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 What Are Learning Circles? 

Learning circles are based on a spirit of reciprocal and cooperative learning for self and social transformation which different people will implement with different styles and emphases. The circle unfolds from initial questions framed by the facilitators based on the topic of concern to the circle. The questions usually address this main concern by exploring where participants are now, what they are seeking, and what they would consider to be the ideal situation with regard to the concern and its resolution. This exploration is a process of hearing from every member of the group, scribing their responses, and noting threads of commonality and diversity. The initial questioning process generates the subsequent questions, concerns, and issues that the group addresses. As the group goes through layers of questions, discussion spirals through the ideal vision or situation to the reality, to the barriers and responses to get from the reality to the ideal, and finally to the course of action this discussion implies.

The best size for a learning circle is 15-20 people. As the name implies, the physical shape of the conversation is everyone sitting in a circle. This arrangement not only symbolizes the participants’ basic equality as learners and teachers but also helps make it physically real. In the circle, everyone can see everyone else when they are speaking or listening. Everyone is “down on the playing field,” participating in the process of inquiring and learning: no one is a spectator observing from the stands. Sometimes the big circle will break out into small groups of three or four people, for discussion in which each participant can have more airtime than in the big circle. After these break out discussions, everyone comes back into the big circles so that each small group can share with everyone the ideas or insights or questions from its discussion. In this way, the whole group remains the “home space” and the base community of learners.

Learning circles grow out of assumptions about community, and the need to create community, in order to honor the voices of every group members. Community is built through ongoing face to face sharing of information, concerns, and resources. For this reason, learning circles work best in an extended setting in which members share meals, cultural activities, service projects, household or group chores, and a common space.

Learning circles as a tool for learning and social justice grow out of a great tradition of people's education, democratizing education, and community development. Some of the well-known leaders in this tradition are Myles Horton, Septima Clark, and Paulo Freire. The basic practices of relating as whole persons in respectful conversation about matters of deep concern, however, are rooted in the wisdom and caring of countless community leaders.