With the internet at our fingertips, there is hardly a question that we can’t find an answer to. You might even think that online learning has become our go-to mode of gaining knowledge. But, data shows otherwise. Employees first turn to their peers (55%) – second only to their bosses. Which means, we want to learn from people around us, and thus need more peer learning structures.

Why is peer learning essential? The framework below shines light on it. According to David Blake and Kelley Palmer, authors of The Expertise Economy, people gain new skills best in any situation that includes these four stages of ‘The Learning Loop’:

  • #1: Gain knowledge. This refers to knowing about and acquiring a range of skills to improve your experience or performance at the workplace. For example, acquiring the skill of having difficult conversations, and identifying one such conversation you need to have at work.
  • #2: Build the skill. This is all about practicing. Take the same example: once you identify a difficult conversation you’re avoiding, practice that conversation with a peer before actually doing it.
  • #3: Apply it in life. This is when you act on what you’ve learnt. Say, you choose to tell your team member what you’ve noticed: when she doesn’t stick to project timelines, it affects others’ work negatively. It may go different from how you practiced it. She might turn defensive or angry. Or you might learn more about the assumptions you’ve made.
  • #4: Reflect on the learning. Bring the experience from the real life back to the learning space. Tell your peers about how easy or clunky the difficult conversations were. Listen to others’ experience of their difficult conversations. And then extract what would you do differently next, to make these conversations better.

Can you gain the same depth in e-learning? Probably not, because you’d be operating in isolation inspite of being in virtual learning groups. Says Blake, “A learner’s development is dependent on a willingness to make mistakes, challenge ideas, and speak up about concerns. Peer learning creates a space where learners can take these risks without a sense that their boss is evaluating their learning performance.

How can you facilitate peer learning at work?

  • Host meet-ups. Before people can learn together and be vulnerable, they need to know each other. Initiate casual events –outings, meet and greets. Allow people to build familiarity, so they would be willing to step into deeper spaces.
  • Create emotional safety. Peer learning is not hierarchical. Which means, power dynamics need to be interrupted. Some ground rules are essential. Examples – confidentiality is key, exploring the other’s perspective is necessary, never mock someone for expressing themselves, etc.
  • Find a learning facilitator. This is a neutral person who is not a manager or colleague. Their work: to keep everyone on the topic, keep conversations moving forward, and maintain a positive atmosphere for participants to learn, experiment, and ask questions.

Think back to a time when you learnt something really well. What allowed that to happen? We wouldn’t be surprised if your peers, family, or some other people were involved there!

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