Introduction Getting Ready
Learning Circles Teachers' Guide
Open Circle Plan Projects Share Work Publish
Close Circle Overview
Learning Circles Introduction


Title Graphic

An Overview of Learning Circles


Online Learning Circles

The purpose of this guide is to prepare you and your students for cross-classroom tele-collaboration in "Learning Circles." Learning Circles promote theme-based project work integrated with the classroom curriculum. Working with Learning Circle partners from around the world help students develop important interpersonal skills. Learning Circles also encourage interactions among teachers providing a very different model of professional development.

A Learning Circle is created by a team of 6-8 teachers and their classes joined in the virtual space of an electronic classroom. The groups remains together over a 3-4 month period working on projects drawn from the curriculum of each of the classrooms organized around a selected theme. At the end of the term the group collects and publishes its work. Then, just as any class of students does, the Learning Circle comes to an end. Each session begins with new groupings of classes into Learning Circles.

The success of the Learning Circle model seems to be tied to frequent changes of partners so that teachers - as well as students - are learning from the new experiences. The teachers who participate in different Learning Circles begin to create a community --a network of professional colleagues from around the world. This development of community is an important part of the Learning Circle model. The Learning Circle model evolved out of a research project at the University of California, San Diego in the mid eighties. With the support of the The AT&T Learning Network from 1987-1996, thousands of teachers and their students were engaged in learning circles around 6 themes and in 4 different languages. Beginning in the Fall of 1997, this Learning Circle Teacher Guide was made available online to all organizations. The International Education And Resource Network (iEARN) provides support for iEARN Learning Circles. In Mexico, Círculos de Aprendizaje (in Spanish) are currently organized by Carlos Mart´┐Żnez from Monterrey, Mexico (originally organized by Jorge H. Gutiérrez). Learning Circles also connect students from South Africa, Jamaica, Ghana, Zimbabwe and the Netherlands through a project called Global Teenagers. Another project that uses some aspects of the Learning Circle structure and guide is the Friends and Flags Project dedicated to multicultural education, for information on this project contact Karen Eini in Israel. And finally Learning Circles are being used to support action research projects in the Pepperdine online M. A. Program in Educational Technology. For more information contact Margaret Riel ([email protected]).

Working within a larger community provides direction and support to explore creative ways of integrating communications technology into your classroom. The supporting network provides much more than the technical links between the classrooms; it provides a rich network of human resources for learning how to use telecommunications as an instructional tool.

The purpose of this guide is to establish common goals, to share ideas and suggestions from other teachers, and to support you in your teaching and learning. Here are some of the ways in which working within a larger community, such as iEARN can help make Learning Circle interaction more successful.

Support For Learning Circles

The Learning Circle Concept

Learning circles, generically described, are small diverse, democratic groups of people (generally 6-12 ) who meet regularly over a specified period of time to focus their different perspectives into a common understanding of an issue or problem. The discussion take place in an atmosphere of mutual trust and understanding. The goal is deeper understanding by the participants and their efforts are often directed towards the construction of a final product or recommendation for a course of action. Online Learning Circles are groups of 6-12 classrooms that work together as a team using their diversity as a resource to understand a topic or problem they share.

Brief History of Learning Circles

The use of a circle as both the organizational structure and descriptive metaphor for a meeting of equals is likely to have been a part of our history for as long as fire. The learning circle is a mechanism for organizing and honoring the collective wisdom of the group and is present in many indigenous cultures. For example, in early native councils of elders came together to understand problems in a spirit of shared community in “wisdom circles.” Learning Circles have served as effective strategy with clear links to social change. Over time and across countries, civic organizations, neighborhood communities, trade unions, churches and social justice groups have used learning circles to empower their members to make choices and take action. They are currently used in the United States (see Study Circles) and in other countries (for example Australia) as a form of adult education. A similar term, "Quality Circle" was used to characterize the successful practice in corporate settings in which the hierarchical boundaries between workers and managers are flattened to encourage participatory management and team leadership. The goal is to encourage everyone to develop a strong sense of ownership over the process and products of the group.

Learning Circles can be used with learners of any age. For example, Educators for Community Engagement, find that learning circles --with their principles of equal participation, reciprocity, and honoring of collective wisdom -embody the democratic principles of effective service-learning partnerships. They use learning circles, rather than more traditional forms of group meetings, to structure their annual conferences. Primary teachers use a form of learning circles when they gather the students at the rug for "circle time." Among the goals of this activity are helping students to develop the trust and respect for diversity of experience, and fostering both listening and speaking skills among peers.

These different forms of learning circles--wisdom circles, circle time, study circles and quality circles--are all structures for face-to-face dialogues. In contract, the Learning Circles described in this guide take pace over a networks in an online or virtual setting. This specific use of the idea of learning circles refers to an online structure for linking students and their teachers from different countries to work together using their diversity as a resource to achieve deeper understandings.

The spirit of honoring the collective wisdom, and trusting the process to create deeper understanding -- the heart of learning circles--remains constant regardless of their context. The cooperative approach to decision-making and management that is essential in Quality Circles, also describes how teachers work with each other in online Learning Circles as they design educational activities to extend students' knowledge and skills.

However, in contrast to these different forms of face-to-face meetings, the mode of communication is different. It shifts from listening and talking to reading and writing. The participant changes from a single person to a collective, a whole class and sometime a whole school. The outcome of the circle is a written document, a summary or collection of their collaboration. And the context of school with its complex set of institutional constraints shape a different phase structure for learning circles. The purpose of this guide is to share that structure.

