When we are on a learning journey, we come across paths that we have to walk individually, and some with peers. We know how to learn individually and succeed at it. Do we know how to learn with peers collaboratively and not just become a task sharer? 

Research demonstrates that there are three processes of learning:

  1. Actively adding layers to our existing knowledge 
  2. Evolving with existing knowledge, either through information found individually or in our surroundings (peers, teachers and so on)
  3. Replacing our existing knowledge with new information. This is where innovation happens. 

For innovation and creative thinking, we utilize two modes of thinking

  1. Divergent thinking: In divergent thinking mode, we flow freely, generate numerous ideas and inspire unexpected connections between the ideas. 
  2. Convergent thinking: In convergent thinking mode, we use probabilities and standards to narrow down possible solutions to a well-established answer. 

As a learner, we are gaining new information constantly, testing the information and finding ways to apply the knowledge. The individual learning process looks like a loop. Learning with peers has multiple loops with cycles of convergent and divergent thinking. 

There are three fundamentals that make learning with peers successful. We will dive into these fundamentals with actionable takeaways. 

1. Shared pool of meaning

In the book, Crucial Conversations, the authors encourage building a shared pool of meaning during important high stakes conversations. This applies directly to learning with peers. The space created amongst peers should be open to ideas, even crazy ideas. How can we demonstrate a shared pool of meaning with peers?

  • Follow up questions: Every time an idea emerges, the first response should look like :tell me more, please go on, can you elaborate on it? First reactions should not be negative, verbally or through gestures. 
  • Ask for examples: If an idea emerges that’s vague, help your peer think through an example. This looks like: If Peter suggests that the group should ask better survey questions, follow up with – That’s a great suggestion, if you had to rewrite the survey, how would you ask that question with clarity?

In peer learning, it’s key to create an open and safe space for ideas.

2. Balance between unstructured and structured dialog

We have all been in meetings where it started with an agenda but ended without any takeaways. Peer learning requires structured and unstructured dialogues. How do we build the balance?

Let’s take an example. You and your peers are researching different ways that parents find extra curricular activities for their kids. You want to pick the 10 most effective ways and create a knowledge page in 30 days. 

  • Divide the learning plan: Since the deadline is 30 days, it’s key to divide the plan into thinking modes
    • Day 1 to 15 Divergent mode: Throw ideas on post-it notes – no judgment and no feedback mode.
    •  Day 15 to 30 Convergent mode: Validate each idea, find which resources are of the most value and narrow down.

While there is no best way to switch hats from divergent to convergent, creating timelines helps structure the process.

3. Go beyond the learning plan

We like working with people we like. Learning with strangers looks less like collaboration and more like task sharing. How do we go beyond our learning plans?

  • Take breaks: While collaboration and learning with peers is highly effective, learning happens beyond the plan too. Take breaks, go on walks with your peers and let conversation flow. 

I am learning the fundamentals of product with a peer and our conversations span from family, workout, food and much more. Trust enhances the process of learning

  • Game time: I am a huge advocate of video games and it helps build a learning muscle with peers. Mark a day to play a simulation based game and that helps with better conversation, building a better feedback loop and it’s fun

The last and most important takeaway for learning with peers is reflection. Through the process of learning, find spots to reflect on. Reflection is a tool to become a better learner and a better peer. 

Unlearning thought

Are you a collaborator or a task sharer?


Divergent vs. Convergent Thinking: How to Strike a Balance

Beyond facts: divergent thinking