What is a learning circle?
Learning circles are a type of community engagement process that can help people explore complex issues, make decisions and take action. During learning circles, members come together to have dialogue on an issue. It is a community driven process. Learning circle participants are recruits from all parts of the community. The learning circle process begins with community organising. It is followed by facilitated, small group dialogue and planning that leads to change. Learning circles are not designed to advocate a particular solution or someone’s wheelbarrow. Instead, Learning circles welcome many points of view around a shared concern. They can then democratically and collectively prioritise action options and choose and enact the circles choice of action and of enacting that action.
A single learning circle is a small, diverse group of 5 to 12 participant citizens who meet for about 2 hours weekly or fortnightly for 4 to 6 times (a ’round of learning circles’), to address a critical public issue in a democratic and collaborative way. Often there may be a gap of up to two weeks while actions are carried out. They are led by a neutral facilitator, who can rotate from meeting to meeting, and all circle members seek to consider an issue from many points of view. A Discussion Guide allows the participants to progress their conversation from personal experiences, to sessions that examine many points of view on the issue, to a session that considers strategies for action and change.
The term ‘learning circle’, ‘study circle’ and other derivations are often used to describe a range of approaches to small group discussions.
The Australian Study Circles Network bases this approach on the community wide study/learning circles program model. To understand this approach, it is useful to ‘park’ your previous ideas about what a small group discussion is.
What isn’t a learning circle?
It is also helpful to look at what ‘learning circles’ are not.
Learning circles are not a…
(1) Focus group: these are usually organised to gather or test information from members. Respondents are sometimes paid and are often recruited because they represent a particular viewpoint or target audience. Participation may not be open to everyone.
(2) Discussion group: small but may not accept anyone, often homogenous – similar minded people and it does not necessarily focus on important and controversial issues. They may not have Discussion Guides and are not structured nor aim for action outcomes. They also may not run for a set amount of sessions.
(3) Traditional education or training: often compulsory, even if informal or student centred. A teacher or expert imparts knowledge to often large numbers of students. There is a set curriculum, examinations and tests and financial costs.
(4) Facilitated meeting: such as a committee or board meeting, where positions, power structures, majoritarian voting, goals and agendas are established ahead of time, predetermined outcomes, sometimes formal, compulsory and too frequently adversarial.
(5) Public hearing or public meeting: begins with specific desired outcomes, large numbers of people, debate, formalities and a Chair controls proceedings. There is little if any genuine opportunity for contribution or to formulate ideas and share with others.
(6) Conflict resolution process: a set of principles and techniques used in resolving conflict between individuals or groups and often compulsory (although these techniques can be useful in learning circle facilitation).
(7) Mediation meeting: a compulsory process used to settle disputes and relies on an outside neutral person to help the disputing parties come to an agreement (although mediators can assist good learning circle facilitation).
Source: developed from: Australian Study Circles (accessed 05-2009)