Learning Circle Interaction

Learning Circles can bring together classes from large urban settings and geographically isolated rural areas. Students with a wide range of educational, physical, and social abilities can interact with one another without regard to debilitating little attention placed on educational labels. Teachers open windows in their classrooms, inviting their peers to look in and see what is taking place. In turn, they are encouraged to peer into the classrooms of others, learning from both students and teachers in distant locations.

The interaction between you and the other participants in your Learning Circle will be something you help to create. No one can fully predict the direction your interaction will take. It will be a team effort resulting from the cooperation between teachers and students who might otherwise never have had the opportunity to interact.

This guide will prepare you for unknown educational opportunities. As Learning Circle participants, you will continue to chart a new direction in education. If you are working in Learning Circles with the support of a larger community such as iEARN, you will be matched with a group of educational trail blazers like yourself, provided with powerful communication technology, and offered the wisdom and services of others who ventured before you. We hope this support will give you the courage to explore with confidence.

Phases of a Learning Circle

This guide is arranged around the six phases of Learning Circle Interaction. You can skip the rest of the introduction and move to any of these phases now.

Phases of a Learning Circle

Introductory Activities

The first phase of Learning Circles involves getting to know your partners. The introductory activities during the "Opening the Circle" phase help you get acquainted with the other classrooms in your Learning Circle.

One of the introductory activities is the Classroom Survey which asks you and your students to answer questions about yourselves, your school and your community. Another activity that helps students learn about one another is the Welcome Pack to be sent via postal mail to each of your Learning Circle partners. It may include class photos and other materials that would help them get to know you better. These introductory activities help the group prepare to work together as a team.

Learning Circle Projects

Once students and teachers are acquainted, the curriculum-based educational projects become the organizing activity in the Learning Circle. These projects assure that the educational benefits of telecommunications will extend beyond the personal exchange that often characterizes computer networks.

One of the advantages of this model is that the Learning Circle projects come from you and your Circle partners. Each class, including your own, will have the opportunity to sponsor a project in your Learning Circle. Your Circle partners will help you develop your project by contributing the information or articles you request. Your class is expected to reciprocate by participating in the projects sponsored by the other classrooms in your Learning Circle.

This Curriculum Guide describes the goals for the Learning Circle and sets the group timeline for accomplishing these goals. Project suggestions and sample work of other teachers and students are provided. You may design your own Learning Circle project or follow one of the project listed in this guide.

The Circle Publication

Captivating Learning Circle projects make a lasting impression on students because time is spent on the important step of reviewing and evaluating the learning experience. This process occurs in each Learning Circle through the cooperative production of a Learning Circle publication. This publication summarizes or collects all the work that was done on the different projects in your Learning Circle.

Organizing your Learning Circle project into a section for the Circle publication will help your students review and evaluate the exchanges they had with students in other locations. The choices they make about what to include in their project section and how to organize the information helps them to mentally organize what they learned. The Circle publication demonstrates the quality of learning that takes place when students work with their peers in diverse locations.

Exchanging Messages

Some form of electronic mail is used for communicating in Learning Circles. Using the Internet, messages can be automatically sent to a central computer. The computer then deposits the messages into electronic mail boxes or a conference posting where they remain ready to be read by all members of the Learning Circle.

Sending and reading your Circle mail should be as easy as possible. The work of a Learning Circle is best facilitated by automated mail services so that students and teachers are not working online. Once the program is initiated, the job of exchanging messages is most efficiently done by the computer. This allows communications to take place at the convenience of all Learning Circle participants, regardless of their school schedules or time zones.

In general, you will be sending your messages to everyone in your Learning Circle. This is done by addressing your mail to the conference that can be accessed by all of your Learning Circle partners. When an electronic message is delivered to conference it is stored under the specified topic and all members of the Learning Circles can read and download it. The conference structure makes it possible for messages to be retrieved and stored locally on the classroom computer to be printed and displayed later by the students.

Learning Circle Themes

Teachers and students are grouped into Learning Circles by themes. This thematic organization helps teachers who are working in similar curricular areas to be matched with one another. Theme organized work allows for cross-curricular partnerships yet recognizes the need of teachers to work within their established curricular objectives. The thematic organization creates a framework for the selection of Learning Circle projects by the participants.

Educational Benefits

Classrooms work together on the network for a relatively short period of time, but the links made when teachers and students share ideas and feelings often last longer than the Learning Circle. As a consequence of this collaboration, both students and teachers find their interest in learning renewed. Teachers have reported many lasting benefits from working in the Learning Circle environment:

Enhances Student Learning - Students gain rich insights from the geographic diversity and cross-cultural exchanges.

Encouarges Ownership of Ideas - Each student group shapes a part of the interaction for the group

Develops Reading/Writing Skills - Students use written communication skills to exchange ideas with distant peers.

Enhances Teaching Curriculum - Learning Circle projects provide an exciting and innovative forum for teaching traditional subjects.

Stimulates Teacher Creativity - Teachers develop new instructional techniques by sharing project ideas with colleagues around the world.

Expands Teaching and Learning Horizons - Learning Circle projects take students beyond the classroom to draw on family and community resources for information, making them more aware of their social and physical surroundings.

Integrates Computer and Telecommunications Technology - Teachers and students learn technical skills as they use telecomputing to work cooperatively with people in distant locations.

More Specific Educational Benefit are also listed by theme:

Teacher Comments on Learning Circle Interaction

Here are comments from teachers who have had many years of experience working in Learning Circles.


Written by Margaret Riel

Copyright © 1997, Revised 2006, Margaret Riel . All rights reserved.