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No two learning circles are alike! Ultimately, it's up to the group to decide how they want to work through their learning materials. Below are a few common practices that help reinforce a peer learning environment and prevent facilitators from slipping into the role of a teacher.
What does a learning circle look like?
Starting and finishing each meeting as a group is a core component of learning circles. A consistent check-in warms up the group and is a reliable way to build community, recap previous sessions, and set expectations for the meeting.
A good check-in can:
- Create a space for everyone to speak or feel heard
- Encourage creativity and playfulness
- Shed light on common points of interest and experience
- Allow each participant to introduce themselves however they want
- Model group participation
- Introduce tools, topics or questions that both relate to the meeting and can be used to reflect upon at a later time or date
At the beginning of your learning circle, take some time with your group to decide how it wants to run itself. This will offload the pressure of the facilitator to manage every detail and default into a hierarchical role. (See Group Expectations)
Pose a question to the group and ask each participant to respond. A good question can be answered in a single sentence and provide an opportunity to share personal (but not too personal) information with the group.
Our favorite questions are:
- What is something that you learned recently?
- What’s a fun fact about the community you come from?
- What would your superpower be?
You can also ask goal-oriented questions:
- What brings you here today?
- What is the one thing you will need help with this week?
- What would you like to learn today?
Ask people to find or share something small through their webcam. This can be both very low stakes (“find something blue!”) or personal (“find something meaningful to you”) or specific (“find a fridge magnet”).
Being online presents the opportunity to share media with one another. This can also be a great, low-stakes way to help participants become more comfortable using shared notes documents and copying media from the internet. A few examples include:
Ask someone to give a summary of what was discussed during the previous meeting or meetings. This reminds the group of what was covered already and can be helpful for someone who missed a previous meeting.
The way your learning circle progresses through the learning material can take many forms, varying based on different groups and topics: reading an article or a textbook chapter, watching lecture or tutorial videos, trying out interactive content, etc.
To support different learning styles, it's helpful to explore different types of learning formats. Sometimes these activity ideas come easily (e.g. if the topic is public speaking, learners can take turns sharing short monologues), and sometimes they require some creativity to effectively reinforce the goals of the module. We find that a mix of passive and active activities combining individual learning and group exploration allow for deeper understanding of the learning material. It also keeps things interesting!
Online courses are often designed to be read and used individually. Depending on the interests and needs of the group, online text, videos, and even quizzes can be read and used in a group setting. For example:
- Have someone read the text out loud, or take turns reading different parts of the text
- Project or screen share a video and watch together at the same time
- Nominate someone new each meeting to be in charge of presenting an overview of what to expect from the learning materials
Create spaces for smaller group discussion to reflect on a question or work together on a problem. Try creating breakout groups when there are 8 or more people in a learning circle. We like using Jitsi for breakout rooms because it is so easy to create and link participants to new video chat rooms. In-person, breakout groups can be created based on similar interests and experiences, or randomly assigned in order to make sure everyone gets to know each other.
Whenever information is presented to a large group, ask everyone to turn to their partner for a quick “buzz” to talk about what was seen, heard, or understood. A buzz can last 30 seconds or a number of minutes. With a little more effort, everyone can be encouraged to think by themselves, converse with a partner, and share their perspective back with everyone else, or simply, “think-pair-share”.
Get everybody involved in a discussion while removing the facilitator as the mediator of every interaction. Start by presenting a prompt or question to the group and ask somebody to answer. When they’ve finished, they can pass the question onto somebody else by calling out their name, like a beach ball, or alternatively, pass an object that acts as a talking stick.
A fishbowl is a small group discussion which takes place inside a larger circle of participants who listen-in. It allows a large group to listen to different opinions while taking the pressure to speak off of the rest of the group. To do this online, simply nominate a small group of people (4 works well) to respond to a question. If somebody wants to join the discussion circle, they can raise their hand to join and kick somebody who has already spoken out of the discussion circle.
Ask everyone to share type responses to a specific or open question. This can be done through an online chat box, or using a collaborative document like a Google Doc or Etherpad. It allows everyone a chance to participate, especially those who do not feel comfortable vocalizing their opinion, or simply cannot for other reasons. Encourage everyone to type +1 next to a statement that people agree with or like, which acts like a virtual high-five or thumbs up. To make sure all responses are heard, it can also be helpful to have one person read off responses for everyone else.
Bring the group on a field trip or host an expert in-person or virtually to answer questions or provide feedback. Learning circles are based on the expertise of the group, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look outside for answers to your group's questions.
Modeling good feedback and constructive criticism can help make learners more comfortable sharing with one another. Learning circles that have tangible outcomes such as creating a website or a piece of written work benefit from having people share their work and receive feedback. When introducing feedback, we recommend offering some guidelines such as:
- Those offering feedback should include something positive first
- Ensure recommendations specific and actionable
- When receiving feedback, try to listen with open ears, and remember that we all have each other’s best interests at heart.
