Collaborative Learning

The In-Person peer support provider training uses a Collaborative Learning approach, to show by example the peer support core values of equality, mutuality, and shared power. The article below by Steve Harrington (executive director of iNAPS) describes the approach used in the Recovery to Practice (RTP) in-person training sessions.

Collaborative Learning by Steve Harrington

Traditional learning can be described as “I am the expert, I speak. You listen.” This is the didactic (lecture) approach most of us experienced throughout school.

Performance-based learning moves the focus from “tell me” to “let me,” providing the learner with practice in the skills needed to be successful. In this model, a teacher creates lessons with opportunities to practice these essential skills.Collaborative learning is similar, but rather than a teacher deciding what needs to be taught, it is the participants who collectively determine (through shared experience) the intent and content of the learning experience.

In collaborative learning, there are facilitators but their focus is on creating a learning environment where collaboration can happen rather than being the source of learning (the facilitator becomes a “guide on the side, not a sage on the stage”. Thus the job of the facilitator is to set up group exercises, energizers, discussions, role plays and debriefing questions that allow the group to fully participate, deeply understand and synthesize what was learned. Ideally, there are several facilitators and they take turns between facilitating and participating as full members of the group.

Where is the focus of the learning?

What sometimes happens when organizations attempt to adapt traditional training to be more interactive is that they simply insert activities into lectures.

While this approach is a move in the right direction, problems remain. Specifically, it is still the traditional, “I speak. You listen. You participate as I decide,” which perpetuates the power dynamic (a “teacher” or “expert,” remains at the head of the group and maintains power over the whole group). Even with an occasional activity, the result is still mostly passive learning with little development of skills that can be transferred to the job. People seldom leave this kind of experience with a clear understanding of how to apply what they have learned.

Collaborative learning is closer to self-directed learning

There is no teacher with “right answers.” Instead, the process facilitators set up thought-provoking exercises and encourage open, candid, and frank discussion – and leadership is shared with all group members. Open-ended questions initiate the discussion and ensure key concepts are addressed. As much as possible, facilitators sit among the group (not standing or at the head of the group) to demonstrate that everyone is equal with equal responsibility for the success of the training.

In our experience, challenges faced by facilitators include:

1) ensuring the learning environment is welcoming and comfortable,

2) ensuring key topics are understood by all,

3) ensuring time constraints are known and observed,

4) ensuring discussion is not “monopolized” by a few, and

5) ensuring all learners are respected.

During discussion, the facilitator must also be aware of opportunities for spontaneous experiential learning. For example, during a discussion, issues regarding a lack of cultural awareness may arise. The facilitator might ask some learners to assume roles in a hypothetical situation to demonstrate ways in which a greater awareness of discrimination and cultural differences can be addressed in practice.

After each experience, the facilitator thoroughly debriefs (and de-roles) the role players and the audience and brings it back to what it means to the practice of peer support. As the training unfolds, learners with specific challenges on the job may volunteer to create their own experiential learning process and engage members of the group to help find solutions to those real-world challenges. Again, through a thorough debrief, the whole group can give different perspectives and new ways to look at difficult challenges.

Participants catch on early in the training that the learning experience is theirs and the more they participate, the more the whole group benefits. Collaborative learning is based on the philosophy that:

• Everyone is an expert in something regardless of formal or informal education.
• Expertise based on lived experience is sought, recognized and honored.
• Participation is maximized.
• Everyone is a learner.
• Power differentials are minimized.
• Group wisdom is more powerful than a single perspective.
• All participants and opinions are respected.
• Facilitator sharing and candor “permits” others to do the same.
• Key concepts/skills are addressed by the group through effective facilitation and the use of open-ended questions.
• Ample resource materials are readily available for all learners.


Steve Harrington is the executive director of the International Association of Peer Supporters (iNAPS) and writes extensively on topics related to peer support practice, policy, and organizational development. To learn more, contact Steve Harrington at: steve@naops.org


To learn more about the Recovery to Practice training for peer support providers or to schedule a training in your location, contact us at: training@naops.org.