A Peer Learning Group: A Unique Type of Social Learning

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We are social animals and we learn socially. We come together in diverse groups large and small to share what we already know, gain new knowledge, and create something new to resolve an issue.  We learn best with and from other people, despite the era of social media and information at our fingertips.

Social learning is the process of learning through social interaction. It is one of 2018’s biggest business trends. Social learning occurs in a variety of groups, such as: quality circles, communities of practice, teams, learning circles, peer coaching, and peer learning groups.

Let’s first consider how these groups differ from each other.

In quality circles, a group of workers meets regularly to consider ways of resolving technical problems and improving production in their organization.

In communities of practice, a group of individuals participates in communal activity, and continuously create their shared identity through engaging in and contributing to the practices of their communities. Communities of practice are one means of capturing tacit knowledge, or the know-how that is not so easily or frequently articulated.

In teams, a group of people collaborate to achieve a goal.

In learning circles, a group of people share the goal to build, share, and express knowledge though a process of open dialogue and deep reflection around issues or problems, with a focus on a shared outcome.

In peer coaching two or more professional colleagues work together in a confidential process to reflect on current practices; expand, refine, and build new skills; share ideas; teach one another; or solve problems in the workplace.

Peer learning groups combine characteristics from each of the other groups. There is a primary focus on sharing tacit knowledge (communities of practice) and collaborating (teams) in a dialogue (learning circles) to solve a management problem (quality circles). Peer learning groups use a confidential process to build new skills and solve workplace problems (peer coaching).

While peer learning groups resemble these other social learning groups to a certain extent, there are some major differences:

  • Peer learning groups are concerned with building on the core knowledge of the participants to generate new perspectives on handling difficult situations.
  • Peer learning groups focus on actively solving a management problem rather than reaching a specific goal. Each member is individually responsible for practicing new behaviors to address the management problem.
  • Peer learning groups go beyond dialogue and reflection to application and practice of new techniques. The reflection that follows focuses on the actual experience of the participants.
  • Peer learning groups follow a structured approach consisting of two 90-minute sessions separated by several weeks of practice and experimentation.
  • Peer learning groups are comprised of 5 or 6 managers to ensure that diverse experience is shared but the group is small enough to allow for full engagement of all participants.

In addition, peer learning groups also have characteristics that make them unique. They are self-directed by a group member who serves as a facilitator. They follow a learning cycle of knowledge sharing, new knowledge acquisition, application and reflection. They are flexible because group members select their topics of interest. They are easy to implement as a stand-alone program or an enhancement to other professional development techniques.

So even if you use some of the other social learning group types, a structured peer learning group may be a valuable option for your organization to consider.

In reflection,

Deb Laurel

Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer

The Peer Learning Institute

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