PALS stands for Partners in Adult Learning and is a collaborative pan-European project funded by Grundtvig Lifelong Learning Programme to promote and develop a culture of learning among adults and to explore if, and how, the Learning Circle structure might be used to reach those disadvantaged and marginalised adult learners. These learners frequently ‘fall through the net’, have no recourse to improve their circumstances, and especially if female, are often effectively barred by ethnic, familial, and sometimes cultural barriers from accessing the means to self-improvement. It was to provide some system to break this circle of self-reinforcing prohibition that this European initiative was conceived.
The principal partners believe passionately that something has to be done to establish means and pathways of enabling adults to acquire a voice and form the aspiration to learn. Once established as part of the social landscape these pathways to learning will, in time, become sufficiently familiar and non-threatening that they will provide an accessible means of access to basic education in essential communicative skills, which is the fundamental first step to escaping poverty, abuse, deprivation, isolation and a subsistence existence in the cultural ghetto that an inability to communicate so frequently creates.
The primary focus of project activities was informal learning and the way in which the Learning Circle facilitates and encourages even those who are fearful of a formal learning to feel confident and comfortable in a safe learning environment. It can incorporate learners from very different backgrounds and with widely varying expectations and has the inestimable advantage that it can effectively promote curiosity.
This is an important project but is itself only a first step. We sincerely hope and trust that it will promote interest, funding and subsequent research and support to foster learning pathways that are genuinely accessible for those who are isolated by their inability to communicate, without hope and who see no possible improvement in their future and prospects. It is a tragedy of the developed world that adulthood all too often carries the assumption on the part of all who deal with adults that they must have these basic functional skills, thus reinforcing the prohibitions of isolation and even augmenting their number with social embarrassment and shame.
Definition of our Learning Circles
A Learning Circle is a small informal group that meets to study a subject of interest to its members. The members of a Learning Circle share their knowledge and experience, learn new information and apply and test new skills. The Learning Circle is a structure of small group meetings drawing on the knowledge and experience of a group.
Contrast with the traditional classroom
A Learning Circle is not a traditional classroom, with a formal learning structure usually based upon an expert teacher in a hierarchical structure. In contrast, Learning Circles are informal with no expert tutor, driven by the desire to assimilate knowledge within the group primarily from their own knowledge and experience.
They are particularly suited to those who for whatever reason eschew the formal learning process and can be held informally in any convenient location, for example, library or coffee shop. It is the informal structure which attracts members and allows the Circle to reach those who would not normally engage in learning and who lack the confidence to believe they can contribute to such a process.
Introduction to the PALS conceptual model
PALS discussions led to the conclusion that no one theory would be determinative as applied to a Learning Circle structure. A broad conglomeration of principles extracted from a wide range of theories informed the planning and administration of the pilot Circles run by the project.
Traditional structural theory, for example, Kolb’s Learning Cycle principles such as Reflective Learning (Donald Schon,1987) and the theory of Change Agents do not fit exactly with the Learning Circle structure. More recent principles such as connectivism and the difficulties identified in matching the right knowledge with the right people in the right context10 to make learning effective are more directly applicable, but again, are not an exact match.
PALS took the consensus view that members of Learning Circles were primarily engaging in a change agent exercise within an informal learning structure. As the Circle progressed, individual members were fostering personal development whether through imparting or receiving knowledge or skills, for example, communicative ability. This process was sufficiently flexible to allow members to progress at their own individual rate and yet sufficiently formal such that the learning remained focussed on a central theme. This paradox or tension between the formal aspects of the learning process and the overt informal structure is an aspect of this model that does require active management.
General characteristics of PAL Learning Circles
Small, diverse group (8-12 people)
Meet regularly, for example, once a week over a period of weeks / months
Set ground rules for a respectful, productive discussion
Are usually led by a facilitator who is impartial but helps to manage the deliberation process
Look at an issue from different points of view
Act as a vehicle to discover, share and express knowledge
Start where people are and encourages growth
Involve a spiralling process of reflection and action
A Learning Circle can be a stand alone structure but the PALS concept anticipated that pilot Learning Circles would be set up within local Learning Communities. These pilots would be aligned with wider local government initiatives designed to promote education and the effective use of all local services extending to those for the very young and the very old. The term Learning Community has become something of a common place. In the sphere of education, for example, the term has been used variously to mean extending classroom practice into the community; brining community personnel into schools to enhance the curriculum and learning tasks for students; or engaging students, teachers and administrators simultaneously in learning.
