Join the Circle!

Getting Ready

Preparing for Learning Circles takes some time on the part of facilitators.  Factors to consider are how
new this form or interaction is to the participants, the degree of community building that is required,
and the development of a guide or materials that will help the group understand their shared
  1.  Purpose and Objectives:
    1. Decide on the purpose and learning objectives of the learning circle
    2. Prepare basic information to share with participants-- A guide can be very useful
    3. Decide on the large themes of design  (participants pick projects, coordinators pick the theme)
  2.  Participants:
    1. Make decisions about who is going to be involved
    2. Plan how to invite them. 
    3. Issue of incentives
    4. Consider what opening activities will develop trust and commitment 
    5. Arrange participants into circles with the goal of maximizing diversity
  3.  Meeting Structure and Technology Designs
    1. Create the phase structure of meetings
    2. Decide the format(s) for meetings-- synchronous, asynchronous,  face to face, or a blend of these
    3. Determine the time line for the phases
    1. Decide what forms of technology will be used and set up the space or space(s)
    2. Determine if any technology training will be needed for participants
  4.   Preparation for the Phases
    1. Contact the participants to make sure everyone is ready for the opening session
    2.  Prepare the opening messages
    3. Prepare a pacing message for each of the phases of the learning circle

Purpose and Objectives: Learning Circles are used to help groups of people build their knowledge in a collaborative setting with participatory leadership.  Learning circles blend individual leadership with collective responsibility.  This is a different form of collaborative learning and it is important to understand when this structure is and is not appropriate. Learning circles are ideal where there is an open area of inquiry and a value on distributed learning of the participants.   Learning Circles would not be a good choice where there is a highly specified outcome, with well defined protocols for participants to follow.

The facilitators may find that the information on this site is sufficient to help orient the participants or they might find it helpful to modify or adapt this information into a handbook or guide that serves a specific purpose.  Depending on the audience this guide may take many different forms.  For organizing Learning Circles in schools, there is a learning circle guide for teachers that has been modified and adapted to a number of projects and translated into a number of languages. For a list of these, check the opening page of iEARN learning circles.  (You are free to use these materials to create your own guide, or evolve your own models, however we ask that you acknowledge the source by including a link to this site.)

Here are some prompts to help you develop the purposes and objectives of your learning circle:
  • Why are you facilitating a learning circle and how it is beneficial to your participants?
  • What are your learning circle’s associated goals and objectives (i.e., the specific activities you and your circle will do to accomplish your goals?
  • What questions will be addressed by the learning circle? The more specific you can be at the beginning about goals, objectives, and overriding questions, the clearer it will be to your participants why they are there. Of course, it may be that the participants have a hand in determining goals and objectives, but the same rules of specificity still apply. The purpose and overall goals can be well specified, the project that make up the work of the circle come from the participants.
  • What costs, if any, will be associated with the learning circle? These may include costs for your time, participant time, IT time, fees for particular technology tools, production staff time for any products that result from your circle.

Participants:  Part of the process of getting ready for the learning circle is thinking about how to persuade others to join the circle.  The participants will need to be clear on what they will gain by being in a learning circle.  Part of circle leadership is helping others to value collective development of social capital.  The more people share their resources and learning who has access to what resources, the more effective the organization will be at learning as a group. Working in collaborative processes like learning circles can build the social capital of an organization.  Here are some suggestions for how you might present learning circles as a form of workplace learning.

Do you have trouble keeping up with all that is happening in our field? Do you feel that you and all  of your colleagues are doing the same thing and not moving as fast as you need to?  What if we could distribute the learning and find a way to know what our colleagues know?  Learning circles are a way to help you learn more effectively, more quickly and more deeply than if you worked alone.  It is a way to harness the power of distributed minds to better understand new ideas, develop innovative practices, find better answers to challenging questions or try out new approaches.  By working in a circle we share the benefit of reading, thinking, researching and  we find collective ways of sharing and storing what we learn.This work builds our shared capacity as an organization to be more innovative and efficient.

The first of many decisions will be how many people (or classes) to place in a learning circle.  This decision will depend on part in how knowing how likely the participants are to be active in the circle.  The size of the circle should optimize the balance between diversity and level of commitment.  The larger the circle size the more diversity but the increase in the overall work of the circle.  Since each person adds a  project to the circle work, the higher the commitment.  For most groups, five active individuals or classes is ideal.  Depending on how people are assigned to circles, it may take placing 6-12 people in a circle to achieve the goal of  five active participants.

