Why You Learn More with Peers than with Experts

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“The problem lies with us: we’ve become addicted to experts. We’ve become addicted to their certainty, their assuredness, their definitiveness, and in the process, we have ceded our responsibility, substituting our intellect and our intelligence for their supposed words of wisdom.”  Noreena Hertz

Traditional learning has focused on the expert presenter who shares his or her knowledge. Peer learning focuses on gaining knowledge and sharing insights with peers who face similar daily challenges. Contrary to the widely held belief, learning with and from peers can be much more effective than learning from experts. And here’s why.

Experts Can Make Bad Teachers

Experts can be intimidating and impatient. They may enjoy the status of being the expert in the room. As a result, they may be invested in retaining their expertise rather than sharing it, talking about what they know and what they have done, but not necessarily explaining how others can replicate it.

Experts have a lot of knowledge, some of which is already hotwired into their brains so they’re not even aware of it anymore. That is why learning from someone who is an expert can be a very uncomfortable and dissatisfying experience for both parties. The expert unwittingly leaves out crucial information, frustrating the learner. The learner keeps asking questions to try to understand, frustrating the expert.

Experts often offer information that may be theoretical rather than practical. Their knowledge is either drawn from academia or from experiences in other organizations- information that may not transfer well to the current organization.

Peers Can Make Excellent Teachers

Peers have knowledge and experience that they can share. They can be more patient and understanding, since they are learning from each other. Learners are more comfortable with their peers, feeling that they can admit when they don’t know something without fear of being judged or disappointing an authority figure. They can also feel more comfortable sharing what they know, because their contributions are valued by their peers. It is a safe way to learn.

Peers experience the same situations and challenges, so their information is timely, practical, and pertinent to their organizational realities.

Peers and Experts Think Differently

Experts use a forward reasoning process because they have worked on a problem many times before. In routine problems, they work with the available data to reach a conclusion about the unknown. In other words, they analyze available data to generate a hypothesis (forward reasoning = starting with data analysis).

Those with less experience use a backward reasoning process because they have limited experience with the problem. When a less extensive knowledge base is available, deductive reasoning (backward reasoning) is used in which a problem is solved by formulating a hypothesis and then looking for the data to sustain it (backward reasoning = starting with a hypothesis).

Because experts see problems in different ways than novices, they may not necessarily be the best coaches. Further, experts may not be readily accessible in workplaces. So, peer coaching provides an excellent strategy for individuals to engage in workplace learning and problem solving when the need arises.

Look Inside First: The Knowledge and Experience is in the Room

It is important for organizations to go beyond simply acknowledging that their employees are their most valuable asset. Each employee and manager has a vast amount of knowledge and experience that is unrecognized and underutilized. Sharing that knowledge is vital for organizational learning. As Michael Polanyi has noted, we know much more than we think we know. Through peer interactions, we activate tacit knowledge, and we create new knowledge based on the experience of others.

Your organization will thrive if you engage managers and give them the freedom to learn from and with each other. Peer Learning Groups offer a structured opportunity for this to occur. Because the knowledge is in the room, when managers learn and work together to solve real problems, peer learning can have a transformative impact on the managers, their employees, and the organization as a whole.

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