The Blessings of Collaborative Learning Cohorts

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Does the following statement describe you?  

When I die, I want the people I did group projects with to lower me into my grave so they can let me down one last time.   

When your teacher announced that it was group project time, did you rejoice or did you cringe?   

Those of you who ended up being the worker bees probably decided from your first group endeavor that independent learning would always be your best bet. If we are honest, there may be others of us who remember wrestling with the subtle shame factor that comes from possible exposure when the group finds out that: "In fact, I do not understand the math concept we are exploring and now everyone else knows.” I remember feeling both, depending upon which subject we were studying.          

There has been quite a bit of talk about learning cohorts lately. Churches are being invited to join peer learning groups that involve as little effort as reading and regular online discussion of a book, to Faith Formation Ministries’ next learning cohort looking at Faith Practices that Strengthen Faith Formation Culture to a longer commitment like the Ridder Church Renewal initiative. Invitation into these learning groups is being met with mixed reactions. Wouldn’t it be more efficient and effective to consider some of these ministry themes on our own when we have time? Does applying for a cohort signal that our congregation is in trouble? Won’t this take away from getting real work done?  

So, why all of this emphasis on collaborative learning? And, why should those of us who have been let down by “group” work think about trying it now? Here are six compelling reasons why churches might want to consider joining a peer learning group and why the denomination is putting energy in supporting such groups:

  1. Cohort learning offers a type of safe learning environment. (Hear me out on this one.) It creates a secure platform from which congregations can safely experiment with new ideas and initiatives. For many congregations, experimentation and change is risky business, so they never do it. For others, it is too time consuming or there is fear that it will take resources away from ministry that is already happening in the church. Blessing: Membership in a cohort provides both the impetus and rationale for trying new things while providing a broader group that can provide unbiased and un-anxious feedback to each other throughout the process.
  2. Cohort learning is supported and supportive learning. Collaborative learning cohorts often include some type of coaching element which provides someone to walk alongside both the group as a whole as well as the individual congregations themselves. Blessing: Coaches help connect the members of the group with each other, connect congregations and the group to useful resources, and facilitate helpful conversation among the group members so that members can begin to support each other through the learning process. Blessing: As the members of the cohort share their experiences and insights, the group grows relationally and begins to serve as agents of encouragement, challenge, and when necessary, commiseration.
  3. Cohort learning is shared learning. Many congregations don’t have the capacity for multiple or ongoing experimentation. Blessing: While in a cohort, members learn vicariously through each other’s experiences. Members can learn from both successes and failures. They can share both insights and work products so that when ideas or programs are imported into new church settings, there is an awareness of why something worked in one congregation and what might need to be tweaked for it to work in a new context.  
  4. Cohort learning is expanded learning. When a group explores a similar theme within each of their particular contexts, the learning can be richer and can cover more surface area. Blessing: There is the possibility of exponential growth as members bring in a variety of experiences, insights, resources, and ideas.
  5. Cohort learning is accountable learning. Every year congregations or ministry councils set goals to explore, look into, try, (etc.) all sorts of things that fall off the wish list due to the tyranny of the urgent or the often overwhelming pull of daily maintenance. Blessing: When churches covenant to study and explore together  these things are more likely to actually happen.               
  6. Cohort learning is process-oriented learning. One of the biggest challenges congregations have is taking time to actually process or debrief the experiments or experiences they have just undertaken together. We are quick to label something a success or a failure without asking the deeper “how’, “why” and “where to from here” questions. Blessing: Peer learning groups create space to analyze and synthesize what has been learned and provide motivation to incorporate those lessons into future experiments or other areas of ministry.

Want to learn more about where you or your congregation can possibly plug into some type of collaborative learning project? Let’s talk! Contact me at lvanmilligen@crcna.org or leave a comment below!

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