How do adult professionals learn? Not surprisingly, from each other.

You’ve decided to stop eating out so much and want to try out some easy weeknight dinner recipes that any novice can handle. You’re looking to invest in a new stock and want some tips on where to make your bet. Your newborn is kick-starting a singing career early with daily vocal training between the hours of 1 AM and 5 AM and you want to know how other parents are handling the noise. Where do you start?

You could buy a cooking book off of Amazon, take a class on investing 101, or visit the pediatrician’s office: all are effective ways to learn, whether your objective is to cook chicken Parmesan, build a promising stock portfolio, or lull your toddler to sleep. However, these methods are time consuming and effortful endeavors. More likely, you’d take to the web, where countless parent forums and stock market aficionados reside for your information fix. Or you might email a group of your gal pals for their suggestions on what’s easy and fast to cook for dinner.

Much of adult learning occurs in this manner. Adults seek out the wisdom and experiences of other adults who have “been there, done that.”

A “Collective Mentoring” Model of Adult Learning

Outside of formal, competitive education settings such as undergraduate or graduate school where grades are considered and degrees awarded, learning often takes place in laid-back oases of information exchange such as online forums and community groups. Of course, learning occurs just as often through informal social gatherings and outings — remember the last time you discussed work or relationship problems over a drink with friends?

In fact, much of our every day knowledge comes from engaging with groups of similarly-situated friends and strangers alike, connected through a mutual need for information exchange. People rely on friends for relationship advice, strangers across the internet for housekeeping hacks, or veteran coworkers to learn the ropes at a new job. Knowledge-imparting hubs where many individuals can come together to share common challenges and experiences, may well be the most common form of learning that takes place after adults leave the context of formal education that results in a degree. This form of adult learning is a phenomenon we term “collective mentoring.”

How is collective mentoring different from individual or peer mentoring?

Unlike peer mentoring, which involves one peer mentoring another peer, and unlike group mentoring, which involves one individual who usually is older and more experienced mentoring a group of mentees, collective mentoring leverages the collective experiences of groups of individuals who both receive and impart knowledge. Social communities allow many individuals who are facing the same problems or questions to come together to air their unique challenges, to hear similar challenges that others are facing, and to gain the wisdom shared among a collection of individuals.

This type of learning is both dynamic and bi-directional since it leads to spontaneous areas of learning in areas of shared interest and assumes that everyone has something to contribute.

What does collective mentoring mean for professional or executive education?

Not all adult education occurs in informal settings: in recent decades, more and more people have been returning to the classroom to learn — sometimes for degrees, sometimes not. University-run executive education programs have increased in correlation with the enlarged demand for continuing education and professional training among working adults. Aimed at a market of business executives and corporate bigwigs, many executive education programs are designed to help both mid- and senior-level managers develop their leadership, management, marketing, and financial skills to help their companies succeed.

After decades of adult learning research suggesting that adults learn better through collaborative group work than through the traditional lecturing style offered at schools, at least some of these executive education programs have begun transitioning their curriculum away from lecture-heavy classes towards new, more discussion-based types of learning.

In our research study exploring the short- and long-term benefits of a non-degree executive education program for senior university administrators at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, we found that the program employs a collective mentoring approach in its classes to mimic the natural informational exchange that occurs in adult social communities. The program structured sessions so that participants could discuss their individual challenges at work with other professionals in the program as well as offer solutions to the case studies presented by their program colleagues. Through large and small group discussion and collaboration with each other and with the program facilitators, they mentored each other on how to address their work challenges.

Why is collective mentoring particularly important for professionals?

Collective mentoring may be particularly important in professional learning since it fills a learning gap not generally provided in work contents. Our primary learning modes take place through three common mediums: books, discussion, and experience. In formal schooling, learners have access to readings and participate in discussion of the material in and outside of class, but have little work experience to which to relate their readings or discussions. At work, learners have access to books and have work experience, but often little opportunity for discussion or reflection on what they are reading or experiencing at work.

A collective mentoring model for professional learning enables the intersection of experience and discussion to facilitate professional learning. Those who participate in it are able to hear as well as contribute to a diversity of views, gain perspective and information, and cover blind spots. It offers a professionally relevant, shared conversation that is not just a casual exchange of pleasantries, but a mutual and multiplied mentoring process for professionals as well.

Adult Learning Outside the Classroom

Collective mentoring doesn’t just happen inside the classroom: often, participants in executive education program will work together on assignments and projects outside of the classroom, displaying natural tendencies to seek out and exchange information. Many executive education programs also provide social events and opportunities to network, prompting the formation of longer-term knowledge-sharing communities. Rather than merely impart learning, it seems that newer models of executive education also strive to facilitate methods of learning that adults naturally gravitate towards.

It is difficult to evaluate whether new executive education teaching methods, such as collective mentoring, are more effective than traditional lecture-styled programs. But collective mentoring does capitalize on a foundational principle of adult education, which recognizes that adult professionals come to their learning experiences with a wealth of experience and expertise that executive education programs would be wise to incorporate.

Barbara Hou is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University where she has taught courses on organizational management, adult learning, and adult development. She is also the author of the forthcoming book Startups Demystified: Founders Share Strategies, Secrets, and Lessons Learned.

Katie Chen is a research assistant at the Leadership Lab Initiative based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a junior at Amherst College.

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