LEARNING CIRCLE MODEL: Introduction * History * Defining Dimensions * Norms * Phases * References * Next up: Designing Learning Circles

The Learning Circle Model: Collaborative Knowledge Building

Dr. Margaret Riel
Director, Center for Collaborative Action Research


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 that can be used by either.

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 a 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 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 circles in professional development, 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 menu links 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. )


After a description of the model we present more about:

The Process of Designing Learning Circles

Next up: A Brief History of Learning Circles