Peer Learning Groups and the Adult Learner

Discovering how adults learn is more than just an academic obsession of researchers and university professors. Instead, it is an important endeavor in today’s environment when learning is essential for organizations to remain competitive and forward-thinking.

Sir Malcolm Knowles, the “father” of adult learning, suggested 4 principles:

Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life.
Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities.
Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

To be effective, every learning and training initiative must incorporate these principles. Peer learning groups, as designed by The Peer Learning Institute for management development, are based on and satisfy these four principles.

Principle #1: Effective learning has immediate relevance and impact. Adults want to learn how to solve an immediate problem they have in their job. The managers who come together create their peer learning group around a selected topical module that will provide just-in-time knowledge and skill-building to help them better handle a current workplace challenge.

Principle #2: Effective learning is self-directed. Adults like to take responsibility for their learning decisions. Peer learning groups are self-directed. The managers themselves identify their learning need as a result of a workplace challenge that has stumped them. They direct the structured discussion of the issue. They select the knowledge and skills they choose to adopt and use.

Principle #3: Effective learning builds from experience. Adults have abundant knowledge from experience. They need to share what they know so they can build upon that knowledge. Given the right environment, adults can also learn from each other. The first peer learning group session begins by having the members identify, analyze and discuss where they have mishandled or poorly addressed a workplace challenge. This forms the basis for subsequent discussion of the root causes of the issue and alternative strategies to resolve it.

After experimentation between sessions one and two, the managers reflect on their experience and plan how they will alter their approach in the future to manage the specific challenge under consideration.

Principle #4: Effective learning is problem-centered. Adults prefer to target a specific topic or skill. A peer learning group, as described above, focuses on active problem solving through: the identification and analysis of alternative strategies in session one; the experimentation with a different strategy to address the problem during the time between sessions one and two; and the reflection and behavioral adjustment decision that occurs in session two.

A peer learning group that is built on these adult learning principles is an excellent laboratory for solving problems and trying new techniques to manage critical workplace challenges.

In summary, if you want your managers to learn effectively and develop professionally, it is wise to implement peer learning groups that embody the four principles of adult learning as advocated by Sir Malcolm Knowles.