What Is a Learning Circle?
extracted from: Learning Circles Australia
A group of people sits around a meeting room. As one speaks, someone else jots down notes, several others wait to make their points, another is skims through the readings looking for a point, a facilitator watches the whole group and the rest are listen quietly. This is a Learning circle in action.
In a Learning circle, groups of around 5-15 people meet regularly to learn about and discuss issues of importance to them and their community. They learn at their own pace, drawing on their own experiences and understandings, without a lecturer or an expert "running the show."
Sessions last around 2 hours, guided by a facilitator, one of the group nominated to keep discussion focused and fair. Participants usually do about an hour's worth of reading or research between sessions to provide them with the "raw material" for discussion.
Learning Circles have proven an effective and practical method of learning and social change. Community organisations, trade unions, churches and social justice groups have used them to empower their members to make choices and take action.
How does it differ from a discussion group?
The distinction between a learning circle and a discussion group is not great, but there are three common differences.
- A learning circle is often more focussed that a discussion group.
- A learning circle is based on common resources which may not be the case with a discussion group.
- A learning circle is intended to have action outcomeswhich may not be the case with a discussion group.
Organizing a Learning Circle
Guide to organisers
The Learning Circle organiser is the creator of a Learning Circle. The organiser selects the print (or video) material that provides the framework and the substance for discussions, recruits participants, chooses the Learning Circle discussion leader, and attends to all the logistical details surrounding the group's meetings. The organiser sets the tone for the program and must convey its purpose and goals to the leader and to the participants.
There is no one model for organising a Learning Circle; shape the program in your community to meet the needs of the participants. While the following suggestions are appropriate for most situations, special circumstances may call for modifications.
Selecting reading material
Some Learning Circle programs have material that is expressly tailored to their purposes. However, many Learning Circles use readings or videos that are not prepared with the particular interests and goals of your group in mind. You can easily make such material more interesting and useful for the members of your Learning Circle. Some suggestions:
- Add discussion questions that emphasise the way the issue affects your community.
- Use letters-to-the-editor, short articles from a local newspaper or a newsletter.
- Ask participants to bring relevant clippings.
- Contact people in your communitysuch as teachers or group leaderswho have an interest in the issue and may be able to share materials.
Remember, the reading material is important, but a good Learning Circle does not require original or top-quality, professional-looking material. The key ingredients of a successful Learning Circle are the leader's skill and the participants' energy and commitment to the program.
Recruiting participants for your Learning Circle
Personal contact is the key to successful recruiting. Invitations are most effective when they are made on a personal basis: the key is conveying to potential participants that they have unique contributions to make to the discussions. Be sure to explain the goals of the Learning Circle, and ask people to make a commitment to attend each session, not only for the sake of continuity, but also to create a high level of familiarity and comfort within the group.
If initial response is small, it may be better to begin the Learning Circle rather than waiting for more people to sign up. Ask participants to invite others. Once the Learning Circle is rolling, others are likely to hear about it and become interested.
Selecting the leader
Choosing the leader may be the most important decision that the organiser makes. The most important consideration in selecting a leader should be his or her skill and experience in leading discussions.
If the person you are considering for the role of Learning Circle leader has not been part of a training program, you will need to describe your program and explain how a Learning Circle works.
Organising the meetings
Find a meeting place that has minimal distractions and where participants can chat informally following the sessions.
The organiser must decide, preferably with input from the participants, on the date and time for the sessions.
Unless reading material is very brief, participants should receive it several days in advance of the session. You should also distribute ahead of time any introductory material about Learning Circles.
Establishing feedback mechanisms
Once the Learning Circle actually begins, the organiser's role becomes secondary to the leader's. However, the organiser is in the best position to provide feedback to the leader. For multi-session programs, you may want to conduct an evaluation at the end of each meeting, or at least at the halfway point and at the end of the Learning Circle. By taking part in the Learning Circle and being available before and after the sessions, the organiser can learn about any problems and help the leader correct them before the next session.
Guide to facilitators
Your main role is to assist the discussion. You are not expected to be an expert on the issues, any more than anyone else in the Circle. Your most important task is to be organised. Having been through the material beforehand and thought a little about it will help you to be more effective. Your job also includes making sure the group has all it needs for the session, eg. photocopies of the Session Guides, video equipment if necessary, etc. Your most difficult job will be to keep discussion focused on the issues, making sure no one person dominates, and keeping your own opinions back to let the rest of the group have their say. Your group may decide to rotate the role of facilitator.
- Set a friendly and relaxed atmosphere from the start.
- Make sure everyone knows each other.
- Check that everyone has a Session Guide.
- Decide which activities the meeting will focus on.
- Check what peoples' goals are for the meeting.
- Review the suggested activities to make sure everyone understands and agrees about how the meeting will proceed.
- Don't allow agressive or over talkative people to dominate.
- Don't let the group get stuck on unprovable "facts" or assertions.
- Draw out the quiet people.
- Be an active listener.
- Try to stay impartial when there are disagreements.
- Don't avoid conflict, but don't let it get personal.
- Don't be afraid of pauses and silences.
- Don't let the group treat you as the expert, or the one with the answers.
- Regularly intervene to summarise where you think the discussion has got to.
- Ask the "hard" questions, point out issues that people are ignoring, help the group examine its own assumptions.
- Use questions that encourage discussion, instead of yes/no answers.
- Don't expect the group to reach agreement all the time.
- Close the session with a brief question that each person can answer in turn.
- Collect any work done on paper.
- Organise who will do what between meetings.
Guide To Participants
The aim of a Learning Circle is to deepen each person's understanding of the issues and empower each of you to act on your beliefs. It should be a discussion amongst equals.
For more information:
- Listen carefully and actively.
- Maintain an open mind.
- Try hard to understand the point of view of those with whom you disagree.
- Help keep the discussion on track.
- Speak freely, but don't dominate.
- Talk to the group as a whole, not the facilitator.
- If you don't understand, say so.
- Value your own experience and understanding.
- Be prepared to disagree.
- Don't get aggressive.
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