One Page: Peer led learning – a different way to learn

Ian Merrill
January 16, 2023

One Page

Welcome to 'One Page'. In this monthly newsletter, I will talk about the people I have met, and the things I have read or seen relating to Shannon Trust's vision, which is a future where everyone can experience the positive impact of learning. I hope these short pieces will start conversations, generate new ideas, and help our vision become a reality.


Peer led learning – a different way to learn


“Everyone is my teacher.” I think it was writer Eric Allen who first coined this phrase, though it’s been reproduced and adapted since. The point of course is that however well qualified we are, we can all learn from each other. Equally, we all have something to teach; some experience that we can share, to help someone else.


I see this principle as being at the heart of peer led learning. There are scholarly articles about the success of peer-based study in a classroom setting, but of course Shannon Trust’s down to earth experience is of its effectiveness in prisons.


When Shannon Trust started, over 20 years ago, the idea was simple – to support prisoners who could read to teach those who couldn’t. The aim was to improve prisoners’ lives. Learners could read letters from family and friends, or enjoy books and magazines to pass the time, and mentors could get some satisfaction from helping others. Both might also develop skills that could help them make a new start away from crime.


In a House of Commons report published last May, the Education Committee said a key purpose of education and training in prisons is to improve prisoners’ employability and opportunities, so reducing reoffending. They also noted other benefits. Education can help prisoners gain self-confidence, improve behaviour and benefit mental health given the isolated conditions in prison – “education has a value in itself, developing the person as a whole”.  


Currently, over half of people in prison can’t read, or struggle to, and the statistics for basic maths are similar. Some prisoners never really had an opportunity to go to school, and for various reasons others couldn’t engage with regular classroom teaching. Not having basic numeracy or literacy means it is almost impossible to engage with prison education and training, and the opportunities for personal and vocational development they offer.


At Shannon Trust we believe that nobody should be left out of learning. I believe our peer led reading and maths programmes make a difference; whether someone goes on to do further education courses or is happy with their individual achievements and the changes they’ve made in their lives.


So how does Shannon Trust’s peer led learning help people, particularly adults, who have struggled with formal teaching beforehand? I think there are a few factors.


Our learners and mentors work one to one, in short sessions, as far as possible in a relaxed and informal environment. They move through our learning material at the learner’s pace, so it’s very flexible. Learners can go back and work through something again, as many times as they need. Learning anything can sometimes seem to be one step forward and two steps back.


Our learners come to Shannon Trust because they want to learn. No one makes prisoners sign up. Most of our learners want to make some positive changes, perhaps to make use of their time inside, or to give themselves the best chance of a changed life away from crime or to keep in touch with family and friends outside. Learners’ motivation and enthusiasm makes a real difference.  


And most importantly, our learners and mentors form a bond. Most people need to trust someone to admit they can’t do something and ask for help. When people bond over working together they can both learn; they can both contribute something and both gain something. It’s a partnership, rather than the traditional teacher-pupil relationship we associate with schools and formal teaching. To me, this is the big strength of Shannon Trust’s peer led learning.


Some of the stories on our website illustrate this. Joe for example, missed out on school as a child and then spent most of his adult life in and out of prison. He wanted to be able to read his daughter’s letters himself, and to write his own letters back. It took a while working with his mentor Martin, but as Joe grew to trust his fellow prisoner he talked about his family and his efforts to write as well as read. Now Joe is an independent reader, and growing in confidence with his writing too. And his bonds with his family have deepened. Martin found Joe’s enthusiasm infectious and he had the satisfaction of seeing what a difference learning to read has made to Joe’s life.


Of course, a bond like that between Joe and Martin works both ways – learners can use their own experiences to support and encourage mentors too, and trusting relationships and the gift of listening can make all the difference to anyone in prison.


I think Shannon Trust began before the term ‘peer led learning’ was much used. What we did simply enabled one person to share their skills with another. There have been developments since then, but I like to think that this core principle of developing through a bond between two people continues as strongly as ever.


Please get in touch if anything I have written resonates with you; whether you agree, disagree or you have a suggestion for how we can improve what we do.

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