The Learning Circle Model: Collaborative  Knowledge Building

Margaret Riel
Pepperdine University


A learning circle is a highly interactive, participatory structure for organizing group work.  The goal is to build, share, and express knowledge through a process of open dialogue and deep reflection around issues or problems with a focus on a shared outcome. A learning circle is not a community of practice, or professional learning but can be a strategy used by either.

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 Online Learning Circles are teams of distance learners who use technology to acquire a deeper understanding of areas of shared interest. The structure balances individual ownership with collective responsibility to provide a setting that helps everyone achieve their learning objectives. 
The circle is managed by distributed leadership and suggests that each participant be engaged in leading one of the group projects. They can be used in a wide range of formal and informal contexts.  We provide many examples of global learning circles used to connect learners in different locations at all levels of school, from primary to graduate-level work. Other examples include the use of learning professional development,  in evaluation,  and action research.

The Learning Circle is a structure for collaborative work that shares features with other community-based learning groups, but also differs in specific ways.  Most importantly, it is a task-based learning community in contrast to a practice-based or knowledge-based learning community (Riel and Polin, 2004). Instead of one shared group task, learning circles focus on a set of smaller intersecting group tasks,  each lead by one of the circle participants.  Effective learning circle work involves building a level of trust and developing shared norms of trust, openness  and reciprocity.   (The links in the menu on the left will show how learning circles are used for different purposes, for example in   k-12 classrooms, with university students, with teachers,  action researchers and with evaluators. )

A Brief History of Learning Circles

The use of a circle as both the organizational structure and descriptive metaphor for a meeting of equals is likely to have been a part of our history for as long as fire has. The learning circle is a mechanism for organizing and honoring the collective wisdom of the group and is present in many indigenous cultures. For example, in early native councils of elders came together to understand problems in a spirit of shared community in “wisdom circles.” The term Learning Circle has been used to describe group efforts with clear links to social change. Over time and across countries, civic organizations, neighborhood communities, trade unions, churches, and social justice groups have used the idea of learning circles to empower their members to make choices and take action. The web can help locate the many ways both present and past that groups have used the term   Study Circles or  Learning CIrcles as a form of adult education. For example, Educators for Community Engagement, find that learning circles --with their principles of equal participation, reciprocity, and honoring of collective wisdom -embody the democratic principles of effective service-learning partnerships. They use learning circles, rather than more traditional forms of group meetings, to structure their annual conferences. Primary teachers use a form of learning circles when they gather the students at the rug for "circle time." Among the goals of this activity are helping students to develop the trust and respect for diversity of experience, and fostering both listening and speaking skills among peers. Researchers have used learning circles as a form of professional development to improve their practice. A similar term, "Quality Circle" was used in the '80s to characterize the successful practice in corporate settings in which the hierarchical boundaries between workers and managers are flattened to encourage participatory management and team leadership.  Quality circles,  originally associated with Japanese management and manufacturing techniques developed in Japan after world war II, based on lectures of W. Edwards Deming (Joel & Ross, 1982). The goal was to encourage everyone to develop a strong sense of ownership over the process and products of the group.

The Online Learning Circle Model
These different forms of learning circles--wisdom circles, circle time, study circles and quality circles--are all structures for face-to-face dialogues. But Learning Circles can also take place over a network in an online or virtual setting. This specific use of the idea of learning circles refers to an online structure for linking participants from different countries to work together using their diversity as a resource to achieve deeper understandings.

The spirit of honoring the collective wisdom, and trusting the process to create deeper understanding -- the heart of learning circles--remains constant regardless of their context. The cooperative approach to decision-making and management that is essential in Quality Circles, also describes how participants work with each other in online Learning Circles as they design learning activities to extend knowledge and skills. However, in contrast to these different forms of face-to-face meetings, the mode of communication is different. It shifts from listening and talking to reading and writing. The participant can be a a single person or a group. The outcome of the circle is a written document, a summary or collection of their collaboration. Each use of learning circles is set in a complex set of institutional constraints which will shape a different phase structure for learning circles. The purpose of this guide is to define the structure of learning Circles and the phase structure that is a defining characteristic of online learning circles. 

