Learning and Development lessons from Spiderman: Lesson 2, Balance

Spiderman play station

Spiderman learned that with great power comes great responsibility and that he had to achieve a balance between these two competing issues. This blog looks at ways we can achieve more balance in adult education.

I recently attended the conference Brave New Learning at OBA in Amsterdam. This is the second blog on my learning and reflections of the conference. Last week I looked at creativity and this week it’s about balance in education. Next week I’ll look at storytelling and values.

Spiderman is well known for his balancing skills and dangling from a building and swinging through the air.

Balance is a good thing and I think it’s something we all want more of: work life balance, balance between the sweet treats and the salads, and balance between doing and being in our day to day lives.

Balance in education is also important especially when it comes to adult education and the need for us all to be lifelong learners in today’s rapidly changing workplaces: we need learning opportunities that complement our lives and our learning needs.

With adult education it’s important to create balance in learning opportunities where people are engaged and energized, where they are stretched and supported in a safe environment, and where they feel a connection with others and are able to contribute to others’ learning.

One form of free adult education that has been proven to do just this has achieved the following results:

1)     Course retention rates 10 times higher than online courses alone

2)     Support digital inclusion for people new to online learning

3)     Improve people’s opportunity to be life-long learners

4)     Increase individuals’ ability to set and achieve their own learning goals

5)     The formation of strong, social bonds between people from diverse backgrounds

So, what is this magical form of education?

It’s peer education, in particular learning circles where there is a trained facilitator rather than a teacher.

I took part in a thoughtful and interactive workshop on learning circles led by Nico Koenig, based in Ottowa, and Nicole James, based in Cologne.

In a nutshell, learning circles are a group of adults who physically come together to study an online course. All learning content is openly licensed and is free to use.

“We all have something to learn and we all have something to teach”

Learning circles began in 2014 in Chicago with a partnership between Chicago public libraries and P2PU, a peer education company. Today, learning circles are held, among other places, in more than 30 public libraries in the US and they are now being offered in countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. Chances are if there isn’t one in the city you live, there soon will be. Check out a list of current courses here.

Why digital learning isn’t a silver bullet

But, you may be reading this and thinking, “What’s all the fuss? Why are people coming together to do online courses? Why don’t they just do them at home? It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

And that’s kind of what I thought. A bit.

But then Nico led us through a really powerful exercise that demonstrated the power of learning circles.

We were presented with a screen that said this:


And we were asked to think about this statement, really think about, and explore what we might add to make it more accurate.

And you might also like to do this activity.

Get yourself a piece of paper and a pen. Or if you’re reading this on a device just take a few minutes to consider who is the real audience that online education is designed for.

And see what you come up with…

As a group this is what we created.

I think it’s a more honest and real definition of online learning. This is what we wrote:



And as an aside, if you work in L&D and you’re told that online education is the panacea to everything, “Just put it online, and that will sort stuff out” you can see that actually it doesn’t – unless you have a homogenous workforce that fits the forensic criteria above.

One of the huge strengths of learning circles is that they let people learn together and allow digital natives to help digital immigrants. It’s a more balanced way of adult education as it levels the playing field for those with different skills, knowledge and confidence.

For example, we all have something to learn and we all have something to teach others.

Nicole gave us a brilliant example of this.

She spoke passionately about her experience of setting up learning circles for the first time at Cologne Public Library. Nicole explained how she did the needs assessment to figure out what people wanted to learn and that this produced the first courses they would offer: bullet journaling, time management, photography, drawing and art history.

The art history course had two PhD students on the course and the feedback from this course was particularly glowing. People said that they loved that there were those who could guide and support others with less expertise and that this enriched the whole learning experience.

With great power comes great responsibility

And who doesn’t want a more enriching learning experience? Who doesn’t want to feel more connected to other learners? Who doesn’t want a learning experience where experiential learning is allowed to shine?

For me, the workshop made me think about learning and development in our workplaces.

If you’re reading this at work have a glance at the colleagues around you. They’ve been hired because of their skills, knowledge and talents. They know stuff.

And so do you.

Think how that could be shared in a learning circle.

Think how that could improve trust and teamwork. How it could empower people to realise that they have something to share with people that can help their learning.

Peer learning can achieve a greater balance in learning. It can be less intimidating and less scary for some and it brings diverse people together and strengthens bonds.

Getting back to Spiderman, we know that as he learned his new skills he was also keenly aware that with great power comes great responsibility.

He had to learn to balance this.

When we design and deliver adult education this is something we also need to hang onto and make sure that the learning opportunities we create have balance and a positive, inclusive effect on everyone.

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