LEARNING CIRCLE MODEL: Introduction * History * Defining Dimensions *Norms * Phase Structure * References * Getting Started

Defining Dimensions of Learning Circles

This online learning circle model is defined by five characteristics:

Diversity of Participants

The Centrality of Project-based Work

Distributed Leadership and Collective Responsibility

Knowledge Building Dialogue

A Shared Final Product

Diversity of 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 their everyday mindset. The willingness to try to look at from the perspective of others, as imperfect a view as it might be, often provides new insights when the seer once again returns their focus on their own issues.

Centrality of Project Based Work

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 unlikely 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 and leader 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, 2002) 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 the 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 or Global iEARN Learning Circles.

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 being able to repeat back the material with high fidelity. Since this process does not always provide the link between experience and accepted knowledge, children are instructed to ignore what they see or feel and accept on faith what is known to be factual. Teaching in this manner treats knowledge as faith-based rather than evidence-based. Without respect for observational evidence and critical reasoning processes, the process of building knowledge is subjugated to the claims of authority. In learning circles, each participant is encouraged to share their thinking and 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 knowledge. Young children might wrestle with how they can 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 conceptualizes 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 heated exchanges. 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 the purpose or theme of the learning circles. The multiple projects have to have enough cohesion to lead to a final product, display, video, or exhibition that makes sense. 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 reflect past thought and 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 product is a collaborative effort with each of the participants organizing the part of the group work that they sponsored or lead. In some cases, the product is a living document that will continue to evolve even after the circle closes.

Next up: Norms of Learning Circle Interaction