Carolin Goethel

The Transformative Power of Peer-to-Peer Learning Networks

A plea for rhizomatic learning in community.



What would many happy citizens and trustworthy officials have become but unruly, stormy innovators and dreamers of useless dreams, if not for the effort of their schools? ― Hermann Hesse,
Beneath the Wheel

Hermann Hesse’s critique of an education system in which children are schooled to become conformist thinkers, lacking independent inquiry, imagination and vision is more pertinent than ever. It’s a system in which learning is a process of dispassionately downloading knowledge into our brains, breeding good functionaries to maintain our economic, political and social structures.

I remember sitting through dry top-down lectures with expert professors at university. I remember tedious all-nighters, trying to squeeze a year of content into my brain, just to recall it for an exam and have it vanish immediately. There was almost no trans-disciplinary exchange and hardly any practical application or practice. As a cultural scientist, I learned to critique the neoliberal capitalist system, but had little clue about how to ethically make a living in that very system when I graduated. My friends who studied business did. But they soon came to search for other ways of making business that prioritise actual social values over mere profit maximization.

Leaving university and entering the job market, many graduates find themselves in what anthropologist David Graeber calls bullshit jobs - selling products or services that no one really needs. And we’re back to Hermann Hesse’s point: students turn into the professional gears in our growth-based economic machine.

From business as usual to transformative learning

In a time when the global pandemic is erupting above the entangled crises of climate change, loss of biodiversity, extreme inequalities, racial violence, mental health degradation and political polarization, we must change how and what we learn. We cannot perpetuate the cultural paradigm that brought us here in the first place. Our education systems need to interweave different contexts and world views, and break the disciplinary silos of the academy. As Paulo Freire notes in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

Illustration of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire

Inspired by Freire’s pedagogy, Jack Mezirow coined the term transformative learning, encouraging learners to imagine and create alternatives to the current systems rather than maintaining them. Based on the premise that we learn to see our world-view rather than seeing with our world-view, transformative learning allows us to open up to new possibilities. It involves an understanding of ourselves, of our relationships with other humans and the natural world, of power relations and a desire to change the status quo through a deep structural shift.

Many new approaches to learning are gradually pervading school and university education. But how can we as adults empower ourselves to unlearn how and what we learned? How can we support each other in exploring our deepest curiosities and engaging our passions in meaningful work? Peer-to-peer approaches to adult education and personal development provide a path forward.

From top-down structures to rhizomatic peer-networks

The term ‘peer-to-peer’ designates an interactive learning and coaching style of a group at ‘eye level’. Peer comes from the Latin word par (equal). When you are on par with someone, you are their peer. Peer learning is therefore based on trust in the knowledge, experience and perspectives of all of the learners involved. Every student is also a teacher. It can take place in formal and informal settings, online or offline and is often self-organised.

Looking through a metaphorical lens, I love the concept of rhizomatic learning, developed by postmodern theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In botany, a rhizome is an entangled plant structure that grows underground and has both roots (the part that grows down into the ground) and shoots (the part that grows up through the ground). In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari explain:

The underground sprout of a rhizome does not have a traditional root. There is a stem there, the oldest part of which dies off while simultaneously rejuvenating itself at the tip. The rhizome’s renewal of itself proceeds autopoietically: the new relations generated via rhizomatic connections are not copies, but each and every time a new map, a cartography. A rhizome does not consist of units, but of dimensions and directions.

Now, let’s apply the botanical metaphor of the rhizome to our pedagogical approach. Rhizomatic learning describes a process of learning that does not come from a single central point of origin, that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in learning and in teaching. In a rhizomatic learning system, the community of learners is the curriculum. The system is less goal oriented as it allows learners to react to emerging circumstances , continuously generating new questions. In fact, the point is to embrace what we don’t know and never cease to ask questions. Rhizomatic learning acknowledges the diversity of knowledge production systems and therefore constitutes a model for an epistemological alternative to Western rationalism.

