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Harnessing the Power of Your Peers
Franklin C. Annis
Recently I returned from a rather disappointing military education course. While the course did redeem itself during the practical exercise on the last day of training, it largely was an exercise of route memorization. Although I wasn’t learning a lot from the course, I did take advantage of gaining a remarkable amount of knowledge from a couple of my peers. The results of our little study group were noteworthy. We placed 3rd, 4th, and 5th respectively in a class of 35, demonstrating that value of studying in a peer-group. Not only did we place well in terms of the grades in the class, we as a group placed emphasis on understanding the value of what we were studying instead of just focusing on memorizing what we were provided. As a result, the three of us enriched each other with the personnel experiences we had with the materials and importance of understanding this material for something other than just a test score.
This experience made me realize that while I have been exposed to vast amounts of research on the benefits of peer-learning groups in my academic studies, this is something that is rarely, if ever, discussed within the military community. The benefits of peer-learning groups are numerous. They include the development of self-directed learning (self-development) skill, increased communication skills, improved interpersonal skills, a greater sense of teamwork, improved critical-thinking, enhanced problem-solving abilities, and many more. In this article, I will lay out an historic example of how one of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, took advantage of a small group of peers to form a Junto, and will provide advice on building a modern peer-learning group.
Benjamin Franklin’s Junto
While there have been many legendary peer-learning groups in history, such as the “Dry Club” (that included philosophers such as John Locke, William Popple, and Benjamin Furly) and the Inklings (that included authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis), I believe that Benjamin Franklin’s Junto had the most effective design to inspire value-driven improvements to individual group members and the larger society. Franklin’s Junto brought together a small group of men of diverse backgrounds to discuss moral, political, and scientific discoveries of the day. What makes Franklin’s group particularly effective was it was based around a common philosophy and value system.
While we often overlook the influence of philosophy in modern life, the influence of the Enlightenment set the stage for the success of the Junto and America as a nation. Philosophers like John Locke, David Hume, and Baruch Spinoza advanced the ideas later be found in the U.S. Constitution. The Enlightenment thinkers advance the ideas of individual liberty, removal of religious authoritarianism, and heralded the virtues of democracy. It was in this environment, that Franklin shaped the 13 virtues that guided the Junto. These virtues were temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, and tranquility. While I would normally define these virtues in an article, I am purposely not going to do so here because anyone who wants to form a Junto needs more than a brief definition of these terms but to have an authentic understanding of these virtues.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that largely does not study philosophy. It is even possible to graduate college today without taking a single course in philosophy. And working within our society are some highly-corruptive philosophies like post-modernism and nihilism that rejects virtues or relativism that asserts the virtue of an action is dependent on the individual performing the task. Ultimately, you cannot establish a group that intends to “do good” if there is no common understanding of what “good” is. I would encourage anyone truly interested in maximizing the benefits of a value-driven peer-groups to take some time to study the enlightenment philosophers or other useful philosophies such as Stoicism or Transcendentalism to help establish a group understanding of value of virtue.
If you are establishing a Junto to improve your business ventures and your community, at a minimum, take the time to review Franklin’s virtues and discuss if they are still valid for your group. I would encourage military peer-groups to consider using the value systems of their services (like the 7 Army values) or better yet consider creating new list of value that you wished your service would follow (Annis, 2016). In either situation, take the time to understand and truly define these virtues. They will need to be something more than a list that is left on a wall if you wish to truly improve yourself and your community.
Peer-Learning Requires Preparation
As with any worthwhile task, you must do the work before you can expect a reward. Franklin required members of the Junto to write an essay on a quarterly basis on a topic of their choosing. Writing is truly wonderful learning tool which I have explained in my article “Writing as a Means of Learning” (Annis, 2018). Franklin also required members of the Junto to come prepared to talk on at least one of the 24 questions during their weekly meeting (Franklin, 1779). A soldier might see these questions as essentially an After-Action Review (AAR) of society. Questions included inquiries about what businesses where doing well and what was causing them of their successful; what businesses where doing poorly and what was their downfall. Fundamentally, these questions were intended to cause the group to examine what “good” was happening around them and how they might expand the good and reversely, what bad was occurring and how it could be avoided. Additionally, questions asked what group members had learned through reading that might be useful in the group and what newcomers in the community might be encouraged in their endeavors by the Junto. In many ways these questions might have reframed how the group members perceived the world. No longer were they individuals that just focused on their daily business, but they were called to be reflexive individuals always accounting for their actions and scientists examining the world and interactions around them. Without a doubt, this worldview is far more laborious than living a less examined life, but the constant exercise of higher-order thinking is what made this group such an exceptional force for good in society. No longer could an individual walk “blindly” through life but had a responsibility to examine the successes and failure of those around them and act to multiply the good. Make no mistake, this was work but one that brought many rewards.
