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On fostering peer-to-peer learning at work
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! Last week I had the joy of spending two hours observing a colleague facilitate her PBL tutorial. I learned more than I would by reading books or articles on the topic. But how often do we really make time to learn from peers? Do we even have these opportunities at our workplace? These are some questions I would like us to reflect on together this week. I wrote down some of my thoughts and suggestions on how to embed peer learning in our work practice. I hope you find this useful and I am looking forward to your ideas. Have a nice week!
How many times have you turned to a colleague or a friend when you were stuck with a task or in search of ideas? Whether we are aware of it or not, we learn from each other constantly, through watching and observing, getting or giving advice or simply by exchanging experiences. This often happens informally and we may not even label it as learning. But how about acknowledging this great resource as one of the most important sources of learning and intentionally using it in our work? Well, easier said than done. So if you are interested in how we can foster peer learning at work, continue reading and hopefully you’ll get some inspiration.
I am lucky to work in an environment that encourages peer learning, both among our students in the PBL setting and among colleagues, as we do a lot of team teaching and shadowing. Nevertheless, I often find myself having to explain to students the benefits of learning from each other and also training them to provide and receive feedback and to co-construct knowledge, things that often don’t come naturally to them. And I do that mainly because I think these are valuable skills that will serve them in their professional and personal life, so they don’t miss precious learning opportunities in the future.
While in education peer learning can be (and I argue, should be) embedded in the curriculum, at the workplace things are a bit more complex. It depends on our openness and willingness to learn and acknowledge our peers as a source of learning, but it also requires action at organisational level, to create a learning environment that incorporates and rewards peer-to-peer learning.
Peer learning can be a very effective Learning & Development (L&D) tool, with benefits that go beyond learning itself, into community and identity building. It can be formal or informal, exclusively work/ task related or going beyond that. It is a versatile tool which can coexist with and complement more traditional, formal learning programmes.
Why learn from each other?
Let me start with a few reasons I consider very important, because they illustrate how peer learning can benefit both us as individuals and the organisations or teams we work in.
Peer learning at the workplace:
Encourages connectivity, helps us create a good atmosphere by enabling colleagues to get to know each other better as people, beyond our work-related roles;
Is an effective way of knowledge acquisition and knowledge building;
Provides a safe space for learning;
Is a good premise and starting point for collaboration, as it allows us to find common ground (interests, expertise…);
Can increase engagement and motivation and can even have effects on the overall well-being;
Contributes to creating a culture of knowledge sharing and continuous professional and personal development.
Sounds great, right? Like with any approach, there are however some pitfalls that we need to be mindful of:
Peer learning can lack structure and facilitation. It’s good to start informally, but in order to be effective in the long run, there are a few important aspects to consider (more below);
Quality control can be a challenge. The strength of this approach (a variety of learning tools, people taking initiative in what they want to learn and/or teach) can also be its weakness, as inconsistency is always a risk;
Peer learning is often limited in scope. It is not easy to cover all the organisational learning needs only through peer learning. It’s important to make an intentional choice of the areas to be covered by formal learning programmes and those that are best tackled through peer learning;
The question of sustainability. Peer learning initiatives start with enthusiastic colleagues but can also die out due to lack of time or commitment. This often happens when peer learning is not fully integrated in the work routine and thus requires extra time.
How can we make it work?
Ok, so we’re convinced of the benefits and we want to avoid the pitfalls. What do we do? As usual, I don’t have a foolproof recipe but I can share some of the things I consider crucial for peer learning at work to work (pun intended):
Always start by (re)assessing the learning needs. This is an ongoing process and needs to be the starting point for any L&D tool we want to introduce. What do we want to learn? What do we need to learn? What is already offered? What could be best learned peer-to-peer?
Make an inventory of existing expertise. In the case of peer learning, the supply is as important as the demand (learning needs). It’s funny how in so many teams and organisations we lack an overview of the expertise everyone has and could offer. In preparation for peer learning let’s try to find out what our colleagues are experts in or are very passionate about and, most importantly, whether they are willing to share it;
Be creative and come up with good concepts. Make it as diverse as possible, mix formal and informal settings, face-to-face and virtual, low time commitment and intensive, fully work-related and broader topics and so on;
Don’t forget about facilitation. Actually, make this a priority. Effective facilitation is very important in this setting. If possible it’s great to have one dedicated person to coordinate the peer learning space so that everyone can make the most of it;
Create a safe space. Even if you keep it informal (and sometimes precisely because of this), it’s important to set some ground rules in order to build trust. Make sure the goals are clear, explicitly mention whether and how these initiatives are part of the professional development plan, etc;
Carve time and space. Peer learning works best when it is well-embedded in work routines. Rule number 1: ensure everyone has time for it and does not need to use spare time. Create a (semi) regular schedule, provide flexible opportunities to meet face-to-face, virtually, in a synchronous and asynchronous manner, to ensure accessibility. Designing a central (online) space where all resources can be accessed is always a plus.
Ideas to build peer learning into our work practice
Here is the good news: peer learning can take so many shapes that I’m sure by the end of this post you’ll have some ideas of how it can look at your workplace. For inspiration, here are a few ways we can learn from each other at work (of course a non-exhaustive list):
Mentoring. Having a peer to whom you can go for guidance and support can be extremely valuable. This is also usually a longer-term relationship and thus a sustainable way of peer learning. Remember we can also talk about reversed mentoring: while generally we refer to the mentor as being more senior, this doesn’t always have to be the case;
Coaching. For more specific types of learning and support, such as skills development or achieving a career goal, a coach can be a great partner and someone we can work with consistently, which also helps in terms of accountability;
Shadowing. This is exactly what it sounds like: watching a colleague do their work. That, followed by a quick chat and reflection can be one of the most valuable and accessible learning opportunities you have. Of course it works best when you are willing to offer reciprocity;
Peer feedback on tasks. This is pretty straightforward: providing peer feedback, especially when working together, can be very effective and can be done both during and after the task. Doing this often helps normalise it and make it part of the team culture;
Group reflections. Imagine completing a collaborative task. There were probably many “learning moments” but if we don’t take time to reflect on what we learned from each other we might just miss that brilliant opportunity. Incorporating reflection sessions is a great way to acknowledge and internalise what has been learned;
Lunch & learn. Informal meetings over lunch, cake of coffee (yes, an extra incentive often does the trick!). You can put in some structure if you wish, but the idea is that various people share experiences on various topics. Make it as regular as possible, it gives everyone something to look forward to, and maybe appoint a different facilitator for each session;
Learning communities. If the informal meetings really work, and everyone wants more, then the more sustainable option is creating learning communities; here facilitation is key. And patience. These things take time, but the effort really pays off;
Microlearning. If your inventory of expertise shows there are many (and possible very diverse) things to share, you can think of the best medium or platform to do it. It can be as easy as a regular email (I started such an initiative in our team, with one colleague sending out an email with a learning tip every Friday), or more elaborate- using a learning platform. It can also be done in 10 minutes stand-up sessions in the middle of the week, for instance. Whatever works in your place.
Whether it is about support, guidance, exchange, feedback or collaboration, peer learning is a valuable asset worth nurturing at our workplace.
“How to Help Your Employees Learn from Each Other”- useful ideas for setting up a peer learning programme;
“Here’s A Google Perk Any Company Can Imitate: Employee-To-Employee Learning”- an example of peer learning from Google;
“Peer Review Strategies that Keep the Focus on Better Teaching”- suggestions for peer learning for educators.