How does this work in practice? Here are some interesting initiatives that are based on peer-learning and rhizomatic ideas:

Peer 2 Peer University
(P2PU) is a remarkable experiment of a free open peer learning community that combines elements of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) and facilitated offline learning circles. Anyone can host a learning circle and invite people in their neighbourhood to regularly meet in public spaces to study topics together. Themes range from coding skills and web design, to fiction writing and English as a foreign language. Everything at P2PU is free and open source.

Enrol Yourself’s Learning Marathon is another brilliant example where each learner creates their own curriculum and develops their own project as part of a themed peer group. Over six months 8–12 learners meet bimonthly to support each other in their learning and growth. Each learner has their own question that connects to a wider theme set by the trained group host. Thought provoking themes range from business unusual, to fatherhood, grief tending, rewilding, transcending the echo chambers etc. With a strong focus on diversity, hosts bring together participants from a wide range of backgrounds. This helps to break the disciplinary silos and allows for an expansion of perspective and a transformative learning experience. Facilitation of the meetups rotates, and mutual support is offered through peer coaching sessions.

At a Learning Marathon Session in London @ Enrol Yourself Archive
Peer-to-peer coaching is also at the core of tbd*s Purpose Fellowship, an 8 week programme designed to support participants in finding and realising their purpose. Participants learn various coaching tools and regularly meet online to support each other in stepping into their power and aliveness.

The Presencing Institute’s Ulab 2x is a four-month, multi-local innovation journey that supports teams and groups in locations across the globe to develop innovative solutions to some of the most pressing issues. The course convenors offer some tools and methods, and it’s then up to the teams to learn about the respective challenges they’re tackling. It’s free to join and is based on action learning principles.

Of course this trend towards flat learning structures and “peer-to-peer” networks doesn’t make expert teachers or professional coaches obsolete. Instead, it enables anyone to step into their agency and take responsibility for their own learning and development. It constitutes a move away from blindly consuming knowledge and relying on experts towards curiosity driven learning, reciprocal relationships and rhizomatic systems in which everyone shares their gifts and resources.

Learning as relationship

Peer-learning is empowering. But does it also work well?

A growing body of research shows that learning is a highly social and emotional affair. The Aspen Institute’s paper on social, emotional and academic development demonstrates that the cognitive, social and emotional components of learning are inextricably linked. We learn a lot better when embedded in trusting and appreciative relationships with our teachers and peers. Psychological safety, ie. a trustful environment that allows for vulnerability and mistakes, is proven to enable high performance in learning and work environments. Building these kinds of trusting relationships between peers is at the core of peer-to-peer learning and support networks.

Having designed a year-long learning journey for myself — a patchwork of peer-learning groups and top-down studies including yoga, permaculture, Portuguese and deep ecology — I know that I have learned most sustainably from exchanges with other learners. These curious humans have inspired me with their projects, initiatives and ways of seeing and being in the world. Peer-learning helped me to get to know myself better, to transcend my own perspective and to step into collective leadership. I also realized that I continued some old learning patterns that hadn’t worked so well for me before. I went into intense periods of learning from experts without leaving enough space and time to process and practice what I had learned. I often missed an accountability buddy, a learning community and a mutual support system to accompany me throughout the whole journey.

Like Hermann Hesse, I long for a world in which everyone dares to dream and follow their deepest curiosities and passions. Let’s move away from a culture of competition, relentless consumption and numbness towards a world of aliveness, cooperation, mutual support and reciprocity. Let’s embrace not knowing all the answers and continue to ask new questions. Let’s be like rhizomes! The ways in which we learn and the ways in which we relate to each other are part of creating that new culture.

So what are you waiting for?

Join a peer-to-peer learning and support group and start co-creating the more beautiful and healthy future you know is possible.

first version of this blog post appeared on the Tbd* blog in January 2021.
Words by Carolin Goethel
With a background in postcolonial and cultural studies and work experience in social enterprises, tech start ups and civil society organisations, Carolin is a community weaver, facilitator and educational experience designer. Carolin has worked on migration issues, sustainable food systems and leadership education.