The model is described by a (1) set of defining dimensions, (2) norms that support the interaction; and  (3) the phase structure that guides the process (Riel, 2004a, 2004b). Many of these features also describe learning circles in face to face settings.  Many examples of these can be seen in the section on other learning circle models


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YouTube Video


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These videos come from a small collection of videos produced for the blended-model community of practice for educators implementing the Digital Learning Process, developed by Ferdi Serim and described in Digital Learning: Strengthening and Assessing 21st Century Skills, (2012) published by Jossey-Bass.s

1) Defining Dimensions of Learning Circles

This online learning circle model is defined by six characteristics:
  • Diversity of Participants
  • Distributed  Leadership
  • Centrality of Project-based Work
  • Phase structure for interaction
  • Knowledge Building Dialogue
  • Final group Shared Product

Diversity of the Participants

While learning circles are a form of "community" learning, the goal is to unite people with diverse perspectives, experiences and backgrounds in contrast to collecting “like-minded” participants.   Networked learning can extend the range of interactions helping participants from different regions or occupational sectors of society, different levels of skills, and different backgrounds, to understand how their contextual lenses provide different images and understanding of similar experiences. When differences held are honored, valued and integrated,  increasing the diversity of the participants who share a common goal can result in more meaningful and deeper knowledge construction. Trying to think from the perspective of people who have very different views on problems encourages a wider and more flexible form of thinking.   Innovative creative thinking is a highly valued skill, but there is little consensus about how one develops these skills. Psychologists have described it as a "flow" state where time consciousness fades (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).   Social-cultural theorists suggest that developmentally, the process is shaped and stretched by interaction with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1978).  Participants are challenged to participate in project development with people who have very different life experiences and knowledge communities and are asked to extend and apply their ideas in new contexts.   In doing so, the goal is to facilitate structured interchange to create a zone of creative thinking that moves one away from the their everyday mindset.  The willingness to try to look at from the perspective of others, as imperfect a view as it might be, it often provides new insights when the seer once again returns their focus on their own issues.

Project Based Work and Individual Ownership

Project based learning is more effective when the learning is well-integrated with issues, ideas and actions that participants view as essential. Since it is not likely that a single issue or approach is connected to the diverse learning needs of the participants, Learning Circles focus on a collection of theme linked projects, each championed by one of the participants.  Participants each take a leadership role in structuring a part of the shared agenda with each participant fully vested, both in their project and in the work of the circle. They participate collectively in all of the circle work and in doing so, build a network of distributed knowledge.  

Each member of the circle is the designer of one of the circle's learning activities.  But this activity needs to be designed in a way that takes advantage of the group.  Often when people take individual responsibility, they frame a project that fails to take advantage of the value of the diverse perspectives.  Project planning is one of the most important phases as it is important that each member of the group helps the other frame their projects so that all can make a meaningful contribution.  This process of adjusting the focus is an important part of the circle process. The challenge of how to involve others in your design process helps one to understand the role of multiple stakeholders. 

 Distributed  Leadership and Collective Responsibility

A learning circle is a form of distributed learning and distributed leadership. Distributed learning involves orchestrating learning activities  across  different settings classrooms, workplaces, homes, and community settings  and using a range of collaborative tools to help support the process (Dede, 1996; Salomon, 1993)).  Distributed leadership has been an essential part of recent school reform approaches (Penuel et al. 2009) and offers a powerful tool for transforming the way we think about leadership practices (Spillane et al., 2001; Spillane, 2006; Harris, 2008; Leithwood et al., 2009).

