Learning from collective experience offers a wealth of benefits to those willing to invest in building a network, say Amanda Smethurst and Tamsin Curror.
© Jason Thompson
Creative People and Places (CPP) is an action research programme with learning at its core. Projects are encouraged to try out new approaches to engaging people in the arts: to take risks, evaluate and adjust. Peer learning is a critical element of this approach, supporting CPP projects to pause, reflect and benefit from their collective experience.
What is peer learning?
Peer learning is what happens when people undertaking similar activities share and reflect upon their knowledge and experiences directly with one another as fellow learners. It’s non-hierarchical and driven by participants – reflecting the democratic approach of CPP as a whole.
What are the key elements of an effective peer learning network?
- A core ethos and common aims
On the one hand, CPP is a bunch of 21 independent projects working in different places and responding to different challenges. On the other, we are anchored together by shared values, a commitment to learning and the common aims of the programme. This all helps with the crucial matter of buy-in. For peer learning to have an impact, members need to be committed to it, and prepared to invest time in developing a network.
- A structured, unstructured space
“Problem-solving, trouble-shooting, reassurance, expertise… It is a sociable network and I enjoy the goodwill and the kindness of the people within it.”
Face-to-face time is pivotal to developing a successful peer learning network. We come together three times a year for two days, with the dates set a year in advance. Our gatherings include one day for the directors of each CPP project to come together, and a second day which is open to wider CPP teams and themed around a specific issue. Bringing other voices into our gatherings – as provocations or as way of drawing breath and expanding our horizons – has also been important.
These incidental moments can often be where the magic happens
The sessions are facilitated, so we have someone to hold the space, create structure and encourage conversations. This has been important to ensuring that discussions are focused and include an element of challenge. But equally, the sessions are responsive to the needs of the people in the room. Participants co-design a set of principles for working together, which are revisited in each session.
They are always hosted by a CPP project, meaning we get to see under the skin of different places in the network, and explore different approaches. The structured daytime sessions give way to an informal evening out where social connections are strengthened over art, conversation, food and drink. These incidental moments can often be where the magic happens. We’ve learnt not to try and cram too much in, to shake things up when necessary, and to try out new structures.
- Cultivating openness and trust
“I value the honesty within the group and the relationships I have developed with many of the people on the programme. I feel it offers a safe and reassuring space to talk about each programme. The CPP network has enabled me to link to other programmes nationally and created many unexpected connections and opportunities.”
Our sessions aim to be a space where challenges and failures can be shared openly. These are not just cosy conversations, the ability to offer and respond to constructive criticism is a central part of the problem-solving process. This culture of mutual support has helped CPP projects that joined in later rounds to learn from more established projects. It’s also led to new collaborations and clusters of projects meeting informally outside the organised gatherings.
- From connections to connectedness
“Knowing you’re not alone. Feeling like you’re a part of something bigger”
The connections fostered through peer learning deepen over time into a sense of being part of a family. People know who to phone for a chat about a specific challenge and feel part of something that’s more than the sum of its parts. This feeling of connectedness has led to individual members representing the CPP network in national partnerships.
But gathering everyone together is not practical on a frequent basis. One other way we sustain the sense of connection is through an online platform, such as Workplace, where we can easily contact each other to share information and resources, and solve problems.
One of the biggest challenges is to get buy-in from everyone at the outset. Demonstrating the value of the process quickly helps members to see its potential and commit the time and headspace to participate. The challenge for members is to balance managing the day-to-day pressures of delivery with bringing their ‘whole selves’ to peer learning sessions. The logistics of getting together can also be challenging: several CPP projects are located away from major transport routes. Setting dates in advance helps with this, as does a commitment from everyone to travel to different places each time.
It has taken time to evolve into a true network, and for everyone to be completely honest with each other. But since we've reached this stage, the depth of conversations and level of learning has shifted substantially. There’s also been inevitable churn as people move in and out of CPP director roles, so finding a way to integrate new members on an ongoing basis is something to think about. It can also be challenging to define your ‘voice’ as a network, when it encompasses multiple perspectives and approaches.
Peer learning is integral to the design of the CPP programme and is supported by Arts Council England. Other parts of the sector are thinking about the value of peer learning too. For example, another place-based initiative, the Creative Civic Change programme, has embedded it as central to their approach.
As we prepare to welcome 12 new projects into our network, we’re doing lots of thinking about how we can support those just starting out on their CPP journey. When we asked current projects for their top tips, the sense of community came through loud and clear. “Call your CPP friends and colleagues,” said one. “We are a shoulder for each other and only a phone call away.”