Action Research Learning Circles

Action Research and Learning Circles
Learning Circles are an effective way to have students support one another in the process of doing action research.  For more information on what action research is, you might want to visit the Center for Collaborative Action Research.  The center also has online tutorials for learning how to do action research

Action research is the cornerstone of graduate programs at many The STAR- Community of the Action Research Network of the Americas  has a place for people to share their action research syllabi.  If you look at the three classes taught by Margaret Riel you will find a description of how learning circles were integrated into the course.

Learning Circles used in a Master Level Learning Technologies Program

In this blended program at Pepperdine University, students came to Pepperdine's  Malibu Campus for a week-long face-to-face session. They learned to work in groups and engage in a series of activities to build the necessary trust and respect for working in learning circles and for other forms of collaborative work that are part of the graduate program. They also met face-to-face in the middle and end of the course.  

Some of the activities in learning circles were described in the Learning Circle Model description under Opening the Circle. Pepperdine students also designed an opening activity using cartoons to help students reorient to new circle partners as they changed circles throughout the year.  

There are two videos posted here. 

The one to the right is a presentation to university faculty during a technology conference on how to use google doc and google hangouts and structure online learning with small groups online. 

The one below is an online webinar describing the intersection between action research and learning circles 

Action Research & Learning Circles

By making a circle of action researchers responsible for the quality of all of their projects,  students have a team of critical friends to help shape their action research and reflect with them on the process over time.  Additionally, students can see what is working in different contexts.  In course evaluations, students are very clear that learning circles is what makes their experience of action research so successful.  Learning how to do action research in one year is very challenging and Learning Circles make this possible by relying on the intellectual resources of the group. 

For each of the three 14-week sessions, students work in different learning circles to develop plans and carry out action research in their workplace.  The students plan together, help each other search for resources,  experimentation, evidence collection and analysis and through the final writing and presenting phase.  They are collectively responsible for the quality of action research projects in their group. They meet for one hour weekly with the professor joining the circle every third meeting. 

Technology Demo for Online Learning Circles

This use of learning circles in a university program modifies the model slightly as the new learning circles inherit the project planning begun in the previous circles.  So the phase structure is a bit different.  Here is the phase structure for action research learning circles across three 14-week sessions. Each session, the students are reorganized into new circles.  This is done to increase the diversity of ideas giving everyone a chance to learn from most of the people in the program.  The Pepperdine program is a cadre-based program so these students engage in all of their course work together.

In the beginning, students complained (a bit) about having to read and give comments to others.  "Isn't that the role of the professor, why should I do it?" This led to a change.  Students needed a clear rationale. The development of this statement at the beginning of the course was a change that made learning circles work more smoothly. 

The rationale for working in Learning Circles: 

1) Life Co-Coaching: While your professors have many talents and years of experience in supporting action research, the ideas you most need might be in the head of one of your peers.  Their life experience might be of more value to you.  Helping others is a trade, and it is highly likely that you will  receive way more than you expected.  Helping others and being helped with action research is a bit like life coaching as you are trying to figure out how you and they can be more effective. Having a class of life coaches is extremely valuable. Student are one of the most valuable, underutilized educational resource we have. 

2) Thinking outside of the box:  We create boxes to help us deal efficiently with all of the things we need to process.  While they speed processing, they can also inhibit creative thinking.  When someone who works in different sector brings us a problem, we are likely to have to combine what we know to think of something that will be use.  This compels us to take things from different boxes and form new links.  And when we return to our issues, these new pathways might be just the combination of fresh ideas that develops a new level of performance. 

3 Leadership Training:  A good leader is someone who can inspire others to perform above their potential. When you see a peer who is not performing at high levels, what you do to change the situation. In a way a learning circle is an exercise in leadership training as each person is trying to bring out the best performance in the group. 

Each semester students complete course evaluations and when asked what was the best thing about the course, learning circles top the list as students describe what they learned from working in this way with their partners.  (For the results of this survey data on learning circles used in action research, see the attached paper at the bottom of the page).
Margaret Riel,
Apr 9, 2012, 1:50 AM