No single person is teaching the group but rather the task of leading, teaching and learning is distributed among all of the participants. Each participant in a learning circle accepts personal responsibility for the success of the circle. This creates a sense of collective cognitive responsibility (Scardamalia, ) Instead of everyone cooperating on  one established project where the need for a single leader is pressing, the members of a learning circle are joined by a common interest or goal.  Each member of the circle agrees to be leader of a task that they believe will help the group deeper their knowledge. You can see how this works in the Global Conversations Learning Circles as an example.

Participants present their idea to the group during the planning phase and the group refines each of the projects. Once the group has established the set of often overlapping or intersecting projects, the Learning Circle is an exercise in participatory management. Each participant is the leader of one project, and all circle members participate in the projects of others. Each participant makes a commitment to the circle to help make the projects of the other participants successful. In this way, the circle is an exercise in group leadership skills, encouraging the participants to develop their skills at fostering growth in others. If the circle does have a facilitator, the role of this person is not to lead the circle, but rather to serve as an information agent tracking and sharing the circle collaborations. There are as many leaders as there participants. This is perhaps the most difficult part of learning circles for new people to learn. We have developed cultural patterns that condition us to look for the person in charge to lead the group. Understanding that each member is a leader and that all leadership functions are distributed is a very different way of working. Increasingly we have digital tools that make this form of work possible, but the social norms and interactive patterns are much more difficult to change. However, this democratic form of collective leadership can create a synergistic environment where individual ownership and group investment are blended in a form of exchange that can be quite powerful.

Knowledge Building Dialogue

Essential to learning circles is a focus on collective cognitive responsibility for knowledge building (Scardamalia, 2002).  Teaching is often seen as a process of creating well vetted materials and sharing these with students who are to learn them.  Learning in that context means to be able to repeat back the material with high fidelity.  Since one senses do not always provide one with the evidence that is gained using more powerful tools, children are instructed to ignore what they think and accept on faith what is known.  Teaching in this manner treats knowledge as faith-based rather then evidence-based.  Without a respect for the thinking process, the process of building knowledge is lost.  

In learning circles, each participate is encouraged to share their thinking, their knowledge structuring with the group.  No single person is the expert with the final say on what is, or is not, the truth.  Rather the group is charged with finding the basis for their knowing.  Young children might wrestle with how they can they be sure that the sun is not, as it appears to be, setting at the end of the day.  Adults might question the evidence that suggests the technology leads to higher levels of achievement, or how to compare online learning with other means of learning.  The work of building and supporting ideas to create models that help make sense of the world is what is meant by knowledge-building dialogue.

Consistent with Berieter's (2002) challenge of the "folk theory of the mind" as a file cabinet, a repository of knowledge, learning circle interaction conceptuatlizes the mind as a dynamic processor.  Language is the power tool for constructing knowledge and given the dynamic, emergent properties of both the social and physical world and our means for understanding, knowledge building involves constant remodeling.  The central role of knowledge-building dialogue means that everyone in the circle needs to pay attention to how they use language.  It takes work to keep the focus on dialogue rather than monologues or debates.  Structuring the work to include multiple projects with multiple participants encourages a process of shared sense making--of collective cognitive responsibility.

Shared Products as Outcomes

The nature of the projects depends on purpose or theme of the
learning circles.  The multiple projects have to have enough cohesion to lead to a final product or exhibition that brings them together.  This final product could be a public exhibition of work, a printed document, a project report, or a website.  They are what Bereiter (2004) called conceptual artifacts.  They are a kind of knowledge that is out there and between people, the artifacts that encourage more thinking.  The development of collaborative technology (sometimes called Web 2.0 read-write tools) makes it easier for groups to design, save, access and alter these knowledge building plans.  The design of the final produce is a collaborative effort with each of the participants organizing the part of the group work that they sponsored or lead.

