Herding Passionate Cats: The Role of Facilitator in a Peer Learning Process

Over at Mozzadrella, Vanessa, a fellow P2PU community member has been writing about the challenges of supporting learner responsibility and trying to be a facilitator, but not a teacher. I started to write a comment, but it emerged into a rare, spontaneous blogpost.

Expecting learners to take responsibility for their own learning is a built-in value for P2PU–the courses are free, so our participants don’t “have” to do anything… Balancing the need for some structure with this kind of freedom is a task I’ve found particularly difficult.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues, especially how to balance independent learning with the collective study group / course participants’ learning.
i.e. How can you herd cats while still recognising that each cat is a VERY special snowflake ?

Additionally, most people initiate a course out of their own interest and are learners with needs of their own to be met, not just a herder of cats!

Freestyle Learning Organisation Notes

There’s a new type of facilitation and participation model which we (peer and non-formal / informal learners) need to surface and define more tightly both for online and real world groups. Many facilitators and participants within P2PU and similar learning communities have instincts and innate knowledge that they apply to these situations, but we still haven’t worked out how to identify, clarify or share this practice well yet.  In particular we need to develop models that support the needs of learners working through existing course structures (eg. MIT Open Courseware – Physics 1) or groups who are working through an emerging problem space without clear learning guidelines in place (eg. What Philosophers Can Do for Artists)

That said, working towards a facilitation model like this would not produce something that is fixed and compulsory to use within a community like P2PU. I think that maybe it would be more like the many versions of World Cafe, Open Space, Unconference facilitation that exist and which emerge into new forms such as the Book Sprint methodology. A hackable model that is useful for its core approach and recommendations, but that can be reinterpreted and modified for the facilitator and specific learning context.

I’ve written a little about how to use open space idea gathering methodologies at a task development stage before. In addition I believe that there’s a lot to be learnt about the “cat herding” skills that facilitators use and that online learning facilitators can build on too.

Having just led some live facilitation in an open space manner last weekend I’m reflecting on how facilitators need to use an iron fist within a velvet glove as they keep participants on track and in line with the process’s social contract. Sure, in an “open” format like this discussion is emergent and driven by participants needs, but a break out session is still time defined and with clear report backs! In some contexts participants turning up late to a session are threatened with public singing as a punishment. What can we learn from methodologies such as this to support a peer learning group?

Maybe its best for organisers to be a little bit tighter with when new learners can join a group, or to work with participants to define mutually agreed due dates for collectively identified tasks? I don’t know, but I have a feeling that in order to support effective “free and open participation” within groups we (facilitators) might find ourselves turning more to self-imposed structures that benefit both us and our peer learners.

2 responses to “Herding Passionate Cats: The Role of Facilitator in a Peer Learning Process”

  1. I saw this post by lucky chance, while restoring pages after a Chrome browser crash. Couldn’t pass up the title.

    One way to provide structure for an informal learning group would be to have an online competency test, as a target for the learning activity. (The style might be somewhere between a certification test and a video game.) Learners could take the test repeatedly if necessary, anywhere and any time. Ideally the test software would provide a random selection among a number of questions, programs to write, or other challenges, so that it wouldn’t be the same every time.

    The formal goal of qualifying in the test(s) would support the facilitator in keeping the learning activity on track. And give the learners a “take-home” reward.


  2. Thanks John! (Btw – responding to this has helped me a lot with how this process might look).

    I think continuing online competency tests are an excellent idea in many spaces but not applicable in all contexts and sadly not in the context I’m most experienced with.

    Specifically, the P2PU context means that _anyone_ can create a shared learning experience about _anything_. How can we help them with a basic process to learn anything with anyone so that the experience is more equitable and peer driven?

    In the situations where we know that learners will be exploring specific topics related to web development then there is the possibility to pre-define test content and challenges. (See the Webcraft Challenges: http://webmaking101.p2pu.org/)

    Course organisers and facilitators in the general P2PU context are 100% volunteers who may or may not have domain knowledge of the course they’re facilitating. Most likely they are pro-active learners who don’t have the time or knowledge to make a true test.

    As with the goals of defining a facilitation process, can this idea of competency “testing” be created as part of the peer activities themselves? I’m not sure if it could always be defined as a test – but we can use that as the grounding for this idea.

    Could an element of a recommended process model be creating a series of questions relating to the group’s initial goals (eg. Learn more about Aristotle’s life, Learn how to put an image in a web page) which participants return to and reflect on throughout the learning experience?

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