I was recently asked to write a blog on learning circles for MicroSoft's Partners in Learning. I am going to include some of that blog here. I have been involved with learning circles for most of my career. I started with learning circles for organizing cross-classroom collaboration in the 80's as networking was just beginning to be possible. Jim Levin had figured out that a military network, The Source, could be used during the night hours at a relatively low rate. So this was our first network of computers. We started connecting classrooms where we had research colleagues. So Naomi Miyaki connected us with a classroom in Japan, Moshe Cohen had connections in Israel, Ron Scollins knew about networked classrooms in Alaska and we found some connections to classrooms across the border in Tia Juana and Mexico City. It was during this initial project - The Intercultural Learning Network- that the ideas for learning circles emerged. I have since used learning circles in many different contexts. IEARN Global Learning Circles and Global Teenager Progject connects primary and secondary classrooms around the world, Jim Skelly connects collage studens in global conversations with learning circles and I use learning circles to connect researchers as they conduct their studies. So here is a brief overview of learning circles.
So here is the first of a series of blogs that will focus on learning circles…
The Online Learning Circles Model is an innovative structure for group collaboration. Online Learning Circles are being used effectively in cross-classroom collaborations by many thousands of students around the world at all levels from primary to graduate school. This short video draws a contrast between two approaches to group work: committee teamwork and facilitated small group process. In committee teamwork, a task is divided among participants each doing a part of the work. In facilitated small group process, the leader collects different perspectives and summarizes to create the report. This contrast is used to show how learning circles combine these two approaches to maximize strengths while minimizing drawbacks. The result creates a form of collaboration based on distributed leadership.
This online learning circle model has six dimensions.
- Diversity of participants
- Centrality of project-based work sponsored by participants
- Distributed leadership and collective responsibility for projects
- Phase structure for interaction from opening to closing the circle
- Knowledge building dialogue
- Final group shared product
The goal of learning circles is to bring together people or classrooms with a wide variance in perspectives around a theme-based inquiry. Learning circles participants include whole classes in cross-classroom collaborations and individual learners in university and professional development learning circles. In each learning circle, participants sponsor projects around a theme. The circle projects are participant-lead through a process of distributed leadership. Learning circle interaction proceeds through a set of phases from opening to closing. The outcome of knowledge building dialogue leads to a shared product.
The norms and expectations, the implicit rules that guide learning circle interaction are trust, respect, flexible thinking, responsibility and reciprocity. It is important to design activities that surface issues that result in norm setting by the group.
In future blogs, I will describe how learning circles are organizing learning in different virtual learning environments from primary to university graduate classrooms.