2) Norms that Guide Learning Circle Interaction

Norms are implicit rules that develop among group of people which guide behavior. In setting up learning circles, the facilitator needs to think about ways to develop these norms. Talking about norms is one of making them explicit but one of the most effective way of setting norms is through modeling them. Where circumstances allow, the first meeting of the circle should be in person. It is much easier to develop these practices and habits when there is shared experiences in a face to face setting. However, the best use of this time might be to engage in activities that surfaces some of the issues that result in norm setting by the group.
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Open and Flexible Approach to Thinking
  • Individual Responsibility 
  • Group Reciprocity


Cultivating trust  is essential to any form of communal work, and should be seen as a core resource for online work (Bryke, Schneider, 2002). The importance of this resource is magnified when working in groups that are highly diverse and geographically dispersed.  It is not enough to place people from diverse backgrounds into a collaborative setting and hope that they will work well together. Ignoring the need to develop trust, especially with people from different regions and different life experiences can lead to conflict rather than innovative knowledge building.  A part of the learning circle process needs to be intentional effort to help the group create the ties that will make collective work possible.

While it is possible to create this trust online, if a group can meet face-to-face at the beginning they will be in a better position to develop and foster the necessary trust. There are opportunities at the opening of the circle to create a sense of openness by sharing stories related to common interests.
Either online or face to face telling personal stories is a form of self-disclosure.  Friends are people who carry one’s stories and share experiences.  Entrusting others with one’s personal stories is the first step to moving circle participants away from the category of strangers and a bit closer to that of trusted colleague. The particular strategies that are used will depend on the ages of the participants and purpose of the learning circle, but helping participants to understand the relationship between learning and identity is often a good place to start.  Examples of opening activities are presented in opening the circle phase.

Trust at the beginning will be fragile and develops through shared learning experiences.  Online synchronous meetings help foster trust as everyone agrees to be at the same place as the same time.  The interactive nature of these exchanges help participants come to understand the different perspectives offered by the participants.   It is important that participants have shared expectations about the form and level of interaction and that they have the necessary tools, access and knowledge to participate in a predictable pattern.  The structured nature of learning circles help to provide those expectations.  With multiple projects each lead by a different person,  it is essential to use tools that will help everyone visualize the progress on  project work.   Trust  builds as each person invests time and energy to meet these expectations.  The learning circle facilitator needs to be aware of the  importance of trust as well as strategies for nurturing it  throughout the learning circle experience.   


Since the work of learning circles commonly is facilitated by technology, it is important to understand the online medium has different markers and tools for supporting social exchanges. Not all participants will be equally skilled in using them. In some cases, it is possible that the distance and the lack of visual markers can make it easier to engage people from different background and abilities, and in other cases, unfamiliarity with the technology tools might lead to outcomes that impede communication. When experimenting with new ideas and new forms of interaction, respect for differences is essential for  helping to move past minor problems in communication.

Each member expects to be treated with respect for their ideas and valued for their differences. One marker of respect is fairness in the knowledge building process.  People differ in their eagerness to express their ideas and for some, the online experience is more threatening than for others. In asynchronous exchanges there is not need to take turns as the "floor" if open to everyone simultaneously.  However if a few people are dominating the space, it falls to others to make sure that everyone's voice is hard.  This can be done by asking specific people to share their ideas.  Also an email message to one of the quieter participants saying how much the group would value from their perspective is sometimes effective in getting someone to join in this different form of exchange.  Asking for and valuing help from different voices is effective.  While personal compliments are always great to receive, they can have a dampening effect on knowledge building.  They divert attention from the ideas to the people offering them.  Building on ideas, or using someone's ideas is an indirect compliment that keeps attention forced on the dialogue.  Noticing and valuing someone's  contribution in the email as a  "back channel"   can provide renewed energy and participation in the group communications.  Also offers of help to quieter members are more effective than questions or complaints about lack of participation.  The use of guilt might work in face to face settings, but online it causes a reluctant participant to go invisible. It is easy to ignore or delete a negative message.

