We tend to think of acquiring new skills or knowledge as a solitary endeavor. From the neat little rows of desks in elementary schools to the massive lecture halls of universities, learning usually means picking up a book, taking a class or listening to a lecture. One method that is often overlooked is using peers as agents of learning and team development. Peer learning or cohort teams make the learning assignment shared by a collaborative team. Individuals collectively acquire knowledge and experience, share new information and hold each other accountable for assignments and insights. Learning teams are a realistic, fundamental way to build collaboration in the workplace.
Cohort learning teams can not only enrich the learning experience, they can add to the learning content itself by bringing into the experience multiple perspectives, multiple learning styles and numerous unique backgrounds and experiences. Successful cohort learning groups often have the added benefit of team development, creating a new community for the individual learners that will exist long after the team experience has ended.
Cohort learning has its roots in decades of academic and business research.. A sample of prominent peer learning theorists who describe team development and learning include:
- Social psychologist Albert Bandura who used the term “social learning” in his early work on child development in the late 1970’s. Bandura talked about learning that occurs in a social context through modeling and observational learning.
- Business guru Peter Senge brought the concept of team development and learning to light in his book The Fifth Disciple: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1990). Senge promoted practices that allowed organizations to learn and grow. He was a strong proponent of teams that did not simply perform the task at hand but who made vigorous use of tools and techniques to capture lessons learned and thus grow their skills and abilities while performing team work.
- At the same time that Senge was describing team development and learning, cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wagner coined the term Communities of Practice. Communities of Practice are groups of individuals who share the same profession or professional focus. Communities of Practice members openly share knowledge, experiences, tools, and information, anything that adds to the collective understanding of the team and support team development. Communities of Practice became popular in the late 1990’s when knowledge management, especially in IT organizations, became a serious business focus, especially when developing standardized procedures and practices.
Even with such sound theoretical credentials, the business community has been slow to pick up on the concept of cohort or peer learning. Higher education, especially the business school MBA programs, makes heavy use of cohort teams. Some cynically observe that cohort teams take some of the instructional burden off of the professors. Yet many students will claim that the majority of the learning they receive in these programs is from the team experience. The prior business experience required for most MBA students further ensures that they each bring validity and richness to their contributions.
Leadership development programs can be substantially enhanced by the use of cohort teams. Peer teams by definition lack an individual with positional authority to serve as the team leader. The leader role on the team is shared by everyone. Individuals contribute their knowledge and experience to the learning mix. They add their individual perspective on the learning assignment and then make commitments on actions and activities to bring to subsequent team meetings. Team members hold each other accountable for commitments in a way that is much more powerful than a single situational authority figure. This shared leadership accelerates the team development and collaboration.
Cohort teams, when used with other learning vehicles, can result in a leadership development program (LDP) that addresses a variety of learning modalities. Recently, I partnered with Kevin Nourse, PhD of Nourse Leadership Strategies, to develop a year-long LDP that utilizes an instructor-led workshop, webinars and cohort learning teams. The workshop allows us to introduce the LDP participants to an emotional intelligence (EI) assessment and to coach them to create individual development plans to address their EI growth areas. Emotional intelligence plays a vital role in a leader’s success yet the model is complex and benefits greatly from the face-to-face interaction one gets in a live workshop. The webinars enable us to focus on individual key leadership competencies such as conflict management and influencing others.
The LDP participants also design and execute professional projects during the program. The project is conceived and executed by the individual participant who then utilizes the cohort team as a project advisory board and think tank for ideas, feedback and encouragement. The cohort teams are designed to serve two purposes: they are used as discussion forums around the webinar competencies and the development plans from the emotional intelligence assessment and to obtain feedback and peer guidance on progress on their professional projects.
Recent improvements in collaboration technology have made virtual cohort teams more feasible and cost effective. Wiki sites and other cloud-based document repositories allow teams to readily share information. Skype and other VOIP services make long distance voice and video connectivity inexpensive. Virtual meeting technology from vendors such as Adobe and Citrix afford virtual meeting platforms at reasonable prices. For example, our LDP program consisted of 30 participants broken down into 6 cohort teams spread coast-to-coast and at one point even had one participant joining in from Germany.
The participants in this LDP have shared with us that the cohort learning teams have had a profound influence on the success of their projects and on the depth of their learning. Many of the teams developed into real learning communities with the team members electing to continue monthly meetings long after the program ended. By using cohort learning teams and experiential assignments, the LDP participants learn not only critical leadership competencies but also a process to use to continue their learning and development for years to come.
Bandura, A. (1962). Social Learning through Imitation. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, NE
Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
Senge, P. M. (1990) The Fifth Disciple: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, Doubleday, NY
Senge, P.M. (1994) The Fifth Disciple Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building the Learning Organization, Doubleday, NY
Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press, MA
Wenger, E., McDermott, R. & Snyder, W. (2002) Cultivating Communities of Practice, Harvard Press, MA
Waagen, A. (2013) Cohort Learning. Workforce Learning LLC Newsletter,