Definitions of Social Capital
According to the World bank definition: “Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions. Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions which underpin a society – it is the glue that holds them together.”
• Bourdieu: 'Social capital is the 'the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition' (Bourdieu 1983: 249).
• Coleman: 'Social capital is defined by its function. It is not a single entity, but a variety of different entities, having two characteristics in common: they all consist of some aspect of a social structure, and they facilitate certain actions of individuals who are within the structure' (Coleman 1994: 302).
• Putnam: 'Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital' (Putnam 2000: 19).
There are three basic types of social capital:
(a) Bonding – which denotes ties between people in similar situations such as immediate family, close friends and neighbours;
(b) Bridging – encompasses more distant ties such as loose friendships and work colleagues;
(c) Linking – ties to those outside of the community enabling members to access a wider range of resources.
PALS pilot Learning Circles provided a structure in which all three types of social capital can be exploited. Circle members are not limited to one community or drawn from one source and, therefore, members are likely to comprise social capital from both categories (a) and (b) and the operation of the Circle actively promotes linking ties to those outside the communities from which members are drawn.
Setting up PAL Learning Circles
Learning circles can be used for many different purposes, such as learning about the history of a population you serve, policies affecting the work and the life in community, or ideas about how to include social change activities in your daily practice. PALS has created a toolkit resource for setting up learning circles. You can download this resource at the bottom of this page.
Evaluating the Learning Circle
The project recognised the importance of evaluation and that the measurement of impact with Learning Circles is not easy. There are some immediately apparent hurdles, for example:
there are no formal learning goals or outputs;
there is no common starting line or place;
there is no common standard against which learning can be formally measured;
the group evolves and in so doing the learning process changes;
the group has its own changing dynamics which interact with those of individual members;
the absence of formal records tends to inhibit a formal evaluative process;
The role of the facilitator is pivotal. At the beginning when the Circle is set up the facilitator undertook an assessment of individual members, essentially informal and oral reflecting the flat informal structure of the Circle, looking (so far as was consistent with these principles) at their:
Existing level of communicative ability
Current levels of confidence and assertiveness
Willingness to play an active part in the Circle’s activities
Capacity to attend the full number of sessions over the projected term.
The facilitator should also complete a Group Profile to determine the extent to which members possess and existing skill set, their motivation for joining the Circle, their existing levels of communicative ability to participate as active listeners and members of the Circle. The fundamental principle, is, however, that Circle members should be encouraged and nurtured to self-assess and recognise at the conclusion of the Circle activities the extent of the learning journey that they have managed to achieve.
At the end of each Circle session the facilitator would promote and stimulate members to self-assess and reflect on the knowledge they had acquired over the session. This would inform a consensus for the likely topic for the next session and provide opportunities for members to volunteer that they would undertake learning/research outside the Circle meeting. This would be an important achievement for evaluation purposes that is the nurturing of members’ study skills and their aspiration to improve their knowledge base.
The evaluative process would normally involve a short discussion at the end of each session inviting members to indicate very briefly in their own words what benefit they think they have received from the meeting and, perhaps, if they feel sufficiently strongly what they would like to change or try and achieve next time.
After considerable discussion PALS partners agreed that the issues that should be evaluated with members at the end of the term should extend to at least the following core issues:
- Whether the member had contributed to the topic or theme?
- Did the member feel that sufficient time was allowed?
- Did the member feel that the pace of discussions was appropriate?
- Was the venue suitable?
- Did the member feel that the Learning Circle structure was helpful and effective as a learning environment?
- Did the member feel that they had acquired new knowledge?
- Did the member feel that his/her communicative skills had improved?
- Did the member feel more confident in speaking in a public forum?
- Had the member made new friends?
- Had the member formed the aspiration to attend another Learning Circle in the future?
- Did the member feel that there was an opportunity to bring about some significant change in their lifestyle or condition?
An important tool for measuring impact is the individual change chart that all members are encouraged to complete to record any progress, improvement or
change in attitude. It is owned by individual members, is completed in their native language if they wish and is the opportunity for members to reflect on the progress they are making. It is an invaluable tool in helping to focus members’ attention on the learning process and on the progress development as the Circle sessions continue. These work can also be found in the attached PAL Toolkit.