Here are some questions to consider about participants:
  • How will the  participants in your learning circle be selected? 
  • What are the criteria for learning circle inclusion?
  • Will you recruit participants or will they volunteer?
  • How will they be brought together and what are the incentives, benefits, or rewards that encourage active participation? 
  • Will they know each other, or begin as strangers?  For people who know each other,  it may be possible to start with a  focus on the  structure and tasks, but for people who do not know each other, initial trust building sessions are critical to the success of the circles.
The different answers to these questions will result in different patterns for setting expectations and building the needed trust and commitment.  Sometimes this means thinking about the incentives.  Anything that takes time has a cost associated with it. In some cases, the participants will decide to share their time because they see enough personal gain from the learning experience.  If the circle supports conference presentations, report writing or other activities that have incentives associated with them, there may not be a need to adjust incentives. Learning circles might be used as a way to advance work around projects that carry high incentives.  But it might also be important to think about how incentives can be leveraged to provide motivation, especially at the beginning. Recognition, rewards, and resources are common ways to encourage participation.

Meeting Structure and Technology Designs:  While this site describes "online" learning circles, where it is possible for the group to meet face-to-face for some part of the work, there will be a deeper sense of community. If distances prohibit meeting in the same location, the use of video conferencing or voice links will enhance the sense of common purpose and group commitment. There are many free tools to facilitate both "real time" meetings and knowledge building over the internet. Basically there needs to be a place for the group to interact with each other around conceptional artifacts (Berieter, 2004).  Finding the right set of social networking tools will be a continual challenge as the set of possible tools evolve rapidly. Currently, a wiki-web space for shared work, a discussion tool, and way to leave both verbal and text messages are needed.  You can create short tutorials to share with participants with tools like JING.

Here are some questions to consider for structuring the meeting space:

  • How will you facilitate your learning circle?
  • Will it be primarily online, primarily face-to-face, or a combination of online and face-to-face?
  • Why is this (or these) the best method(s) to facilitate your circle?
  • What technology tools – asynchronous voice, graphics, text, group coordination, productivity and virtual assistance – will you use to facilitate online portions of your learning circle? How will these tools add value?
  • What level of training will be needed?
Some examples of Learning Circles Schedules might be helpful:
           Schedule for school-based learning circles
           Schedule for AEA Researchers where the projects were to create learning circle designs

Preparation for the Phases: The first time organizing a learning for a new group is a challenge as everyone will be learning as they work through the process.  Once there has been some experience, it will be easier to save examples which help participants understand the structure.  Participants in learning circles often like to sponsor ideas that have been successful in the past.  So collecting these examples can help create a level of comfort for new circle members.  However, participation in learning circles is an exercise in inventive thinking so be careful that your participants don't see the suggestions as a set of choices.  It is important to continually emphasize their ownership and leadership and the collective power of the circle to change any part of the process to suit the needs of the participants. Over time, learning circles facilitators and participants realize that they can develop a set of tools and framing messages  that can be used with different  groups.  As each of the phases are introduces, information and ideas for phase letters will be discussed.

Here are some questions to consider for preparing to facilitate the circle:

  • What will you do as the learning circle facilitator in regard to development, implementation, and other tasks?
  • What roles and responsibilities will your participants have?
  • Are there others involved in the learning circle that will have roles and responsibilities (e.g., Internal Technology group, a “secondary” facilitator)?
  • What is the schedule for development, implementation, and closure of the learning circle?
  • How will the use of technology interact with the sharing of the final product?
  • How will this product influence you and your participants and possible audiences in regard to decision-making?

Learning circles end.  They are short term activities but they may lead to sustained professional development or international relationships among teachers or learners.  A second way in which they lead to sustainable action is a schedule for repetition.  The learning circles for elementary and high schools have been available every year for over two decades. Some of the same teachers with their classes participate year after year.  But each year, it is a new set of people.  This continual change leads to innovation in the learning that takes place. l

Continue to ...

  1. Opening the Circles: Building trust through self disclosure and dialogue