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Running the Race Together: Five Benefits to Peer Learning Cohorts

Bassirou Karbo with the chickens he raised while learning from another TLT trainee in Nigeria.
Bassirou Karbo with the chickens he raised while learning from another TLT trainee in Nigeria.

There’s a reason schools were started to educate children. It wasn’t solely because of the efficiency of having one teacher for several students; it’s also because learning in a group setting can bring many benefits. While we can read a book on our own or learn any number of things via YouTube videos, having a community of people learning together can help us explore a topic more deeply and gain from each other’s wisdom.

That’s the idea behind peer learning and small groups. Global Coffee Break, Timothy Leadership Training, and Educational Care, the programs of Raise Up Global Ministries, all use peer learning and small groups for powerful personal, communal, and kingdom change. Here are a few examples: 

Peer Learning Broadens Perspectives

“When we learn together, we see our situation or problem through another’s eyes,” explained Raise Up director Sam Huizenga. “We also stand in the shoes of another and enter into their situation. This helps us to see the path before us with new eyes.”

What Raise Up has seen through its programs is that the world becomes differently colored as each person in a small group shares from their God-given gifts and experiences. It allows each individual to become dispensers of the grace God has given them. 

“New options, possibilities, inclusivity, empathy, and healing are gifts that arise as our perspective is broadened,” Huizenga said. “Peer learning is both intensely personal, with the ability to focus individually, but also uniquely expanding.” 

In Uganda, for example, male and female teachers from the Bari community have been participating in learning groups to explore Educational Care’s interactive manual “A Biblical Worldview.” This includes an exploration of what it means to be a servant. 

According to Raise Up’s local partners, within the Bari community there is a strict division between men and women in domestic work. Women do most of the domestic chores, such as cooking, cleaning the house, caring for children, and acquiring food. While the men have their own roles to play, they are used to being waited upon by the women in their lives. 

However, as the peer group interacted in the cohort together, this began to change. Discussing the manual and hearing about the experience of women, the men decided of their own volition to serve the women. They washed the women’s hands, served them food, and cleaned up after the meal. 

Alex, a head teacher, testified about his changed mindset when it came to domestic work. “I now will be serving God by serving others, especially mothers,” he said. The path in front of them was changed and steps along a new path were taken—together. 

Peer Learning Brings Depth

When people move from passive to active learning, Huizenga said, “it effectively engages what educational professionals call the ‘learning loop.’ This includes reflection on our situation, gaining new information and perspectives, application and experimentation about what we have learned, and then evaluation and feedback. We do more than just solve (a problem) or take an expert’s generic advice; we also begin to understand deeply what this means for us, our calling, and our community.” 

This is exactly what happened when Marian Lensink invited women from across Canada to experience a taste of Global Coffee Break. Fifty women signed up to meet together via video conference to explore the study Discover Prayer

The women formed two groups and met for seven weeks. While the participants expected to leave the study with more information about prayer, they also experienced unexpected outcomes. As Lensink asked curious, open-ended questions, the women found themselves building relationships. They heard about each other’s struggles and began to care deeply for one another. They learned about the value of discovery and the depth that comes from praying together. Some even decided to put learning into action by continuing their learning in new small groups after the class ended. 

“While this study was about prayer, I believe that the learning that took place went way beyond that,” Lensink said. “Participants also learned about listening to others and about the value of community, and each deepened their own faith and understanding of relationships along the way.” 

Peer Learning Brings Safety

“Transformation is alluring, but it can also be challenging,” explained Huizenga. Peer learning creates safe spaces where participants can grow and expand their thinking. These safe places level paths, strengthen knees, and heal the lame, as it says in Hebrews 12:12-16. Safety gives people courage to try new things and step out in grace.

Global Coffee Break, for example, creates safe places for people—especially those new to the Bible—to connect with the Word of God and ask challenging questions. Bae Jeong Eun participated in a Global Coffee Break program in San Diego. When she joined the group, she did so as someone who was skeptical about Christianity but curious about the Bible as a book of wisdom. 

“I remember the first time I came to Global Coffee Break,” she said. “I was a person who had only a vague desire to read the Bible, but I had no faith. I just wanted to add more knowledge. I had some fears and doubts at first because I was studying the Bible, but nevertheless, the Global Coffee Break sisters accepted me as I was. They responded to my wacky questions seriously. I liked the way the small group leader encouraged communication among the group, helping us learn through sharing.” 

The mutual sharing helped Bae in her spiritual journey. Unlike other Bible textbooks or study groups, she said, Global Coffee Break materials and her leader did not come with an agenda. They did not judge her as a nonbeliever and did not force her to accept any answers. 

“Even if it was a bit slow and challenging, it was about finding my own faith through the Word,” Bae said. “I think that might be the most valuable achievement I received through Coffee Break.” 

Bae was baptized on Easter Sunday 2022.

Peer Learning Offers Accountability

“All too often,” Huizenga said, “we find ourselves in situations where we have knowledge but have not applied it. We fail to clearly define the destination or the steps needed to arrive. Accountability keeps the focus on practical application and results as we share our next steps and changes with the group.”

The accountability that comes from learning with others not only fosters greater learning, it also results in praise to God as learners step back and deliberately recount the changes they have seen. 

“No longer are the small progress steps lost in the longer journey,” Huizenga said. “Instead, we become accountable to God to share the unique perspectives and experiences he has given us with the wider body of Christ.”

Consider Bassirou Karbo’s story. Karbo is from Niger and participated in a peer cohort with Timothy Leadership Training. Together, the group went through the manual Christian Stewardship and explored the idea that we have all been given gifts from God, who wants us to use those gifts to flourish and further God’s kingdom. 

“The idea that came to me was to raise chickens,” Karbo said. “I asked the local Bible school for a small space, and they granted me some. I made a chicken coop so that my hens would not be in contact with other hens, to possibly avoid diseases.”

The accountability from other group members helped him persevere. He reported back to the group about what he was learning and the challenges he was facing. His TLT trainer connected him with someone from Nigeria who has training in raising chickens. Bassirou now has peer support and a friend to walk with him. With this partnership, he plans on setting up a larger coop to raise broiler hens and eggs to benefit his family and his church. 

Peer Groups Remind Us That We Are Not Alone 

“One of the greatest potholes in the path of transformation is the isolation we experience and the feeling of being alone,” Huizenga said. “But as a group, we pick each other up when we fail and we find new strength, together, to continue. There is a unique camaraderie born from running the race together.” 

Peer learning gives new perspectives, but it also creates shared ground. The grace-based accountability we experience as a group gives us motivation to persevere.

It can be easy to minimize the encouragement that comes from the relational aspect of learning. In our individualized, information-based world, we often feel that other people are unnecessary. This, however, is the very heart—the power, the energy, the shaper—to learning. 

In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis says, “Friendship … is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself … .’” That’s true for learning, too. Brain science continues to underline that learning is inherently relational. Transformation happens when we share our lives as well as our knowledge.

We all know what it felt like when COVID hit, when the path in front of us seemed to drop out of sight like a bridge falling into the water. The TLT Trainers Care Network provided an international peer group to persevere together using a social media platform called WhatsApp. 

Most of the TLT training groups were completely shut down during the pandemic, with no access to Zoom or streaming services for getting learners together. This trainers’ peer group used the technology they had available to encourage each other and share steps they were taking in their communities. They reported that even when their hands were weak, they were able to continue praying for each other. 

As a result, TLT training was able to adapt and change throughout the pandemic and could pick back up once restrictions were lifted. Today, TLT groups and leaders continue to find the WhatsApp group a source of learning and encouragement.

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