The Secret Educational Power Behind Peer Learning Groups

There is something special about committing to a group of people with a shared goal or purpose. In this age of personal learning networks, social media and connected learning; intimate gatherings of people are still powerful and transformational. There need not be an official leader or coordinating organization. It just takes one person reaching out to others and inviting them to join you in creating a group, a community, a peer exchange. In fact, these peer learning groups play a far-reaching role in the lives of successful people of the past and present, and they are available to you, sometimes even for free.

While often not public or widely known, such groups have existed for millennia. They are forces behind great writers, scholars, entrepreneurs, inventors, politicians, social activists, and leader from across society. Some of the most influential people in history relied upon these as sources of support, inspiration, and even accountability. In fact, if you talk such people, it is not uncommon for them to speak about how the group transformed their lives.

Scan the biographies of some of your greatest heroes and inspirations throughout history. Chances are that you will discover many of them were part of such a group (or several). These groups are so prevalent among such influential people that it begins to point you to the conclusion that participating in such groups is a potential cause for their impact or, at minimum, a means of amplifying or extending their success or impact in the world.

These are not formal learning communities like what we think of in classrooms or schools. Members have no interest in credentials, but these are groups of incredible learning and important networking. They are not usually led by a teacher but have rich purpose and can result high expectations and accountability. They are frequently focused on trust, support, comradery, deep thinking, discussion, learning and impact that far exceeds what you might see in some of the top schools in the world. Yet, these are peer-managed and organized.

While diverse, these groups tend to have common traits. They include regular gatherings (virtual or in-person) and people are expected to commit to the group and these gatherings. Some gather weekly, but many others do so monthly, quarterly, twice a year, or maybe annually in some sort of intensive retreat. While there are sometimes coordinators, these are largely peer groups. Think of the Knights of the Round Table. They gather as equals to learn, share, and grow from the exchange with one another. In addition, the most successful groups are not necessarily secretive, but they might be private, respecting and valuing the role of confidentiality in promoting a place of trust and safety, two important features of such groups that flourish.

They come to exist in countless ways. Some start with a single person or small group committing to the idea, recruiting others, and making it happen. Others have long histories, ones that are sometimes difficult to trace, but they remain vibrant to this day. Still others might have formed from a professional organization; a think tank; a group of colleagues or past classmates; or a group that met through a shared interest, profession, set of convictions, life experience, passion, or desired impact in the world.

For those who have never participated in such groups, it might be hard to imagine the imapct that they can have upon a person, and the impact the group can collectively have upon a community, a domain in society, or sometimes the entire world. These are high-impact communities for members and that impact expands through the member’s work and collaboration beyond the group. You are likely familiar with Margaret Mead’s related quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This is shown true in the types of groups that I am describing.

The reason we usually do not know about these groups is because they don’t exist for self-promotion. Most people don’t go around talking about all the times and ways in which they gathered with their family members or a group of close friends either. The same is true for many, but not all, of these groups. These are valued groups, but they are also intimate, more about learning and peer exchange, and less about improving one’s resume or flaunting membership. In this sense, these are true communities of learning.

What is most interesting and exciting about them is that anyone can start such a group, there is no concern for external oversight, and you can learn as much or more from such a group than what you might experience in a robust and rigorous formal credential or degree program at a school. It is freely accessible means of learning, accountability, mutual encouragement, and networking.  If you are reading this, you can start a group like this today. Just decide the purpose of the group, identify and recruit a group of people, commit, gather, and learn from one another. It doesn’t require paying tuition, creating a formal organization or association, or even coming up with a name (although some enjoy having something to call it). Yet, it is a powerful force for learning and agency in society.

2 Replies to “The Secret Educational Power Behind Peer Learning Groups”

  1. lauriefriedrich

    Great article on the power of small groups! It made me think of the small group of trusted individuals with whom Steve Jobs consulted whenever he was developing a new product.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thank you for the comment. Indeed. The more I look at the life and learning of well-known leaders, the more I discover the presence of these sorts of peer learning groups.

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