🧠 Brain Drain (In-Person/Online)
Peers can be a valuable resource for answering each other’s questions. To maximize the groups’ input, give learners a few minutes to write all possible ways to solve a given problem or address a question. Emphasize that people should write all ideas that come to their minds without censoring themselves, and ask learners to share their responses with others. Creative possibilities can emerge from these brainstorming sessions.
❔ Ask Three Before Moving On (In-Person/Online)
At times, learners will have questions that no one in the group can answer. In these instances, you can encourage them to list three resources, individuals, or problem-solving strategies that can provide them with answers. Challenge participants to think of people they know outside their learning circle, websites, books, online tutorials, or even new ways of framing the issue. Before moving on, encourage learners to tap into some of these resources during their learning circle meeting.
🗺 Mind Map (In-Person/Online)
Mind maps can be very appealing to visual learners. A mind map is a multi-colored, centered, and radial diagram that represents connections between different concepts. It allows people to synthesize ideas visually and use their creativity. Take a look at this video to learn how to build your mind map. You can use them to ask learners to synthesize lessons, sketch problem-solving steps, or even set learning goals. If you're running an online meeting, programs like Google Slides and Jamboard enable people to share their drawings easily.
🕐 One-Minute Paper (In-Person/Online)
Ask learners to write down their ideas for 60 seconds in this activity. You can use a prompt or simply ask people to write their reactions to readings, videos, or discussions. One-minute papers are particularly helpful for participants who are quieter and need time to think before jumping into discussions. This strategy also helps more outspoken individuals from dominating conversations.
Create space for your learning circle to share some mistakes made or struggles felt during the learning circle. This should help learners feel less pressure about always “knowing” the right answer and allow them to feel more comfortable asking peers for help. For example, you might ask someone for a struggle they had with the course material, what lesson was learned from that experience, and how they can imagine using that lesson going forward.
Especially during meetings longer than an hour, a quick break or energizer activity can give the group some time to reset and refresh. Consider adding in a 5 minute energizer when you notice energy levels getting low!
A good energizer can:
- Make the body move
- Encourage creativity and play
- Invite group participation
- Create a transition
- Be accessible and comfortable for everyone in the group
Ask everyone to stand up, form a circle, and prepare to shake every limb of their body together. Explain that you will start with your right arm, and shake it 8 times while counting (loudly if possible!) each shake “1- 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8!” Explain that after this you will follow this with eight shakes of your left arm, right foot, and then left foot. After that, you’ll repeat the same pattern but with four shakes each, then two, then one. End with a big cheer!
Ask everyone to spell coconut with their body taking the shape of each letter “C-O-C-O-N-U-T”. It is a very easy way to simply stretch your body in a playful way.
Share a story from your own life, one that you heard, or one that relates to a recent topic, theme, or question. If you ask someone else to share a story, make sure to ask them in advance to prepare. Here’s an example of fun parable from The Barefoot Guide:
Three blind men touched an elephant, one touching at the front, one at the side and one at the back. The first told his friends: ‘An elephant is long and about as thick as a man’s arm.’ The second one said, ‘No, it isn’t. It’s flat and feels like paper. It is very thin.’ The third one said, ‘You’re both wrong. It’s large and hard and hot, smelly stuff comes out of it.’
Giving everybody 30 seconds to share the view out of their window (or show off part of the room that they are in) can help people better understand each other and their unique contexts. We only recommend using this as a check-in after a group has met a few times and everybody feels comfortable with one another.
A planned closing space helps the group collectively consider what was covered during the meeting and provide feedback to guide their experience moving forward. As a baseline, we often recommend using a Plus/Delta: each participant shares a plus (something that went well) and a delta (something they’d like to change for the next meeting). These contributions can seed a brief conversation about ways to improve the next meeting.
A good reflection can:
- Create a space for everyone to give feedback
- Encourage participants to recognize and celebrate past learning
- Transition the group to work and life outside of the learning circle
- End the meeting on a positive and hopeful note
A quick easy reflection activity is asking everybody one thing that went well that day (“plus”) and one thing to change for the next week (“delta”). These contributions are a great way for facilitators to get fresh feedback and can seed a brief conversation about ways to improve the next meeting. This can be answered out loud or typed out into a video chat or collaborative agenda if time is short.
A quick way to end a meeting while still getting feedback from everyone is to ask participants to say, type, or write one word that represents how they are feeling or their plans for the week. For example, “How would you describe our time together in one-word?”
In groups of 10 or less, you can ask a specific question as a wrap-up. Our general rule of thumb is to not ask anything that you’re not genuinely interested in hearing the answer to.
Our favorite questions:
- What’s something that surprised you this week?
- What is one thing we can do differently next week to make our virtual meeting space more hospitable?
- What are our immediate next steps?
📓 Journaling (In-Person/Online)
Journaling can help participants set actionable, small, achievable, and measurable tasks and goals. These goals, which need to set specific and clear outcomes, should be done over the duration of the learning circle program. After identifying the goal(s), ensure that each participant shares them with the group for accountability so that peers can offer support and motivate each other to stay on track.
Ask everyone to give thanks to someone else in the group for something they did during the meeting or during the previous weeks. The question could be focused towards those inside the learning circle, or could be directed outwards to certain people (family, friends) who helped make the learning process easier.