Peer-to-peer approaches are widely used to contend that various groups of people, such as young people or fellow students, should teach each other – without needing a qualified teacher. According to the theory, identification, experience and proximity strengthen learning, but the extent to which these mechanisms are actually invoked in the peer relationships is almost never investigated. A new study of peer-to-peer teaching among young people tried to remedy this. The study indicates the importance of making the young inspirers more aware of their own role and supporting them in using their personal experience and knowledge.
They lead training in street sports and street culture for local children and young people. They are volunteers and act as role models in segments of society that are socioeconomically challenged. Youth leaders are at the heart of the worldwide non-profit street sport organisation, GAME. They contribute to creating social change and promoting health through their life skills. The peer-to-peer approach in GAME is far from unique and is commonly used in health promotion, but the question is whether the peer relationships (peerness) contributes independently and how to support ensuring that this happens. A group of researchers examined this.
“Although the approach is popular, how peer leadership independently contributes is not fully understood. Since the way the peerness of youth leaders is activated is unclear, we investigated how peer leaders can be supported in this during various activities. By observing and analysing the young peer leaders’ training programmes in GAME, we found that the method’s success crucially depends on whether the youth leaders obtain sufficient insight into their own role – what being a peer means – and that the programme developers give the young people space to activate their own experience and knowledge in their relationships with their peers,” explains a lead author, Julie Hellesøe Christensen, Postdoctoral Researcher, Steno Diabetes Center Copenhagen.
The new study was carried out as part of a partnership between researchers and GAME. However, the focus was on GAME’s training of volunteer peer leaders in Denmark who mostly either reside or have resided in the communities in which the activities are implemented. They are all 16–25 years old and have various educational, socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. They are also all trained to carry out street sports activities independently and have daily responsibility for implementing the activities within the framework of GAME’s approach and values.
“Peer-led programmes engage groups of people considered to share one or more characteristics or experiences with the peers they teach. This is what makes them peers and what creates the identification and function as a role model in peer-to-peer interaction, which makes them more credible than a professionally qualified teacher. The question we asked was how peer leaders can be trained to actually support these expected mechanisms,” says Julie Hellesøe Christensen.
To build a theoretical framework for the study, the researchers used three forms of knowledge originally proposed by Aristotle millennia ago: techne (practical knowledge ), phronesis (practical wisdom) and episteme (theoretical knowledge).
“Our results suggest that this type of programme should support the development of both practical knowledge and practical wisdom but largely also increasing emphasis on promoting practical wisdom in peer leadership training can help to promote the effect of the young leaders’ peerness in peer-to-peer programmes. So improving knowledge about what being a peer means and how peer leaders can involve themselves and implement their experiences is very important for a peer-to-peer approach to activate the expected mechanisms,” explains Julie Hellesøe Christensen.
Accommodating the peer leaders’ own experiences
GAME’s special focus on children and adolescents who grow up in socioeconomically challenged neighbourhoods places special demands on the young volunteer role models and their ability to foster empowerment and physical activity among peers who do not always experience positive well-being. This also places special demands on training these young peer leaders, who need to have good moral judgement and understand the different conditions under which children and young people grow up compared with training other young people, for whom learning knowledge of techniques or physical training may be more important.
“Before peer-to-peer approaches can work, the peers must be able to mirror themselves in each other, young person to young person, equal to equal. If this approach is used, the peer relationships should be in focus as an important aspect of the programme with an independent contribution. So this is more than just pure knowledge of techniques within a specific sport; this means recognising and activating the peer leaders’ own experiences and knowledge in training the peer leaders and during the street sports activities. The young volunteers implementing their own experiences is incredibly important, because this can influence the peers’ willingness to confide in them about some of the problems they struggle with in their everyday life, and getting the opportunity to talk about them is at least as important as sports,” says Julie Hellesøe Christensen.
The study highlights that both practical knowledge about the specific sport being taught – such as technique, rules and how the activity can be adapted to the context – and practical wisdom about how to make good decisions in a given context are important in peer-to-peer programmes such as GAME.
“The study contributes a theoretical approach to designing peer leadership training in health promotion activities, in which the peer relationships become a key aspect of the programme. We thereby hope that this will more strongly support the development of the expected processes in the peer-to-peer approach, such as identification and that peer leaders are authentic and function as role models ,” concludes Julie Hellesøe Christensen.