Rules of the Group
Benjamin Franklin was wise enough to realize that in order to conduct such a group, it would have to be done in a spirit of goodwill and mutual cooperation. As a result, Franklin required members to answer the following questions with their hand on their breasts:
1. Have you any particular disrespect to any present members? Answer. I have not.
2. Do you sincerely declare that you love mankind in general; of what profession or religion soever? Answer. I do.
3. Do you think any person ought to be harmed in his body, name or goods, for mere speculative opinions, or his external way of worship? Answer. No.
4. Do you love truth for truth’s sake, and will you endeavour impartially to find and receive it yourself and communicate it to others? Answer. Yes. (Franklin, 1779, p. 536)
While I do not believe this ritual would be required today, the sentiment of these statement must be present if the group wants to be functional.
Practical Suggestions for Modern Peer-Learning Groups
If you are trying to start your own Junto, finding the right environment is an important factor to consider. You will need to find a comfortable location that is conducive to conversation. You could hold the meeting in a home, a coffee shop, or even a bar or restaurant. Just ensure that you select a comfortable environment that offers minimum distraction or noise level that could interrupt the conversation of the group.
I would suggest you limit your group size to no larger than five individuals. Ideally, I recommend meetings of groups of three. This is a smaller group than most would recommend. However, I say this because it is important only to have a single speaker at a time, so the group can fully hear the conversation. The larger the group grows the more likely side conversations may become. This may prevent group members from hearing or discussing important thoughts. That is not to say that you couldn’t have a larger group or community that engages in these groups. I could easily imagine have a group of 40 individuals that were dedicated to this type of activity meet up at a restaurant but then separate into five-person groups to discuss topics. A large group that rotates members through smaller conversations might even offer some advantage of increasing the diversity of the group. However, this might come at the cost of the quality of relationships and accountability within the group.
Attempt to find a dedicated time for your group that is hard to skip. It might be early in the morning or late at night. Try to schedule it for a time where you would have problems finding excuses not to be there. Schedule the length of time based on the availability of the group, while it would be nice to meet weekly for two hours to deeply discuss topics, this might not be possible for your group. I might recommend trying to start with an hour of time every couple of weeks to see how your group functions and determine if your group need more or less time. A few years ago, and before I had ever heard of Ben Franklin Groups, a few of my coworkers and I stumbled upon a method we called “Coffee and Clausewitz” (named after the Prussian military theorist). We would meet for 15 minutes every morning for our first cup of coffee. We would take turns to briefly share something interesting we found for our own self-development. This might be a good method if you are having problems finding a dedicated block of time but had short periods that you could invest into these activities on a daily basis.
Value of Silence
Learn to appreciate silence in your groups and recognize that if silence isn’t occurring, your group probably isn’t listening the way it should be. The group should try their best to practice active listening. Given the large and often philosophical topics brought up in these groups, group members will need a moment or two of silence occasionally to collect their thoughts. Learn to respect this silence and appreciate this silence as it is a good indicator that you are paying close attention to the speaker and you are taking the time to think before you reply.
Creating a Group
Creating a group may be easier than it may seem. You can start by asking a few of your peers that display interest in self-development. Try to get a group of diverse individuals together to talk about the benefits of forming a Junto. The value of a Junto comes from the diversity of thought and experience within its group. So, if you are in the military consider finding service members in different specialties or even branches. Don’t focus so much on the rules or the technicalities at first but just the value of a focused group conversation to address a problem or identify how good events can be replicated. Even if the initial conversation takes place over a cup of coffee, it might be enough to demonstrate the value of these groups and provide motivation to form a lasting group. You might ever consider inviting a mentor to add the advantage of years of experience to your group. Don’t underestimate the value of less experienced members to the group because they will have the tendency to question some of the underlying assumptions of your field that may not be true. For an additional resource to identify or create Ben Franklin Groups in the civilian environment, I encourage you to check out the website: https://benfranklincircles.org. This organization offers some great resources and can help you find or establish a Junto in your area.
The value of peer learning is undeniable. Combining the experience and knowledge of a group of individuals serves as a means to improve the performance of the individual. When virtue systems are added to these peer learning groups, as Benjamin Franklin did in his Junto, these groups can be incredible forces for increasing the good in both individual group members and the larger society. The conversation that occurs in these groups is amazingly useful in defining problems, identifying possible solutions, and most importantly, encouraging action. I would encourage anyone interested in self-improvement to consider joining or creating a Ben Franklin Group.
Annis, F. C. (2016). Clarifying the definition, techniques, and integration of self-development to enhance Army officer leader development (Doctoral dissertation, Northcentral University, 2016). Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest.
Annis, F. C. (2018). Writing as a means of learning. 3x5 Leadership. Retrieved from https://3x5leadership.com/2018/04/26/writing-as-a-means-of-learning/
Franklin, B. (1779). Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces. London, UK. Retrieved from https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-01-02-0088