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.

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, they’re learning from each other.

When hip hop artists battle and mix together, or when startup founders share stories over a meal together, that’s peer learning.

Peer Learning |pɪə lur-ning|
noun
Peer learning is a self-directed, collaborative form of education where people assemble collective wisdom to reach learning outcomes.

Alcoholics form groups to support each other. So do activists, sailors, sex workers and many other fringe groups. But it's not limited to the fringe - writers, tradespeople, hobbyists, lobbyists, scientists, and industry associations all center around peer learning.

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

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.

Who is "a peer"?

The term "peers" is commonly used with reference to a group of learners of the same knowledge level and/or discipline. Doctors helping doctors.  Writers giving feedback to writers. This gives the impression that peer interaction is limited to where people with similar backgrounds connect (specific status, age, ability, qualification, etc.).

But what about when doctors and scientists team up to develop new treatments? Or journalists and data crunchers run investigations? Or an engineer and a salesperson start a company together?

Peer |pɪə|
noun

A person who works on a learning challenge that is similar to another specified person's learning challenge.

In reality, it's not the commonality of the person that matters, but the commonality of the challenge. Different people gather around similar challenges, so the challenge defines a peer. The challenge provides the commonality by which learners of various backgrounds connect.

What is Peer Learning for?

Peer Learning works better than other forms of learning when these challenges are unique, new, or contextual. When there isn't a satisfactory known answer, peer learning allows that answer to be constructed by the learner.

When knowledge is difficult to centralize, where the state-of-the-art changes quickly, or where context matters more than best practice - that's when Peer Learning is needed to replace more traditional education alternatives.

What makes Peer Learning work?

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's needed by the learner.
  3. Connectivity - Access provided to specific knowledge sources, especially those beyond the learner’s network.

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