Open and Flexible Approach to Thinking

Dialogue is central to knowledge building. Knowledge building  requires open , inclusive dialogue representative of all voices and experiences of circle members. Each participant  brings firsthand experience around issues and problems and can offer different resources, experiences, perspectives, and skill sets. If participants are inflexible in their thinking and given up the possibility of change, then the talk is limited and learning minimal.

Learning involves a risk of identity as ideas structure how one sees oneself.  The structure of ideas is not easy to change and that structure is what helps a person develop co nsistency from one setting to the next. However when they become rigid, it becomes difficult to  adapt to new circumstances.  That makes it difficult to adapt to the rapid changing dimensions of the world.  Learning circles are places where participants are asked to relax their hold on their identity and try on the world from different perspectives.  This norm of openness is essential an underlies  transformational change.

Individual Responsibility 

Individual responsibility and group reciprocity and also core values that guides circle work.  Each participant will be engaged in processes that depend on the active engagement of everyone.  This is made more clear in the discussion of the projects which become the central work of the circle.  Efforts to help the group understand their interdependency are essential to create the foundation for an effective learning circle experience.

When an individual fails to meet group expectations, there is a break in the trust that this is a shared and valued activity.  The multiple project format can be adjusted to make it fit with the differing needs of circle participants.  In planning the projects, it is important that each person is clear about their ability to participate.  It is not necessary to have everyone participate in every project.  The circle can decide on how many participants, and what level of effort is required by the different projects.  Each person needs to be clear on what they can and cannot accomplish.  Since the projects required some level of commitment, setting this level and then everyone being clear about what is required of them is critical for the success of the circle.

Group Reciprocity

Reciprocity describes the respective relationships that is created when each member of the learning circle is both leader and participant.   As  leader, a circle member needs the others to be willing to work with them on the project that they sponsor.  They will need to organize the group response and help monitor the group process.  But as participant in the projects of others, the circle members need to be willing to do what they can to make each of the circle projects a success.   Learning Circles is a bartering of intellectual resources.  In effect, each person trades their willingness to work on projects of others to gain the willingness of the group to work on their project.  At the circle level, it is the development of social capital (Portes, 1998; Penuel & Riel, 2007).  Social capital is the resources that you have available by virtue of the social ties, trust, reciprocity you have developed with others.  The social capital in learning circles is dependent on each participant feeling an obligation to help others, as well as a sense of confidence that others will be there to help when needed (Putnam, 1993). Underlying the success of any learning circle interaction lies the relationships between people and the ways in which they evolve and deepen that relationship. The learning circle facilitator might model how to use interactive tools to create a project checklist so that there is a visual representation of group reciprocity. This helps makes visible this important norm of learning circle interaction.

3) Phases of the Learning Circles Interaction

Phase Structure Guides Interaction

Learning Circles have a beginning, a set of steps and an end, which distinguishes them from other forms of community development.  The first phase begins with the organization of the circle. Circle size is determined by balancing the need for diversity of perspectives with opportunities for interaction. The circle opens with activities to build trust and cohesion, moves to framing the projects, is followed by shared work on the projects, and  then exhibitions or sharing of completed work leads to the end of the circle. At the end of a learning circle, the participants often join a new circle if they choose to continue and thus repeat the above cycle.   The timeline and deadlines are an important part of the Learning Circle experience.  While this dimension resulted from years of empirical experience, social networking theory can be invoked to explain why this is evolved as a practice of learning circles. Granovetter  (1973) described the strength of weak ties in a social network.  The people in our close networks have already shared what they know or provided the help needed, but those who are a bit more distant are likely to be of more value as they have unknown connections.  Learning circles mine the strength of weak ties by continually working with people who are not immediately a part of one’s working group. That is why the diversity of the participants is such an important part of the learning circle structure.

  1. Opening the Circles:

  2. Defining the Set of Projects:

  3. Working on the Projects:

  4. Sharing the Outcomes:

  5.  Closing the circle:


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