curating, facilitating and convening.
A Peer Learning program is put together a bit like an exhibition.
The curator knows what's on people's minds and identifies relevant formats to engage them. They are usually well-experienced, well-respected and well-connected in their fields.
The artists are then picked to share their perspective in a compelling way. The audience for the exhibit can be drawn in for various reasons, but ultimately ask questions and are provoked into conversations. The curator is an educator, but has a completely different role from someone who stands in front of a classroom.
In Peer Learning, the object of conversation is not art, but about learning challenges. The Peer Learning curator's job is to keep their finger on the pulse of the learning community, and to scape the appropriate environment to attract and provoke them.
The curator is not micro-managing each learner to their learning goals. She's looking at a higher level for opportunities for peers to connect. The curator's initiative increases meaningful collisions between problems and solutions, rather than mediating individual relationships. It's about enabling a learner, and a wisdom holder to find each other, and start a conversation.
Preparation for a Peer Learning event consists of activities that set learners up for engaging it those conversations.
You can spot successful curation when you overhear hallway conversations about new insights and applying what's been learned. You can measure it when learners return having clearly made progress faster than they would have independently.
Curators are responsible for creating the overall learning environment, and building the relationships with domain experts and other communities.
- understand the learners' contexts and progress
- find topics that will inspire learners to ask questions
- involve people with relevant experiences to share with each other
- choose formats that let learners construct answers for themselves
Curators often have some significant outward authority, and pre-existing reputation and relationships that open doors for their team. They are the master-minds of the learning strategies, and able to hand-off execution of the program with facilitators.
Gather or hunt
Depending on the breadth and availability of the expertise and experience your learners will require, you may need to gather those domain experts in advance, or be ready to hunt them down on demand.
When learners are time-constrained, or similar domain expertise is distributed across a group of domain experts, gathering them in advance is more effective.
During the Africa Prize training weeks, we wanted to provide our participants access to the best local knowledge during a short visit. We scheduled open spaces and social nights, inviting a wide range of potentially relevant domain experts, gathering them all at these events and thus making them available.
Open-access formats attract a large number of people to share and learn, all around a broad, but common topic. These allow everybody to have agency over their own learning. No matter what, they'll be able to learn something unique and useful from others.
This works well as a safety net and as a shot-gun approach, where you can err on the side of inviting people, and even encourage them to invite anyone they find relevant.
The goal here is to over-invest in making a wide range of people available at a certain time, so that any expressed question is met with someone with relevant experience to share. The trade-off is that some expertise won't be used.
When the learning challenges expected are more specific, or require more time-intensive, one-on-one interventions, investing in a network of connectors gives you the ability to respond to learning needs.
We also employed this approach for The Africa Prize, choosing to host our events at venues with high-engagement in entrepreneurial communities. Based on our mentoring conversations with the engineers, we were able to ask these hosts, and other highly-connected locals, to introduce us to domain experts as needs arose.
This works well when you are able to diagnose and respond to every learner's need, and build a network of ambassadors in advance. Experts are likely to accept these highly-specific questions, because they understand why they are uniquely needed.
Building your ambassador network usually requires quickly aligning with them on higher-level goals, and reciprocating. Ambassadors tend to take their role seriously when it's clear they share the same cause as the programs they support, and when they know the program will offer the same help to them when they need it.
Facilitators take responsibility for guiding the learners through all or part of their learning experience. They lead activities and "run the room". This requires maintaining direct relationships with each learner, and steering outside experts so their time is best used on behalf of the learners.
Facilitation requires the skills of an event MC – to steer attention in the room, to adjust pace and energy levels, and to entertain – and the skills of a mediator – to understand, to make people feel included, to stage useful dialogs and to remain neutral themselves.
They interact with learners to regularly gauge their understanding and intent, and interject and adapt accordingly. If they catch a learner missing a point, they might jump in with an explanation, a diagram or a simile.
The facilitator is responsible for any given educational experience, so manages everything from tired learners, technical failures, and environment/physical conditions.
Junior facilitators often need guidance from the curators to prioritize learning goals and choose formats. More experienced facilitators are able to work with "outcome intent", choosing the means to achieve a particular educational outcome specified in the overall design. For example:
- at the end of this workshop, everyone should be have chosen a business model, or
- 3 of the authors have a deadline this month.
In terms of team roles, the people in charge of event logistics shift their attention from one-off events, towards what it takes to keep warm relations with a community so they're keen and available to return.
Rather than logistics and event people, they become community convenors. Instead of checklists for booking event spaces, trainers and catering, which repeat in series, they act like a maître d' at a restaurant, taking responsibility for the operational side of the event, but first and foremost acting as the friendly, familiar face of the place.
A typical rookie mistake for any conference or meetup organizer is to ask too many speakers to the first event. The thinking usually goes; "I need lots of people to come, so I need to get lots of speakers". This makes the event stressful to manage, but also takes away effort from other important factors: the comfort, the food, the social interactions. And once the first event is over, the planning for the next starts from scratch.
Education program managers fall into a similar pattern. At first, network building feels like a time-consuming and less valuable activity. All the logistics, administration and event planning required to run an education program are more urgent.
Planning in cyclical schedules reduces most of this work. Instead of booking a venue once, it can booked for the next 6 months. Instead of inviting all the speakers to the first event, they can be spread out over several months. This builds the same buzz, but multiplies the results of your logistical effort.
Peer Learning programs schedule help, not topics. The schedule pre-plans various formats and interventions, and a frequency for each. This makes it possible to plan the logistics for the program up-front and with far less effort. Then, based on pre-scheduled ways to flush up learners' needs, the topics are inserted and the community and domain experts are plugged in to respond.