Today we’re going to explore one of the most effective ways of creating enduring change in farming communities: peer-to-peer learning! This is a way of working as enablers of change that can really build capacity and capability.
Denise is currently involved in a large peer-to-peer project so she started thinking about this. It’s often hard to know where to start because peer-to-peer learning seems like it should be super-complicated and a big process to put in place. But actually it’s pretty straightforward, although there are some things to do and look out for, which we’ll tell you about as part of this post.
So what is this peer-to-peer learning? Simply, it’s learning from your peers! It’s recognising that everyone can be a teacher and a learner. There’s a whole lot of research out there, in the world of extension, that shows that farmers learn best from other farmers. This is peer-to-peer learning! But it doesn’t stop with farmers. Think about the capability and capacity building amongst rural professionals as well. All adults are going to learn best from their peers.
In the project Denise is involved in, they have been exploring not only farmer-to-farmer learning but facilitator-to-facilitator learning. We’ve mentioned that research shows that farmers learn best from other farmers, so the project has been supporting some small group based extension with sheep and beef farmers across New Zealand. These small groups are farmer-led – which means they get to choose the topics the group will explore over time.
Part of the support wrapped around these group has been providing trained facilitators, in order for the small group to get the most from the peer-to-peer learning. This isn’t something that will just happen, because sometimes we default to always assuming a specialist or an ‘expert’ is the teacher – when in fact everyone brings experience to the learning. A facilitator is needed to help shape the learning process and allow each farmer to contribute. This might mean bringing in a specialist to top-up the knowledge in the group only when it’s needed, and not as a default.
And with this project the team realised they needed to think about facilitators learning and development as well as farmers, and so needed to foster peer-to-peer learning amongst them too! So on one level you have the farmers learning from each other, aided by a facilitator. And then on the next level, you have those facilitators learning from each other.
This means, instead of just doing training and saying “OK all done, go for it”, the project team developed a support process, including starting small regular gatherings in different regions that allow facilitators to get together and share what’s working and what isn’t, and help support each other. It’s really like a community of practice. It’s nothing new, but trying to make sure there is a strong focus on peer-to-peer learning for facilitators.
And what are the benefits of a peer to peer learning approach? This comes back to the outcome you are focused on. If you want enduring practice change, peer-to-peer learning builds the capacity of the participants to keep learning and then asking further questions and then exploring new approaches. So it’s a bit like a perpetual motion machine, it just keeps on moving!
What about things to look out for – that we said we’d mention at the start of this post? Well one of the most common concerns people have about peer to peer learning is what if people in the group are sharing information that’s wrong, and we know that it’s wrong?
It’s a really good question and true whether we are talking about farmer-to-farmer learning, or facilitators. This is where the real skill of a facilitator comes in. How can you question this information, or draw in a specialist that could gently correct this information? Not in a way that means people aren’t going to listen, but to help them to consider a new perspective. Just telling them they’re wrong isn’t going to cut it anyway – so you use the power of the group to question and explore information. It’s about being a reflective practitioner, where you stop and critically review what you’ve done. Stephen Brookfield, a noted specialist in adult education, talks about looking at your practice through four lenses. Your own, the views of the learners, your colleagues and finally from the wider literature. These lenses will give different pictures of your approach and the impact of your work.
The trouble is though, that many of us are so busy doing things, that it’s hard to stop and reflect. It reminds us of the story about the wood cutter that Stephen Covey used in his book The seven habits of highly effective people. The woodcutter is so busy sawing wood, that he can’t take the time to sharpen his blunt saw, which would make him far more productive in the long term.
And we should point out that as usual, it’s horses for courses. It’s not always appropriate to use this approach. For example, if it’s just the simple adoption of a new bit of technology, you might be better off using a mass communication approach. Peer-to-peer learning is best suited to complex, multi-faceted problems where you need to adapt the technology or practice to your situation.
Peer-to-peer learning is a great example of the Group facilitation model that Jeff Coutts and Kate Roberts talk about in their paper that describes the Capacity building ladder. The Group facilitation model has the underlying philosophy that farmers are best served when we allow them to identify their own problems and to then seek their own ways of addressing them. This is all about ownership and responsibility, and is built on the premise that it’s the people in a specific situation who are best able to understand and act on issues directly affecting them.
And by encouraging people to work together in this way, we achieve more lasting and sustainable solutions. The participants develop their own problem-solving, planning and reflection skills, which they can apply to new problems as they emerge. This can be described as building stronger human capital. Likewise, the increased networking, the stronger relationships and improved group skills develops greater social capital. This could have the effect of increasing resilience and mental health of the participants.
Jeff Coutts has suggested the following critical success factors for this type of approach:
- Potential participants should have requested a facilitated process, or at least agreed to participate in one.
- The groups should be self-selected.
- Facilitators are selected or at least endorsed by the group participants.
- A planning cycle is incorporated into the process – including reflection on progress.
- Group members can be encouraged to benchmark their knowledge, attitudes and practices.
- Group members should have an opportunity to receive training in group processes.
- Groups should meet regularly, perhaps 4 to 6 times per year
- Opportunities could be made for groups, or their representatives, to meet and share experiences.
- Group members should contribute an increasing level of their own resources to the cost of group activities.
So peer-to-peer learning is an approach that can shape how you support and enable change.
And you’ve heard our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below and tell us about your experiences with peer to peer learning, including any tips and further ideas about it. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation – join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us!
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Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a critically reflective teacher, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Brookfield, S. (2005) ‘Critically reflective practice’ in Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 18:4, 197–253.
Covey, S. The seven habits of highly effective people.
Coutts J and Roberts K ‘Models and Best Practice in Extension’ presented at the 2003 APEN National Forum, 26 – 28 November 2003, Hobart.
Defining peer-to-peer learning, short overview from Paul Catanzaro Extension Assistant Professor University of Massachusetts, Amherst https://masswoods.org/sites/masswoods.net/files/What-is-P2P-learning.pdf