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 our upcoming book called Peerlearning is....  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 |pɪə lur-ning|
Peer learning is a self-directed, collaborative form of education where people assemble collective wisdom to reach learning outcomes.

Peer learning, in a way, is everywhere. When we pick up stories from colleagues at the water cooler, make new friends at conferences, and get advice online, that’s peer learning.

When kids draw pictures together, when magicians deconstruct tricks, and when apprentices learn to make furniture, that’s peer learning.

When hip hop artists battle and mix together, or when startup founders share stories over a meal together, they’re learning from each other.

Political movements emerge when people with common visions and goals band together.

Alcoholics form groups to support each other. So do writers.

There are entire scientific disciplines founded on peer learning: atomic energy, synthetic biology, cognitive science and artificial intelligence. They all require people to combine different perspectives to create something new.

Peer Learning stands out when learners have challenges that are unique, novel, or contextual. When there isn’t a satisfactory known answer, Peer Learning allows learners to construct that answer.

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

It may happen in many different forms, but peer learning environments all share 3 defining characteristics:

  1. Agency: Invocation of self-direction in learners.
  2. Responsiveness - A learning environment’s ability to systematically assess and provide knowledge as and when it is needed by the learner.
  3. Connectivity - Access provided to specific knowledge sources, especially those beyond the learner’s network.

Places that produce successful startups enable company founders to be self-directed with a high level of agency. Programs that change minds and behaviours tend to be highly responsive. And cities that become world-leaders in certain categories are usually highly-connected.

As we’ll see by looking at various Peer Learning stories, it works when knowledge is difficult to centralise, where the state-of-the-art changes quickly, or where context matters more than best practice.